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Biography 23.2 (2000) 309-331

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Self-Writing, Literary Traditions,and Post-Emancipation Identity: The Case of Mary Seacole

Evelyn J. Hawthorne


" . . . unless I am allowed to tell the story of my life in my own way, I cannot tell it at all."

Written at the height of the Victorian period, The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands (1857) is a paradigmatic black woman's text of self-authoring that has been lauded as "one of the most readable and rewarding black women's autobiographies in the nineteenth century" (Andrews, Introduction xxviii). Representing a locus classicus of culturally sanctioned feminine self-reliance, it was written and published in England by Mary Jane Grant Seacole (1805-1881), a free-born Jamaican who achieved fame for her work as a nurse during the Crimean War, meriting several medals. 1 Transgressing gender, race, and class roles as an adventuring businesswoman in Jamaica, London, Haiti, New Granada, and Cuba, and as a female who, undaunted by the horrors of the battlefield, deployed herself to the Crimean War, this heroine is extraordinary by any standard. But in addition to its biographical importance, this work is an invaluable means of espying how the free(d) female subject fashioned her identity, from a socially, racially, and economically disempowered position in the post-Emancipation historical environment. 2 Wonderful Adventures is a cultural text that reveals how Seacole, a woman of color, exploited critical historical moments to construct a new social identity. At the same time, though, Seacole's independence raises questions about the role of the dominant power in the free(d) subject's search for equality and social rights, for Seacole seems to have advanced through her own machinations, rather than through the inconsistent British script of freedom offered to the colonial, racial subject. [End Page 309]

I will argue that Seacole's textual and rhetorical strategies encode contestatory practices that enable her to author herself and to critique and unsettle Victorian ideology. By manipulating genre and linguistic conventions, Seacole promotes a double-voicedness that allows her to challenge "disciplining" systems (in Foucault's sense of non-coercion)--practices which mark her as a resisting subject. 3 By foregrounding cultural issues of race and gender, thus forcing them into higher public visibility, Seacole also contends against the contradictory and conflictual text of freedom. Though seemingly ideologically compliant, then, the work's signifying strategies produce a text that contests authority while textualizing the authenticity of difference and hybrid subjectivity.

When the location of the center shifts from Jamaica to England, Seacole finds this new site of difference less predictable than the colonial one. 4 The rejection Seacole encountered when she applied to serve as a nurse under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War suggests how confusing the faces of freedom were for the post-Emancipation subject in nineteenth-century Britain. In Jamaica, Seacole had learned medicine from British surgeons. Her work there and in Panama, especially during cholera and yellow fever epidemics, had earned her a reputation as a nurse, and the title of "yellow doctress." When she became aware of the desperate conditions at the Crimean warfront--the newspapers were full of stories about untended soldiers dying more from diseases and lack of care and sanitation than from war wounds--a self-assured Seacole traveled to England to volunteer, carrying letters of recommendation from well-ranking surgeons. But despite her training and her letters of support, both the Secretary of War and the Office of Quatermaster-General ignored her. Seacole responded by getting to the Crimea on her own. Forming a corporation with an old family friend, she financed her own expedition to set up there as a "sutler." 5 Sailing first from England to Constantinople with her warehouse of provisions, she then made her way to Balaclava. At a place near the battlefield, she spent the considerable sum of eight hundred pounds to erect her store, the "British Hotel." Since she had also outfitted herself with medicines, she soon began to render nursing services to many of the sick and...