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Chris McGovern: Name Britain’s first African emperor. There’s a question for Black History Month in schools


October is “Black History Month” in our schools.  Coincidentally, it has coincided with a row over the BBC’s presentation, via its “Horrible History” series, of the Crimean War ‘nurse’ from Jamaica – Mary Seacole. She is an iconic figure in ‘black history’ who, unlike Florence Nightingale,  is included in the new national curriculum for history

Children’s BBC presented Seacole as a victim of racism exercised by Florence Nightingale. This was simply not true. It was complete ‘tosh’, as was recently pointed out on this website by David Keighley. The BBC had to admit to its error and has promised to withdraw the offensive material.

Ironically, in view of the BBC row, Mary Seacole was as much the perpetrator of racist views as a victim.   In her autobiography she makes a point of her racial origins: “I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins”. Her father was Scottish. She added that she was “only a little brown”. Her references to ‘black’ people are mostly derogatory, such as “good-for-nothing black cooks” and “excited nigger cooks”. When, in Central America, she came across a dish of roast monkey she claimed that its “grilled head bore a strong resemblance to a negro baby’s”. Other  racist views appear routinely: “Jew Johnny”, “cunning-eyed Greeks” “the lazy Maltese”. The Turks she describes as ” degenerate descendants of the fierce Arabs…slow and indolent…I believe the fleas are the only industrious creatures in all Turkey.”

Mary Seacole was an extraordinary individual, with some heroic qualities, but she is far from being an icon for the “Black History Month” currently being taught in our classrooms. She was neither ‘black’, nor a nurse, nor an unprejudiced proponent of racial equality. She is worth studying, but not for the reasons usually given.

When I was consulted by the Government about the new national curriculum for history, I argued for the inclusion of some great Africans; not because they were African but because they changed the world. I suggested, for example, that all children should learn about the immensely important African Emperor of Britain who died in York – Septimus Severus. A metaphorical blank stare from Michael Gove was the response. I also argued for the inclusion of the African military genius whose strategies are still taught at military college today – Hannibal. Another blank stare from Government!

This year we are marking the hundreth anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1. German strategy back in 1914 was formulated by General von Schlieffen. The Schlieffen Plan was an unsuccessful attempt to imitate the military strategy of Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae in 216. Von Schlieffen was obsessed by Hannibal.

Putting Mary Seacole aside, here is a real history question to ‘kick off’ “Black History Month”: In what way was an African responsible for the events of 1914 on the Western Front?

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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