The following letter, sent to BBC Complaints in May 2013, outlines some of the misinformation on two online BBC resources:
We are making a number of complaints about your coverage of Mary Seacole on several of your websites. It is too late to complain about your television programmes on Florence Nightingale and Seacole, but the websites are still available and should, therefore, be corrected.
This first set of complaints concerns one of your programmes on Horrible Histories, ‘Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole’.
- Not only was the public relations consultant fictional, as your description stated, the whole story was false, insulting to Nightingale and giving achievements and attributes to Seacole which she never had, nor ever claimed in her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857. Seacole could not have done much work for ‘wounded’ soldiers as she missed the first three battles of the Crimean War: the Alma, Balaclava and Inkermann.
- Seacole is portrayed as an old-fashioned nurse; she is young and black, although she was never a nurse, in Jamaica or in the Crimean War, and never wore a nurse’s uniform. Her occupation in Jamaica was a boarding house proprietor, and in the Crimean War she ran a restaurant/bar/store/takeaway for officers. She is portrayed as black, when she was, in fact, three quarters white. Moreover, she was proud of her Scottish heritage, but not of her Creole background (she never said she was an African: See her book, Wonderful Adventures, pp.1-2). Instead, she referred to herself as ‘yellow’, to indicate her fair complexion. Like many other people in the nineteenth century, she made rude remarks about ‘niggers’. Many examples can be found on a website: www.maryseacole.info/
- Contrary to your statement that Seacole and Nightingale ‘argued about the nursing work each of them did for wounded soldiers’, the two of them only met once, for about five minutes, as described by Seacole in her memoir (Wonderful Adventures, p. 91). On this occasion Seacole asked Nightingale for a bed for the night, which Nightingale found for her. Seacole was en route to the Crimea to open her store/business. They did not discuss nursing at all, according to Seacole’s memoir.
- Contrary to your reference to Seacole being “refused entry” into Nightingale’s nursing corps, Nightingale and her nurses had already left London for the East by the time Seacole decided that she wanted to join them. Seacole’s main reason for being in London was to look after her gold mining stocks, as she explained in her memoir (p. 71).
- Seacole did not sell her home to go to the Criema, as your statement suggests, but used the profits from her last business in Panama to fund this trip and start the business in the Crimea.
- Seacole never established a hospital, nor ever claimed to. Her business, described in detail in her memoir, provided food, alcohol, takeaway meals and catering services for officers’ parties and sporting events. She described giving first aid on the battlefield, post-battle, on three occasions.
- Your statement that ‘Both nurses did pioneering work’ is grossly inaccurate, as Seacole was not a nurse, and did no pioneering work in nursing, nor ever claimed to. She called herself, as her mother had before her, a ‘doctress’, meaning she was a herbalist. Nightingale’s pioneering work was much more extensive than you describe. Seacole’s so-called ‘pioneering work’ in ‘cholera and tropical diseases’ is a mis-statement, in that she claimed few successes, admitted blunders, and is known to have used lethal substances, namely, lead acetate and mercury chloride in her ‘cures’. She was no worse than most doctors of the time, but it would be wildly inaccurate to credit her with ‘pioneering’ work.
- In the BBC film clip Seacole claims that Nightingale turned her down four times; she did not do so even once, as explained above. Seacole did not sell her home in Jamaica to fund her trip, but used profits from her Panama business, as she explained in Wonderful Adventures (p. 74). Nightingale never said, and never believed, that nursing was only for ‘British girls’. This is to accuse Nightingale of racism, and is very offensive. The clip shows Nightingale literally pushing Seacole aside; this is a totally fictional and another offensive misrepresentation. In fact, Nightingale’s grandfather, William Smith who was an MP for Norwich, was a leading member of the movement to abolish slavery and the whole family felt strongly about racial injustices.
- The clip that has Seacole a ‘penniless black’ is wrong because she was not black; and, moreover, her subsequent bankruptcy was the result of poor business decisions, namely, overstocking of goods expecting the war to continue for months longer than it did.
- Calling both women by their first names does them both an injustice. They were adults, not children at the time: Nightingale was 34 and Seacole 50 years old. Do you call adult men in comparable places by their first names?
This sorry website should be closed down, and an apology issued for its flagrant misrepresentations of both people, New material should be provided that is factually accurate on both. It behoves your researchers to read Mary Seacole’s book, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which is now available online: www.digital.library.upenn.edu/women/seacole/adventures/adventures.html. For further examples of misrepresentation see the website www.maryseacole.info.
The next set of complaints comes from BBC History. Historic Figures: Mary Seacole (1805-1881):
Your opening statement is a flagrant misrepresentation by calling Seacole a ‘pioneering nurse and heroine of the Crimean War’. She was not a nurse at all, and never claimed to be. She was not recognised as a heroine at the time, but this claim has only recently been made of her. Your picture shows her with three medals, which, however, she was never awarded.
- Contrary to your statement that Seacole learned her ‘nursing skills’ from her mother, she learned herbal remedies from her, whom she called an ‘admirable doctress’, in her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (p. 2). Her mother did not keep a boarding house for ‘invalid soldiers’, as it was meant for army and naval officers, who were not necessarily sick.
- Seacole never claimed to have ‘complemented her knowledge of traditional medicine with European medical ideas’. On her travels to Britain, she sold Jamaican pickles and preserves; in the Bahamas she acquired shells and shell-work for sale in Jamaica (pp. 3-5), which demonstrated instances of business activity, with no reference to medical knowledge.
- It is not clear how and when Seacole was ‘refused’ by the War Office. According to her own memoir, she did not even decide she wanted to go until late November 1854, after Nightingale and her team had already left. She never submitted an application to the War Office (whose archival material may be seen at the National Archives at Kew).
- Seacole announced with a printed card her intention of opening the ‘British Hotel as a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent Officers’, but, in fact, did not open a hotel at all; instead, she opened a hut which served as a restaurant/bar/store/takeway.
- Your statement that her battlefield visits were ‘sometimes under fire’ is an exaggeration. She missed the first three battles entirely, but was present for three of them in 1855. On these occasions, described in her Wonderful Adventures, her main function was the sale of food and drink to officers and spectators. She also provided first aid on the battlefield. She referred to being ‘under fire’ in quotation marks, in the same way that many other people did who were in that vicinity.
- You provide no historical evidence for your statement that her reputation ‘rivalled’ that of Florence Nightingale. Mrs Seacole was well liked and became a celebrity on her return to London. However it was Nightingale who led the nursing and did the hard quantitative work after the war addressing the causes of the terrible death rates. Nightingale’s reputation was based on her solid accomplishments, which were well recognized at the time, by doctors, medical statisticians, architects and engineers. Her work and ideas remain influential today.
This website should be drastically revised. The picture should state that Seacole did not earn those medals; moreover, in her memoir she never claimed to have won them. She is first known to have worn them back in London in 1856.
Finally, an e-mail written by an 11 year old girl sent to one of us (Dr Lynn McDonald) exemplifies the way in which poorly conceived BBC programmes (i.e., your Horrible Histories on Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole) can misinform the public of all ages (and affect their views into adulthood). This young girl wrote to ask: ‘Is it true Florence turned down Mary Seacole four times because she was black?’ To which the answer was, as you will have read above, ‘of course not’. Nightingale never turned down Seacole and helped her when she requested help.
Dr M. Eileen Magnello
Chairperson of the History Group of the Royal Statistical Society
Senior Research Fellow
Department of Science and Technology Studies
University College London
London WC1E 6BT
Dr Lynn McDonald
(university professor emerita)
Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Guelph
Guelph ON N1G 2W1