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A postlude acts as a précis of my argument about honor across the Romantic period. In the Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands – the popular 1857 autobiography from a Creole nurse known as “the Other Florence Nightingale” – we witness the complex legacy of feminist honor in the literature of the black diaspora. Building her reputation at the height of Britain’s imperial conquests, Seacole seems to embrace the “manly” liberal-republican values that Mary Wollstonecraft urged women to adopt. But Seacole also deliberately cultivates her outsider status, especially within the colonial borderlands’ autonomous black collectives, where mutualist activity happens beyond the sanctioned, Western apparatus of respect.
The year 2020 provides evidence of the Crimea’s continued relevance in troubled times. In Britain, 2020 marks the moment that Brexit was finally done. Several critics found resonance in the Charge of the Light Brigade and the cult around it, which valorized heroic failure. Like the officers of the Light Brigade, the Tory leadership blundered as it led the nation into the abyss. In Britain and beyond, 2020 will be remembered as the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. Like the battle against the cholera in the Crimea, the British struggle against the virus was marred by mismanagement. In response, the names of Nightingale and Seacole found their ways onto makeshift hospitals and rehabilitation centers. And, as in the Crimea, military men – here, centenarians whose youths overlapped with the longest-lived of the Victorian generation – captured the hearts of the public. Most notable was Captain Tom Moore, whose compassion and particular variety of courage spurred him, at the age of 100, to raise money for the NHS before dying a celebrity in 2021. Even now, the Crimean War’s long afterlife provides touchstones for success, failure, and hope.
The newest addition to the pantheon of Crimean worthies is the Caribbean healer and hotelier Mary Seacole, who ministered to the troops at the war front. In 1857, Seacole released her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. The book was an effort to safeguard her livelihood and secure her place in Crimean history. The latter goal was realized with the rediscovery of the autobiography in the later twentieth century. Black British activists and health care providers found an inspiration in Seacole’s story, sharing it in their communities and building on its legacy. By the millennium, their labors had transformed Seacole into a national icon, with a place in the National Curriculum and the National Gallery. A magisterial statue of Seacole now stands on the South Bank of the Thames, where Florence Nightingale spearheaded efforts in nursing education. Touted in the past as the “Black Nightingale,” Seacole was another unconventional woman with a long legacy. Yet, she is a Crimean protagonist in her own right, known for warmth, humor, and ingenuity. An embodiment of distinctive virtues, Seacole has become a Crimean role model for the twenty-first century.
This essay examines how Mary Seacole’s autobiography-cum-travelogue, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857), uses revisionary mimicry to engage the tropological schema of colonial and imperial discourses. Seacole artfully deploys recodings and revisions that generate a nascent poetics of colonial identity and subjectivity. Her narrative unfolds as a drama of self-construction that locates the individual colonial subject within the nexus of mid-Victorian ideologies of industry, adventure, gender, race, and nation. It reverses the trajectory of imperial travel narratives as it relates the struggle to move from the colonial periphery to the imperial centre. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands complicates contemporary attempts to define it as counter-discourse, as it is permeated by contradictions and ambiguities that highlight the problematic nature of hybridity in Seacole’s own self-construction. Wonderful Adventures is thus marked by the implicit tensions of Caribbean colonial relations despite Seacole’s apparent erasure of the politics of the post-Emancipation British Caribbean.
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