Marilyn Klainberg’s Historical Overview of Nursing (Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett) lists Mary Seacole, with incorrect dates, as the next person after Nightingale as influential in nursing, crediting her falsely with working in cholera and yellow fever epidemics in Cuba and Panama, and establishing a “hospital and respite home for wounded and fatigued soldiers in Balaclava”
Another exaggerated account of Seacole’s Crimean experience is by Julia Hallam, “Ethnic Lines in the Early Nineteenth Century,” in a collection edited by the two archivists at the Royal College of Nursing, Barbara Mortimer and Susan McGann, New Directions in the History of Nursing: International Perspectives (London: Routledge 2005 22-39). Hallam gets the timing and purpose wrong for Seacole’s trip (p 34): “At the outbreak of war in 1853, Seacole sailed from Jamaica to England to offer her services to the Nightingale cause,” except that while Turkey declared war in 1853, the British did not until March 1854, and the first battle did not take place until September. Mrs Seacole was in the Panama running a business supplying men going to the California Gold Rush, and herself prospecting and investing in gold. It was only after the first three major battles took place, and a great storm destroyed British supplies, that she decided to abandon her gold stocks and seek to go to the Crimea (according to her own memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands).
“Unable to secure an appointment as a nurse, she undertook to finance her own trip to the front....She set up the equivalent of an officers’ mess for the wealthier soldiers in the Crimea.”
Nightingale and her team had already left when Seacole decided she wanted to join them. She obviously did not secure employment as a nurse, but then she never submitted the requisite application. The trip she financed to the front, from her Panama profits, was to establish a “mess table” for officers, not soldiers, none of whom were wealthy enough to purchase fine wines, champagne, tinned lobster and salmon.
“When the war ended abruptly in March 1856, Seacole was left with expensive redundant stock.”
The war did not end abruptly in March; the last battle was fought on 8 September 1855, so that there were months before the peace treaty was finally signed. Her business did very well all this time--she and her partner laid in expensive supplies expecting the army to stay longer than it did--a poor business decision, not an abrupt end to the war.
This is a recent book on the Light Brigade, which includes a chapter (19) devoted to “The truth about Scutari,” which makes an enormous number of factual errors about Seacole’s role during the Crimean War.
By way of background the author credited her with care for yellow fever victims “so effective...that she was asked to take charge of all nursing at Up-Park Camp, the Kingston headquarters of the British Army in Jamaica,” although Seacole reported not one successful case, and in any event never took charge of any nursing at the camp.
Early in the Crimean War, according to Brighton, Seacole was said to have “supplied written references from British officers in Kingston describing her nursing skills and supreme fitness for the work. All refused her offer.” But Seacole’s memoir gives details of only one letter, from a mining camp doctor, which does not mention nursing skills at all (WA 77). The U.K. National Archives has the written applications by nurses, but there is not one from Seacole. When she finally got to Scutari, this account has her still hoping “to be recruited to work as a nurse there,” although Seacole herself made it clear that she was then en route to Balaclava to start her business and was no longer looking for a job.
Brighton changed Seacole’s real business of providing food and drink to officers into providing “accommodation, food and nursing care for any soldier in need.” Her “ward was open to the wounded, those suffering from the diseases rampant in Balaclava and those who were simply exhausted. Whenever a new patient arrived she would rush to the door calling, ‘Who is my new son?’” (311). But this expression appears in Soyer’s memoir, on his meeting her, when she was serving champagne to Sir John Campbell.
After many other errors, the author flagged her “greatest accomplishment” as being ”in the sick ward” (which did not exist) and “on the battlefield at Balaclava” (314), although she missed the Battle of Balaclava by months. He concluded that she was the “true nursing heroine for the Light Brigade,” although Nightingale should not be forgotten. A statue of Seacole should be erected at the “Crimean War monument” alongside that of Nightingale’s (314).
The Seacole chapter repeats the standard myths that she had excellent testimonials for a Crimea post (247), but was turned away by Nightingale’s assistant (248). It gives a purely fictional daily schedule: “Mary Seacole was generally up and busy by daybreak, serving breakfast to off-duty troops, caring for the sick and wounded able to make their own way to her hut, visiting the military hospital with books and papers, mending torn uniforms.” (249-50).
It has here “awarded a Crimean medal,” for which the evidence is that an officer who had known her in the Crimea saw her wearing it in London” (252). She did wear medals, but they were not awarded to her.
The Seacole entry is far from the worst of the misinformed sources on Seacole, and avoids such myths as the claim that she won medals. (However, it depicts her wearing 4 medals (in a photography of the Gleichen bust), without noting that they were not hers.) It manufactured a “good, clean canteen for the troops,” although Seacole never gave any specifics for the canteen apart from mentioning its existence. The entry accords her nursing skills from her mother, which Seacole did not herself claim. He credits her with having “briefly” acted as “nursing superintendent at Up-Park miliary camp,” when Seacole rather stated that she had been asked to supply nurses there, but did not (111).
This review of an early reprint of Wonderful Adventures repeats many errors: (1) that Seacole “set up a successful inn just outside Sebastopol at the battlefront,” paid for out of her “life savings”; (2) that “her raison d’être was caring for the sick and wounded”; (3) a wholly fictional schedule, claiming that Seacole “saw patients from about 9:30 to noon every day, visited the hospital over the noon hour and spent the afternoon caring for the newly wounded,” although where the “newly wounded” came from is a mystery, for Seacole missed the first three battles, and was only present for three later ones.
A remarkable false claim, according to MacQueen, Seacole’s “humanitarian work was recognized by Turkey and France, but never by the British government,” for which she gave no evidence. The review ends with a pot shot at Nightingale: “In this delightful book Seacole comes across as a welcome antidote to our overdose of Nightingale.”
Anionwu in this article claims Seacole as a “pioneer” equivalent to (244). She acknowledged that her hut was mainly a store and canteen, but invented “each morning a type of nurse-led outpatient clinic.” Here “soldiers queued for her to prescribe remedies and dress their wounds” (247), although Seacole herself related only sporadic calls for her to leave her kitchen to sell remedies. As for the “wounds,” how did the soldiers get them? Seacole missed the three first, major, battles. She was present for three later ones, and described giving first aid assistance on the spot, not dressing wounds days later at her hut.
Anionwu’s claims go on to Seacole visiting sick and injured soldiers “in their huts,” without giving an example, and certainly Seacole never did (she did describe visits to the huts of high ranking officers). She is said to have ignored the dangers, to care ”for the wounded and dying on the battlefields” (247), although Seacole’s own description is decidedly less heroic. Anionwu makes Seacole a victim of the war ending “abruptly” (247), although more than six months elapsed between the last battle and the signing of the peace treaty.
There are also numerous trivial factual errors (typos?) such as misdating the Crimean War (246). A supposed letter by the principal medical officer, John Hall, is cited as if it were genuine (248).
The entry on Mary Seacole in Historical Encyclopedia of Nursing has an enormous number of mistakes, including wild claims for Seacole and an accusation of racism against Elizabeth Herbert, although not Nightingale. Herewith some examples:
She was an “outstanding” example of a “determined nurse at the Crimean front,” and a “British citizen” and a “combat nurse” (137).
In Jamaica she is said to have “battled an epidemic of yellow fever” (236) although she admitted total defeat and hardly any battle. Oddly, a claim made by no one else, “she advised a surgeon who gave up European medicine to adopt herbal remedies developed from Caribbean plants” (236) without naming him or citing any reference.
On arrival at Balaclava she is said to have worked “for six weeks rebandaging, comforting and offering pannikins of broth” (236), a far cry from her own account of providing tea, lemonade and cake (WA )
She is said to have “ventured regularly to the front for the Battle of Tchernaya” (237) although that took place on one day only.
The entry confuses Seacole’s meals and catering for officers, for a price, for their dinner parties and sporting events, with sickroom care of soldiers: “For her patients, she cooked and distributed sickroom delicacies--sponge cake, blancmange, broth, jelly and sherry” (237).
Yet again Seacole is awarded medals: the Crimean Medal “for bravery under fire,” plus the French Legion of Honor, and a Turkish honorarium” (237).
Minor errors have her avoid bankruptcy through donations from friends, and her book producing “an adequate income” (237).
The entry on Seacole in the Oxford Companion to Black British History is relatively accurate, but even it has such misinformation as Seacole sailing to London to apply to nurse in the Crimean War, ”expecting a grateful welcome,” when her own memoir is clear that she left for London from Panama, for the purpose of attending to her gold stocks (WA 74). The entry has Seacole unequivocally volunteering, unsuccessfully, “to nurse victims of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and the Franco-Prussian War in 1871," although evidence of her actually volunteering for either is scant--and indirect--while the salient fact that the British government sent nurses to neither and never called for any is not mentioned.
The section on Seacole in The Path We Tread: Blacks in Nursing Worldwide 1854-1995 is one of the most flagrantly wrong, with amazing concoctions and contradictions. Almost every sentence contains misinformation, doubtless by ignoring what Seacole herself wrote of her work and contact with Nightingale. The Crimean War section simply asserts that Seacole was a nurse there, and suggests that there may have been other black nurses. There is no acknowledgement anywhere that Seacole was of mixed race and did not consider herself black. Major mis-statements include claims of cures she never made, the erection of a hospital ward she never described, a letter Seacole wrote the British government before leaving Jamaica, and a letter of introduction to Nightingale that she took with her to England--all of them impossible given the actual sequence of events.
“When Mary Seacole learned that hostilities had broken out in the Crimea, she wrote the British government asking to be allowed to join Florence Nightingale in the Crimea as a nurse, but her request was denied” (3). Seacole only decided she wanted to go after the third major battle of the war.
“She was convinced that her knowledge of tropical diseases was vital to Britain’s war effort. So, at her own expense, Mary Seacole sailed to England with a letter of introduction to Nightingale.” However, Seacole’s own account has her sailing to England from Panama, to look after her gold mining stocks (WA 74).
“but her attempts to join the group of recruited nurses were blocked because she was black, even though she had personal credentials written by British army doctors” (3) Her memoir contains no letter by British doctors, but one from the “late medical officer West Granada, Gold mining Company” (WA 77). It is not known why her attempt to join the second group of nurses was rebuffed; the fact that she never applied in the prescribed way, and that the group was already in the last stages of preparation for departure, with 40 women ready to go, may well have been the factors.
(After arriving and building “The British Hotel”): “On the lower floor was a restaurant and bar,; the upper floor was arranged like a hospital ward with her supply of medicines, many of which she concocted herself” (3), contrary to her own account that the store/restaurant/bar were in a hut, and there never was a hospital ward. What medicines she used can scarcely be known, except that she bought them in England. She did not describe concocting her own medicines.
“Seacole still hoped to secure a position as an army nurse, but when she met with Florence Nightingale, the response was the same, no vacancies. However, each night at 7:00, after having worked in her provisions store on the outskirts of the camp, she made her way to the hospital and worked as a volunteer side-by-side with Nightingale” (4). Seacole’s own description of meeting has her asking for a bed for the night, not a job (WA 91), as she already had made her plans to start a business. She could hardly have worked each night side-by-side with Nightingale, who was based at Scutari, some 300 miles from the Crimea--it took often a week by boat to make the journey.
“Seacole attended not only the British casualties, but French, Sardinian and Russian soldiers as well. She saved the lives of countless soldiers, both those wounded and others with cholera, yellow fever, malaria, diarrhea, and a host of other ailments” (4). Yet she could not have attended many casualties, because she missed the first three battles of the war; she was present for three later ones, when she described assisting on the battlefield, probably for several hours each. Her account notes helping several injured French, Sardinian and Russian officers, not many, and of course none of them ill, for she worked in no army hospital. There was no yellow fever or malaria to treat there (and when she faced yellow fever in Jamaica, Seacole admitted being able to do nothing).
Finally there is a claim about medals: “Long after the war ended, the government bestowed a medal upon her for services rendered the sick and injured” (4), with no documentation provided. Seacole never claimed to have won any medals, and the medals claimed for her were service medals given to the military only. That “two of her Crimean War medals” are at the Institute of Jamaica” (4) is a mis-statement, for while that institute owns two such medals, there is no documentation to say whose they were.
Jane Robinson's biography of Seacole contains a great deal of well researched information, and a relatively small amount of misinformation. Clearly Robinson went to a great deal of trouble to find sources to validate the new revised Seacole, and frankly reported instances where no information could be found, such as the claim that she won medals. There are slurs against Nightingale, short of outright denunciations. The publisher's advertisement for the book, however, refers (erroneously) to Nightingale calling Seacole "a brothel-keeping quack."
The biography appears online with three different titles, all with the same ISBN number: (1) Mary Seacole: The Black Woman Who Invented Modern Nursing (New York: Carroll & Graf 2004); (2) Mary Seacole: The Most Famous Black Woman of the Victorian Age (Basic Books 2004) and (3) Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea (London: Constable 2005). No book with the extraordinary first title actually appeared.
Robinson was frank in describing Seacole's negative views of blacks (172-73). She reported on the failure of her second business, the store at Aldershot, after the Crimean War (157).
She tried to verify that the medals Seacole wore had been awarded to her, to find that they had not been (167).
However, Robinson's account of Seacole managing "a professional nursing service for the British Army" in Jamaica (72) contradicts Seacole's own version, which states rather that she was "sent for by the medical authorities to provide nurses for the sick at Up-Park Camp, about a mile from Kingston," but that only she went, while her sister and nurses stayed at her boarding house in Kingston. Seacole said that she did her "best," but there was little they could do "to mitigate the severity of the epidemic" (63). This was the terrible yellow fever epidemic, which Seacole described in sad detail in Chapter 7, and for which she made no claims of cures.