UWI professor says proposal to remove Mary Seacole from UK school curriculum worrying
UNIVERSITY of the West (UWI) Indies Professor Verene Shepherd says all Jamaicans should be concerned about a proposal by Britain's education secretary to remove historical icon Mary Seacole from the country's national curriculum.
"She is important to us. She is a Jamaican icon who took her skills and distinguished her skills abroad. Here is a Jamaican black woman who, because of her own determination, her own empathy with people, her own self-taught skills, distinguished herself, and we must be concerned when people abroad are trying to, in a sense, reduce the importance of a Jamaican," said Shepherd, a lecturer in the Department of History at UWI.
Education Secretary Michael Gove says that he intends to remove the Jamaican-born pioneer along with Olaudah Equiano, renowned for his involvement in the abolition of slavery in Britain, from that country's schools' curriculum to make way for more 'traditional' figures such as Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell — both statesmen of the United Kingdom.
However, his proposal has sparked outrage in the UK, which quickly evolved into a Facebook campaign, as well as the signing of petition. Operation Black Vote has also sent Gove a letter — signed by over 60 authors, civil rights activists, trade union leaders and politicians — to pressure him into backtracking on his plan.
Last week, Shepherd said she, too, objects to the plan as Seacole is one of the few black figures in the UK curriculum that is not a part of the slavery discourse.
"She is a Jamaican figure who has inspired many other Jamaicans," she said.
Shepherd said it was important to remember that Seacole, whose name is carried by a UWI hall of residence, distinguished herself as someone who used herbal medicines and was very instrumental in helping with the cholera epidemic in the 1850s. She also ran a boarding house in Jamaica, before travelling to Panama, not just as an entrepreneur, but also to help others.
Seacole, whose father was Scottish, is recognised for her work in treating soldiers wounded on the battlefield during the Crimean War of 1853 - 1856. She was awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit ,and in 2004 was voted the greatest Black Briton.
"Seems to me this is part of a trend in the UK where multiculturalism is being frowned on. [There is] a backlash against multiculturalism because multiculturalism forces us to study the history and experience of other groups that make up a society. There is an attempt in Britain to return to what they call 'British-ness' — British icons, British history — and they don't understand that this history is intertwined with the history of other lands," Shepherd said.
She said Seacole's autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, is a wonderful document for students to learn about her life, and would serve to inspire the young black people in Britain who could use her experiences as an example of what they can achieve.
American civil rights activist and Baptist minister Jesse Jackson is among those who have signed the Operation Black Vote petition.
Said Jackson: "A nation's history must be told by all its people for the benefit of everyone. Failure to do so invariably ends up talking about the exploits of white men."
In a press release, Juliet Alexander, broadcaster, lecturer and trustee of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, said to exclude Seacole from the national curriculum would be to remove an important part of the UK's rich heritage of black, female activism and to condemn future generations to a poor and distorted history of the UK.
"The unprecedented response to the Operation Black Vote petition and public eagerness to fund a statue for Mary, shows the UK's continuing fascination with the fighting spirit of historical heroines like Mary Seacole," Alexander said.