In the early 19th century, the question of colour was a major issue in Jamaica. Early researchers have commented that in order to fully understand Mary Seacole’s achievements, her work must be measured against the time in which she lived and the restrictions under which she had to operate. In 1807, two years after her birth, Britain had abolished the slave trade, but the institution of slavery persisted. In order to enjoy civil rights, in Jamaican society at this time, colour was all important and throughout her childhood and for the rest of her life, Mary would have been aware of its relevance.
According to Rex Nettleford, for those aspiring to become citizens, ‘the most difficult obligation of all in the scheme of preparation would have been the dilution of colour. It took three generations to become a Jamaican white by law.’ Those wishing to gain social ascendancy were careful to choose partners ‘to ensure that offsprings would enjoy in the next generation, what Free Coloured or black mothers could not in their own.’
Mary Seacole was the child of that class in Jamaica known as the Free Coloureds who ‘helped to perpetuate the very basis on which the majority of the population (who were black) were denied that freedom.’ Indeed the Free Coloureds of Jamaica were placed in a paradoxical situation at this time, unlike the black slave who had to fight for freedom of expression and allied rights.
Although the Free Coloureds could express themselves through the process of free exchange, for example, petitioning, they did so on limited terms. But importantly, they were free people in a slave society and as such the ‘distinction had to be made between the slave and free men, despite the fact that one set of free men [whites] made little or no distinction between another set of free men [Free Coloureds] and slaves.’ Many Free Coloureds were, like whites, owners of property, including slaves. They believed implicitly in slave-holding and were against abolition. While many petitions were governed by law, some were embodied in customs and conventions.
Thus, the hierarchy of colour found expression in both media, ‘giving legitimacy to carefully measured drops of white blood that flowed in the veins of Free Coloureds. The acquisition of privileges would ipso facto mean the elevation to whiteness which was in any case necessary to determine eligibility for rights and privileges – a vicious circle.’ Whites used the Free Coloured class as a buffer between themselves and the potentially rebellious Blacks. Nonetheless, this gave most Free Coloureds a sense of purpose despite their disabilities. It was through this system of special privileges that many of the Free Coloureds were able to gain access to some of society’s channels of advancement so that they could prove themselves. And by reason of growing wealth, many Free Coloured persons could travel to England and establish connections with articulate and fairly influential persons, including politicians.
The trouble with the Free Coloureds of early 19th-century Creole Jamaica, however, was that in their fight for freedom of expression and other civil rights, they failed to commit themselves to a belief in the prudence or necessity of universal privileges for everyone in their society. As a group, at this time of slavery, the Free Coloureds seemed to have lacked anything approaching an independent ideology for freedom. They made the unpardonable error of insisting that they were eligible for freedom because they too were of white blood.
Their stand was even more outrageous because the Whites in their midst did not regard them as white and did all they could to ensure that any elevation to that much coveted ethnic status would take no fewer than three generations. ‘The Creolization process was itself further distorted by the integration into the very process of the dependency syndrome, the imitative ideal,’ as Nettleford put it, ‘and the notion that what was white was right and what came from black thought much less so.’ Thus Free Coloureds committed an error of judgement by adapting in their quest for freedom, a game of which the rules were set by Whites.
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Read more about Mary Seacole’s struggle and current revisionism at the Black Feminists UK site.