"Slave Life," or "Uncle Tom's Cabin"

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  “Slave Life, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

Composer:  Charles Jeffreys

Publisher:  C. Jeffreys

Year & Place:  1853, London, England

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  hasmsm006

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: hasmsm006

Basic Description

The focus of this lithograph is a black woman with plaited hair holding a small, elegantly-dressed white boy in her arms.  The woman’s strapless and sleeveless dress — pleated and ill-fitting, as if improvised from window curtains or bed linen — reveals her supple arms and upper torso.

Personal Description

No doubt referencing the passages in Uncle Tom’s Cabin where Topsy playfully drapes herself in assorted linens and towels, this image subliminally turns this woman and her dress into a metaphoric bed, in which the slumbering child curls up. Performed in blackface by the white actress “Mrs. Keeley”, this Topsy is maternal rather than impish, and would not have been out of place in a Victorian-era colonial setting such as India, South Africa, or Jamaica.

Reality Check


Mary Seacole (1805-1881)

Mary Seacole was born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica. Her father was a Scottish soldier, and her Jamaican mother was a practitioner of traditional medicine and had a boarding house where she cared for the sick. Mary learned about medicine from her mother, soon gaining her own reputation as a “skilful nurse and doctress”.

In 1836 Mary married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole, godson of the British naval hero, Lord Nelson, but after only eight years the marriage was cut short by his early death.  Mary travelled widely – there were two trips to Britain and, in 1851, she joined her brother Edward in Panama, where she opened a hotel. Soon she had saved her first cholera patient, and gained extensive knowledge of the pathology of this disease, which she herself had contracted and recovered from. She was widely praised for her work in treating cholera, and returned to Jamaica in 1853.

She then traveled again to London, where she heard about the Crimean war and how the nursing system there had collapsed. She made applications to the War Office, the army medical department, and the secretary of war to be allowed to go to the Crimea and tend to the sick and wounded. She pointed out that she had extensive experience, excellent references and knew many of the soldiers and regiments, having nursed them while they were stationed in Jamaica.  But she was turned away by everybody, including one of Florence Nightingale’s assistants.

Seacole and a relative of hers agreed to launch a general store and hotel near the British camp in the Crimea. So, at the age of 50, Mary went to the battle zone as a sutler: a person who follows the army and sells provisions to the troops. The moment she arrived there were sick and wounded to attend to. Soon the entire British army knew of “Mother Seacole.” The assistant surgeon of the 90th Light Infantry watched with admiration as she would administer to the soldiers, giving them tea and food and words of comfort. She was often on the front line and frequently under fire. Mary Seacole’s reputation after the Crimean War rivaled that of Florence Nightingale’s.

The end of the war left Seacole impoverished and, soon thereafter, she went bankrupt. Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget, both Crimean commanders, organized a benefit at the Royal Surrey Gardens to raise money for Mary. In 1857, Mary published her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in many lands. She was awarded a Crimean medal, and a bust was made of her by Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, sculptor and nephew of Queen Victoria. The last 25 years of her life, however, were spent in obscurity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s