'Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857): Colonial Identity and the Geographical Imagination’ in David Lambert & Alan Lester, eds.,Colonial Lives Across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Long Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 176-203. ISBN: 13 978-0-521-84770-4
This chapter is the result of a long-standing research interest in colonial and postcolonial autobiography. Colonial Lives Across the British Empire uses a series of biographical portraits of individuals in order to rethink the history of the British Empire in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As an interdisciplinary project encompassing historical and cultural geography, imperial history and life history, the volume contributes to fast developing field of ‘new imperial history’. The collection reflects the contemporary critical focus on issues of transnationalism, mobility, and cross-cultural subject formation by taking issue with nationally oriented historical paradigms and developing a ‘networked’ conception of imperial spatiality. The focus on the interconnectedness of imperial spaces and projects reconfigures an understanding of place in terms of materially structured trajectories and imagined possibilities. It also raises issues of methodology and research as the biographies included in the volume cross both continents and archives.
My chapter charts the life of Mary Seacole, a Jamaican Creole ‘doctress’ who travelled from Kingston to Panama and then to Britain during the post-emancipation period in order to volunteer her services in the Crimean War. Rejected by the authorities, she went independently, and returned to Britain in 1856 and was briefly feted as a ‘Crimean heroine’. Seacole wrote an autobiography of her experiences that was published in 1857. The chapter engages in both a historical contextualisation and a close textual analysis of Seacole’s narrative in order to analyse the formation and representation of her colonial subjectivity. Building on previous analyses of Seacole’s autobiographical practice, it focuses on the connected issues of autobiography, place, subjectivity, and mobility in relation to the specifically material conditions of her route across the globe. In particular, it highlights the significance of the imperial military networks that structured a large part of her trajectory and argues that Seacole’s self-representation is intimately related to the precariousness of historically and geographically contingent places to which she travelled as they are mediated, in the act of writing, by her sense of her metropolitan reading audience.
Mary Seacole’s autobiography provided one of the key texts for my doctoral research. The arguments have benefited from several conference/colloquia papers given over the last period. The most recent was entitled, ‘Mary Seacole: A Postcolonial Victorian?’ delivered at Post-colonial Victorians? A Conversation across Borders, Faculty of English, University of Oxford (2006). A related publication is ‘Mary Seacole’, in Margaretta Jolly, ed., Encyclopaedia of Life Writing (London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2001).