Academic journal article African American Review

The Enigma of Arrival: 'The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.'

Academic journal article African American Review

The Enigma of Arrival: 'The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.'

Article excerpt

The republication of The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831) and The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857) in 1987 and 1988, respectively, provides a new understanding of the constitutive relationship of autobiography to the cultural inheritance of the colonial and postcolonial Caribbean. Originally published twenty-six years apart in England, across the great divide of the emancipation of slaves in 1834, the narratives of Mary Prince and Mary Seacole prefigure styles of being and identity in male-centered texts of twentieth-century Caribbean autobiography. They reconfigure Caribbean autobiography, which emerged as a predominantly male enterprise in the twentieth century, as the legacy of two extraordinary women of the nineteenth. The narratives bring into sharp focus the conflicts and contradictions of identity, authority, and freedom built into the relationship between Europe and the Americas, seat of empire and dependent colonies, master and slave, men and women.

If The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave reflects an embryonic nationalism formed in resistance to slavery, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands reflects an enthusiastic acceptance of colonialism in the aftermath of slavery.(1) In her narrative, Seacole celebrates her subject status in an empire that had systematically exploited and abused her native land and the majority of its inhabitants since the British captured Jamaica in 1655.(2) Though free blacks in Jamaica were not granted the same civil rights as born Englishmen until the Disabilities Act of 1830, and civil unrest continued in Jamaica after the slave rebellion of 1830-32 and the emancipation of the slaves in 1834, Seacole's narrative is not concerned with the degradation suffered by black Jamaicans under British rule.

Mary Prince's passionate articulation of the experiences and aspirations of fellow slaves suffering under British rule, her dream of autonomy and comfortable domesticity, is succeeded by the narrative of a Jamaican doctress and entrepreneur who rejects domesticity as frustrating and constricting. Seacole's narrative is not one of victimization, endurance, and survival, but of accomplishment and achievement. The fundamental freedom articulated in her narrative is the freedom to be a subject of the British Empire and to be celebrated as a unique individual who challenges the boundaries of race, gender, and privilege within the parameters of that Empire. Cultural resistance and autonomy have distinct value to Seacole, the "yellow doctress" from Jamaica, child of a free black Jamaican woman and a Scottish officer, writing her own narrative with great sophistication, two decades after the emancipation of slaves in her native land.

Seacole crafts her self-image in a journey from the perceived margins of civilization bo its center. She graduates from celebrity status among expatriates in Jamaica as a "creole doctress," to notoriety in New Grenada as the "yellow doctress," to legendary status in the Crimea and Britain as Mother Seacole, guardian and purveyor of English values away from home. The values implicit in this journey organize Seacole's narrative of travel, adventure, and ordeal, and project a precursory image of the restless, rootless, wandering West Indian that would become a distinctive feature of colonial and postcolonial West Indian autobiographical consciousness.(3)

The desire to shape a life of personal, social, and cultural significance beyond Jamaica resides at the core of The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole.(4) In explicitly addressing an English reading public, Seacole seeks English recognition and courts English approval. The built-in assumption of the narrative is that it will earn her a place in the "civilized" consciousness of the culture that determines value in her world. The text shows colonial migration to be more than a socio-historical feature of colonial life. …

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