Janet Silvera, Senior Gleaner Writer
The removal of Jamaican-Scottish nurse Mary Seacole from the British National Curriculum is like deleting Florence Nightingale from academic history, say opponents of a decree by United Kingdom (UK) Education Secretary of State Michael Gove.
In fact, Mary Seacole's reputation after the Crimean War (1853-1856) rivalled Florence Nightingale's. Unlike Nightingale, Seacole also had the challenge to have her skills put to proper use in spite of her being black, say the writers of her biography. She is described as a born healer and a woman of driving energy, one who overcame official indifference and prejudice.
History has it that Seacole risked her life to bring comfort to the wounded and dying soldiers; and became the first black woman to make her mark on British public life. But while Florence Nightingale has gone down in history and become a legend, Seacole was relegated to obscurity until recently when the British announced an eight-foot bronze statue valued at £500,000, which is to be erected on the grounds of the St Thomas Hospital in London.
However, if Gove has his way, Seacole's life will not be taught to thousands of students in UK schools. News out of the UK is that Gove has decreed that instead they will learn of traditional figures such as Winston Churchill and Oliver Cromwell.
This revelation has not gone down well, particularly with blacks in Britain. Up to press time yesterday, some 500 persons had signed a petition led by Operation Black Vote on the site change.org.
"If the plan goes through, I think it would be quite tragic; this is a figure that transcends races," said Professor Verene Shepherd of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus.
Shepherd added that Seacole's entrepreneurship, dedication to nursing and passion to assist soldiers during the Crimean War are legendary and that her life story, partly outlined in her autobiography - Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands - has served to inspire many young women of all ethnicities, but especially those who have chosen nursing as a career.
"Mary Seacole has also been an iconic figure to people of African descent; and it would be deflating to black British people to see one of their heroines so unceremoniously dismissed."
Shepherd questioned whether this latest action was intended to appease the supporters of Nightingale over those of Seacole.
The UWI professor admits not having a problem with students studying Cromwell, owing to the fact that children in the UK would get a glimpse into the destructive effects of colonisation on the Caribbean. But why at the expense of Seacole, one of the few black figures in the UK curriculum that are not part of the slavery discourse? Why not study all the icons deemed significant for one reason or the next?
Her comments have been bolstered by Andrew Duncan of Plymouth, UK, who said Seacole was more influential on the history of British nursing than Nightingale.
The difference, he said, was "one was black and poor and compassionate; the other was white and privileged".
Karen Robinson, of Croydon, said it was important that children are taught the full range of contributors to their society in order to fully appreciate there are no limits for them regardless of ethnicity, race, gender or sexuality.
Efforts to get a comment from the Nurses' Association of Jamaica proved unsuccessful.