Myths Relating to Mary Seacole and her Work in the Crimean War
By Major Colin Robins. Previously published in the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 89 (2011), 91-99.
One notes with disappointment the perpetuation in several new books of assertions by earlier writers of matters that are contentious at least and downright false in some cases. Sadly, the subject of many such myths is Mary Seacole, a heroine in her own right for travelling to the Crimea at her own expense and establishing on the heights above Balaklava a sutler’s shop where officers bought ‘dinners’ and on special occasions the ingredients to supplement the basic rations their men were receiving.
She arrived in the Crimea in March 1855 and so missed the three major battles of the early part of the war: Alma, Balaklava and Inkerman, but it is said that she sallied forth in later affairs outside Sevastopol with a cart of provisions and bandages for the wounded and exhausted British soldiers. Some say that she dispensed herbal remedies and she may have done, though the claim that she cured cholera is harder to accept. And four myths in particular need to be challenged—on the record—before they become accepted as fact.
The first is that she was the daughter of a British officer. Her father’s name was Grant, and she wrote in her, albeit ‘ghosted’, autobiography that he was a British soldier. The most meticulous research in recent years has been by Jane Robinson, published in her Mary Seacole, Constable, London 2005. Miss Robinson upgraded the father to being a British officer, but there is no evidence of this. The presence in a local regiment of an officer named Grant is not significant as there may have been several Private soldiers of the same name. Mary herself was fiercely proud of her Scottish ancestry and it would be extraordinary if her father had been an officer and she did not proclaim this, as she was certainly entitled to do. No rigorous historian would state that she was an officer’s daughter without evidence and that we do not have. In passing, it is worth recording that Mary, voted Britain’s Greatest Black Briton, was probably a quadroon, with three out of four grandparents white, thus more white than black.
Next, an “old faithful” on which some doubt must be cast. In Note number 1177, in this journal, Vol xxxiii, p138, a query had been raised on Mary’s entitlement to the Crimean medal, and `H.F.J.-T.’ wrote that the award had been made as reward for her voluntary service to the troops for many months. Jane Robinson, however, judged that ‘despite the repeated assumptions of her own contemporaries and almost every commentator since, she was never formally awarded any campaign medals for her part in the war.’ To which one might say “Exactly!”. Anyone entitled to a campaign medal is entered on a medal roll and, as Miss Robinson writes, ‘it is more likely that Mary distinguished herself’.
The third and fourth myths are, I understand, now taught to our children in the National Curriculum. One is that Mrs Seacole ran a hospital. This is patently and obviously not true. Before she arrived in Crimea she had in mind to offer accommodation to visiting ladies and gentlemen, and had cards printed advertising the ‘British Hotel’, but Monsieur Soyer told her (correctly) that visitors would all live on board ship in Balaklava Harbour, and Mrs Seacole’s Hut, for that is what it was, had no rooms for visitors. It is unfortunate that some modern writers have repeatedly used the term ‘British Hotel’ as it was never used by anyone to my knowledge in Crimea and only causes confusion. Mrs Seacole’s’, in contrast, was widely used as a geographical place name, as it was a convenient spot in 1856 for working-parties on the new road to assemble.
The fourth claim is even more outrageous. It is that she ‘saved thousands of soldiers’ lives’. How and where are not specified, but no amount of herbal remedies (or glasses of wine) could have had more than a small effect on a tiny number of men. Teaching these last two myths to our children is irresponsible. It is certainly not history.
-- Major Colin Robins, OBE, FRHISTS is Editor Emeritus The War Correspondent, journal of the Crimean War Research Society