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Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands

Five editions are now available, in addition to the 1857 original: Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, ed. W.J.S. London: James Blackwood 1857. Introductory preface by W.H. Russell.The text of this edition can also be accessed onone at http://www.digital.library.upenn.edu/women/seacole/adventures/adventures.html.

1984: Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, ed., Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjel. Bristol: Falling Wall Press.

1987: Jamaican Nightingale: Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands, ed. George Cadogan. Stratford ON: Williams-Wallace.

1988: Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1988. Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. This is the edition used here, identified as WA.

2005: Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, ed. Sara Salih. Penguin 20th Century Classics reprint.

2009: Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, ed. Harriet Washington. Kaplan Publishing.

It is perhaps not surprising that the most flagrantly erroneous introduction is the latest, 2009, by Harriet Washington, probably influenced by the inaccuracies of the previous editions and other attacks over recent years. Washington makes Seacole out to have saved many lives pre-Crimea, claims her heroine never herself made. At Cruces, Panama, Seacole was “the only trained medical professional,” who “constantly worked to the point of exhaustion, saving many lives” (xiii). Of Cruces, Seacole herself stated only that there was “no doctor,” and that the dentist there was timid and would not prescribe (WA 25). Her account of the cholera epidemic includes few cures and many “fearful scenes,” of “affrighted faces and cries of woe” “poor creatures” for it “spread rapidly” (WA 25-6).

On going to the Crimean War, Washington has Seacole rebuffed by the medical authorities at the War Office (true, although we do not know why). Then, “she was snubbed by all the nurse-recruitment agents, by the War Office and finally by a visibly impatient Florence Nightingale, even though, or perhaps because, Seacole’s fame at this point rivaled Florence Nightingale’s own” (xiii-iv). But Seacole’s memoir reports a short, entirely friendly encounter with Nightingale, where it is clear that she was then en route for the Crimea to join her business partner--not looking for a nursing position (WA 89-90). Nowhere in her memoir did Seacole suggest any grudge against Nightingale, let alone accuse her of racial discrimination.

According to Washington, Seacole “supported herself by setting up her British Hotel for sick soldiers near Balaclava, determined that the hotelier would be patron to the doctress” (xiv). But the British Hotel was a restaurant or mess table for officers (WA 81), with a store, not a hotel. Ordinary soldiers could use the “canteen” (WA 114), but what was available there is not specified. The British Hotel closed at 8 p.m. nightly, and closed on Sundays (WA 145), hardly the hours of a hotel or hospital.

The 1988 edition by the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, the one used here, has few inaccuracies in its front material. There is a Foreword by an unnamed author which relates the memoir to the history of literature by black women writers. The Introduction by William L. Andrews is lively and refreshing, but it too has incorrect information, such as that Seacole won two or possibly three medals (WA xxxiii) as a “battlefield doctress” (WA xxviii) with a “dispensary and sick bay” (WA xxxi).

George Cadogan in his short (unpaged) introduction to the 1987 edition compliments Nightingale as deserving “all the recognition given to her,” but then he mistakenly has her “invalided home before the end of the war,” while he credits Seacole with remaining “until the end of the war” (Seacole 1987). But Nightingale did not leave until August 1856, after the last soldier had been discharged from her hospitals, while Seacole left after she lost her clientele at the British Hotel--the officers were sent home with the troops when peace was negotiated. Nightingale fell ill and nearly died in 1855, but she recovered and went back to work.

Sara Salih, in her introduction to the 2005 Penguin edition, provides interesting treatment of the issues of race and slavery, notably Seacole’s non-identification as a coloured person or mulatto (xvi-xix) and “what might seem to be troublingly superior attitudes towards black people” (xxiii). Exaggerations include references to Seacole as a “cause célèbre” who was “rapidly obscured from view by the metaphorical glare of Florence Nightingale’s candle” (xvi). The Penguin announcement of the book calls Seacole “doctor and ‘mother’ to wounded soldiers.”

Salih uncritically refers to the person responsible for the nastiest accusations against Nightingale, Hugh Small, as a ”biographer” (xxxviii), although his Florence Nightingale: Avenging Angel is a series of wildly inaccurate and unsubstantiated statements blaming Nightingale for the high death rates of the Crimean War, who in fact analyzed and reported on the mortality data).

Salih contrasts Nightingale’s “virginal pallor and purity” with Seacole’s “robust maternity and patriotic spirit of enterprise” (xxxii). Seacole’s patriotism is then proved, according to Salih, “beyond a doubt,” by the bankruptcy of the British Hotel, so that Seacole became “a true and altruistic British patriot whose national service led to her financial ruin” (xxxvi). But the British Hotel went bankrupt because, when peace was negotiated, its clientele returned to England, unfortunately at a time that Seacole and her partner had restocked with expensive supplies (described in Chapter 19).