Saturday, 18 November 2017

"The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands"

I have just completed "The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands" (1850-1857) by reading it in and also listening to the LibriVox audiobook.
Mrs Seacole was an "unprotected" Jamaican woman who followed her passion to serve people through the occupations of restaurateur, shopkeeper and healer. She was particularly attracted to serving the ranks and officers of the British military and their wives. I think that this is an outcome of her personal "Daddy Issues", as she loved to declare that her absent father was a military man from Scotland, and that her industrious traits came from his side of the family...although her Jamaican mother was an accomplished woman.
Mary Seacole became famous during her two years of humanitarian work during the Crimean War in Eastern Europe. Those adventures left her in debt and in poverty for the rest of for life; but she expressed those years as a triumph and had absolutely no regrets. She says, "I am not ashamed to confess—for the gratification is a selfish one—that I love to be of service to those who need a woman’s help."
She responded to the social structures of her time by using to advantageous effect her physical appearance (light skinned black person) and to being a member of a caste of West Indian persons who called themselves Creoles. She defined herself as "I do not know what it is to be indolent", her mother as, "like very many of the Creole women, an admirable doctress; in high repute", and of Creoles "having an affection for English people and an anxiety for their welfare."
Overall, she was attracted to progress, industry, sophistication and development in general. Mary Seacole's orientation, as a West Indian of her generation, gave preference to British culture, but her travels allowed her to appreciate the value of many other cultures.
There was one notable exception. Mary Seacole had an unyielding negativity towards the United States of America, as while she was in the country called the Republic of New Granada from 1851-1854 (the section of it know known as Panama) she lived among men who had escaped slavery in USA, and she heard their stories. Seacole was born during, and would have become an adult during the slave era in Jamaica, but she reserved her ire on this point to the USA, giving the British Empire a complete passover.
Thanks to her account, I have a greater understanding of how it was that - 50 years after her experiences in Central America - Marcus Garvey found fertile ground in Central America to develop his philosophy of black pride and nationalism. He was there from 1910 - 1912. Central America had by that time been peopled with former enslaved persons from the USA and also Central America, and who were instinctively looking for a nation to which they could cleave. Seacole described the persons who held positions of responsibility in the towns she frequented in New Granada as negroes or black people. These were magistrates, soldiers, and other government officials.
    "It was wonderful to see how freedom and equality elevate men," she says of black men in general.
She also said, "Many of the negroes, fugitive from the Southern States, had sought refuge in this and the other States of Central America, where every profession was open to them; and as they were generally superior men—evinced perhaps by their hatred of their old condition and their successful flight—they soon rose to positions of eminence in New Granada. In the priesthood, in the army, in all municipal offices, the self-liberated negroes were invariably found in the foremost rank; and the people, for some reason—perhaps because they recognised in them superior talents for administration—always respected them more than, and preferred them to, their native rulers. So that, influenced naturally by these freed slaves, who bore themselves before their old masters bravely and like men."
Seacole was a hard worker and she seemed to have a knack of building a team who could work with her style, but in her memoir, she afforded only a few words of acknowledgement to them unless they were getting on her nerves. There was one occasion where she described how she whipped a servant. Mrs Seacole employed persons from several ethnicities and races, but the staff members who were longest in her employ were skilled black men and a black girl.
Oftentimes, I found it painful to read her account of plain people, such as the Spanish Indians in New Granada, or the workers on the wharves of Balaclava, or of Greeks in general and French women in particular. On the other hand, Seacole never had a negative word about any titled personage, be that person Turkish, French, British or even Russian. She adored military officers and protected their reputations. Her special love of the military extended to the ranks of young men, who she called her dear sons.
Tenacity and personal contacts were tactics that Mary Seacole used to get around British military bureaucracy, and to secure what she wanted from them. In 1854, after being repeatedly turned down from joining the cadre of nurses to serve the cause of the British in the Crimean War, she simply started a business on a hill in the village of Kadioki in the Crimea, one mile from British military headquarters. She called the place Spring Hill (after Jamaica, island of Springs) and her business, The British Hotel.
On being turned down from being an army nurse she said, "Tears of grief that any should doubt my motives—I stood still & prayed aloud," and then she went ahead with a new plan to get where she wanted to be.
The Mary Seacole story is a cautionary tale about entrepreneurship. Mrs Seacole left the accounting side of the business to her partner, Mr Day, while she created the real value in providing hospitality and healing. At the end of two years she was left in debt and weakened health, and was only able to keep body and soul together from the kindness of friends who put on a benefit concert in her honour. Today they could also have established a Go Fund Me account.
Seacole could have made a fortune by setting up her services in a safe and established marketplace, such as Constantinople or Balaclava, instead of on the outskirts of a battlefield. She could have - as some enterprising French women did - moved the business to the city of Sevastopol after the allies had captured it, she chose instead to stay on the hill in the village even as the armies were departing. She cherished declaring that she was the first woman to enter Sevastopol after it had fallen.
Mary Seacole was a proud Jamaican who had very fond memories of her childhood in Kingston, of her mother, and of her husband and life in Black River, St Elizabeth. There are no negatives about the Island of Springs in her memoir.
One remarkable matter of Mary Seacole was her Jamaican eye for fashion. Everywhere she went, she travelled with colourful calico to drape walls and to cover tables in order to create a cheerful atmosphere in her establishment. Even in grim places, she had a wardrobe of outfits. She also paid a lot of attention to her attire, and mentions her dresses and how her bonnets were trimmed.
"I had attired myself in a delicate light blue dress, a white bonnet prettily trimmed, and an equally chaste shawl," she says of how she was dressed as she was about to walk up a hill of mud in Central America. In the Crimea, she gives an account of a soldier giving her a war prize of a dress that would have belonged to a Russian woman. Twice in her memoir, washerwomen are mentioned with respect. At another time, an employee who she hired to do laundry made off with a load of her dresses. Among the few war trophies that she took were buttons that she cut off the uniforms of dead Russian soldiers.
This lady was a "big girl" who loved her size as she says in her memoir, "Time and trouble combined have left me with a well-filled-out, portly form, the envy of many an angular Yankee female."
She describes herself of having "taken Constantinople", "Neatly dressed in a red or yellow dress, a plain shawl of some other colour, and a simple straw wide-awake, with bright red streamers."
Mary Seacole made a point of declaring that West Indian cookery was better than French cuisine, and said of a famous chef, "the great high priest of the mysteries of cookery, Mons. Alexis Soyer. He was often at Spring Hill... and never failed to praise my soups and dainties. I always flattered myself that I was his match, and with our West Indian dishes could of course beat him hollow, and more than once I challenged him to a trial of skill; but the gallant Frenchman only shrugged his shoulders, and disclaimed my challenge with many flourishes of his jewelled hands, declaring that Madame proposed a contest where victory would cost him his reputation for gallantry, and be more disastrous than defeat. And all because I was a woman, forsooth. What nonsense to talk like that, when I was doing the work of half a dozen men."
The details near the end of the book serve as a caution against waging physical warfare. She gives her account of the waste of human life recalling the Russian soldier who died biting down on her finger in pain as she was giving him succor, to her beloved Irishmen left in half-filled trenches and the officers who she venerated. She was not untouched by suffering, and she gave selflessly of herself in order to give them the comfort of a woman's caring touch. She says that it was a privilege to stand in the place of mothers and sisters and wives, delivering comfort to their men. They men in turn called her Auntie Seacole, Mother Seacole, Mami.
She was not a religious person and spoke of Providence, not God, but she offered hospitality, not sales on the Lord's day; took an altar painting and altar candles as Russian war prizes and said, "The Christian’s death is the glorious one, as is his life."
Mary Seacole decided to live a life dictated by her passion to be of service to servicemen. She seemed to have enjoyed the rough and tumble of it all, and the challenge of testing her will power against the many and varied troubles that she encountered. As an old lady, she had more well-wishers and true friends than many other elevated persons of her era. In fact, today when the heroic names of 160 years ago are being buffeted by public opinion, her reputation seems to be rising.
With these thoughts, I believe that the memoirs of Mary Seacole should be integrated in the high and tertiary education curricula in Jamaica. It is easy and colourful reading, and her experiences have value in the teaching of subjects such as business, history, literature, civics, feminism and Garveyism. Her outlook and decisions can make for very useful debate topics in sociology and commerce as it relates to self employment and entrepreneurship in general. I am happy that I am now exposed to its contents.