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Would the Real Mary Seacole Please Stand Up and be Recognized?

By Professor Lynn McDonald

From The War Correspondent, Vol.30 No.2, July 2012

If Mary Seacole could observe the goings on in her name today she would wonder. Undoubtedly she would be pleased with the enthusiasm of her supporters, but she would scarcely recognize herself in the false 'historical' facts set out to describe her life and work. Her own memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, which she published in 1857 (the Oxford University Press edition of 1988 is used here; the edition — there are five — with the least errors in the introduction).

1. Seacole called herself a 'doctress' and never did regular hospital nursing, contrary to many statements. She never called herself a nurse or hospital nurse, but used those terms, during the Crimean War, for Nightingale and other nurses (87, 89, 90). Three times in her memoir pre-Crimea she used the verb to nurse to describe care she gave to her patroness and her husband in their dying days, at home in Kingston (5-6), and to a relative of her husband's, Thomas Day (later her business partner) through an unspecified 'sharp attack of illness' (69). During the Crimean War she once referred to having nursed a 'boy in the Artillery with blue eyes and light golden hair,' but she does not say what the 'long and weary' illness was, nor how she treated it (61 and 153).

Seacole sometimes coupled 'nurse and doctress' to describe her work, for example, after her boarding house in Kingston burned down and she was rebuilding (7). During the Crimean War she once called herself `doctress and nurse', but the context was the restaurant meals she served officers at the British Hotel (125). She also used 'nurse and doctress' when recommending 'an application' to a gallant Victoria Cross winner, who had a wound that did not heal (127). Once she called herself 'cloctress, nurse and "mother"' (124).

As a `doctress' Seacole made the diagnosis, planned and prepared the treatment herself, unlike hospital nurses who carried out the instructions of doctors and surgeons. Her Chapter 4 describes her work at Cruces, in Central America, where there was no doctor, and gives — the only place in her memoir where she did this — a list of her remedies. A successful remedy against cholera included 'an additional dose of ten grains of sugar of lead' (31), meaning lead acetate, a toxic substance now considered dangerous in any dose.

The British Hotel, the business she and her partner set up, was not a hospital but an officers' 'mess table' and store of provisions, fine foods and wines, cigars, snuff, etc. This made her, in the term of the time a 'sutler.' A `canteen' was provided for the 'soldiery' (114), but she gave no details as to what was supplied there. The main function was the provision of restaurant meals for officers, which their servants could pick up for them, such as tins of salmon, lobsters, oysters, game, wild fowl, vegetables, eggs, sardines, tobacco, joint of mutton, soup, fish, turkeys, saddle of mutton, fowls, ham, tongue, curry, pastry of many sorts, custards, jelly, blancmange, olives, in hot weather sangria, claret, cider cups and other cooling drinks, for picnics cold duck, other meats and tarts (139, 179, 151, 190).

The British Hotel had servants to assist in managing supplies and cooking, but no doctors or nurses. Seacole sold her herbal preparations there to her 'patients' (125). She described regimental hospital doctors recommending it to ambulatory patients — the regimental hospitals kept the lesser cases and sent their more serious ones to the general hospitals nursed by Nightingale.

The statement that Seacole 'provided soldiers with accommodation, food and nursing care' (Guy's and St Thomas') is simply contrary to Seacole's own memoir. So also is the statement of the vice-chair of the Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, that Seacole 'realized that nursing care was needed closer to the battlefront than in Scutari, so she went off and organised a British hotel that included nursing care' (Elizabeth Anionwu, 'What can Florence and Mary teach us about nursing today?' Nursing Standard website). The British Hotel closed nightly at 8 p.m. and was closed on Sundays (145), hardly the practice of a hospital or convalescent home.

Seacole describes learning, the evening of 17 June 1855, that troops were moving into position for an assault on Sevastopol, in fact the failed attempt to take the bastion at Redan the following day. She and her staff prepared supplies in the night for a pre-dawn departure:

"We were all busily occupied in cutting bread and cheese and sandwiches, packing up fowls, tongues and ham, wine and spirits, while I carefully filled the large bag, which I always carried into the field slung across my shoulder, with lint, bandages, needles, thread and medicines. (156)

"The food and drink supplies were packed upon two mules, 'in charge of my steadiest lad, and I leading the way on horseback, the little cavalcade left the British Hotel.' They went to Cathcart's Hill, which was 'crowded with non-combatants' (156). Seacole herself took what provisions she could carry to reach the reserves of Sir Henry Barnard's division which was to have stormed something, I forget what, but when they found the attack upon the Redan was a failure, very wisely abstained.

"Here I found plenty of officers who soon relieved me of my refreshments, and some wounded men who found the contents of my bag very useful." (157)

Seacole's account shows her often acting with generosity and courage. That she routinely risked her life, however, is an exaggeration. Seacole did not arrive in Crimea until March 1855, so she missed the three largest battles of the war: the Alma on 20 September, Balaclava on 25 October, and Inkermann on 5 November 1854, all of which were over in one day. The Redan assault was rebuffed in hours. The other battle at which she sold supplies and gave aid was Tchernaya, on 16 August 1855.

2. In the Wonderful Adventures Seacole never claimed to have won any medals for her war work. She evidently wore miniature medals, for they appear in a photograph and a portrait of her, but it is no crime to wear other persons' medals, and she may have done it as a lark. The website of the National Portrait Gallery only recently removed its incorrect statement related to the fine portrait it was lent of Seacole: 'The miniature medals worn in the portrait are recognisable as the British Crimea, the Turkish Medjidie and the French Legion of Honour. Mary Seacole was known to have received these honours.' Seacole biographer Jane Robinson is very clear on this matter: '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.' Robinson thought that it more likely that Mary 'distinguished herself' with the medals, and explained how easy it was to buy them (Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea. London: Constable 2005 167).

Seacole's Wonderful Adventures records no offer of honours, no trips to Paris or Constantinople to receive them. Surely we would have heard if these awards had been made, especially the Legion d'Honneur, which at the time was not given to women or non-French persons. (Its British recipients for the Crimean War are listed online at Wikipedia)

3. Seacole in her memoir never claimed any commitment to making nursing her 'life's work,' contrary to the statement of the Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Trust (3.2). When could she have possibly done so? Wonderful Adventures records her travels, featuring a lengthy stay in Panama, where she variously helped manage her brother's hotel and store and her own. By the time she lived in Britain, post-Crimea, she was old, and, in her own words, 'shaken in health' and 'wounded' from having worked 'too hard' (198). She was in her late 50s — retirement in nursing was normally then at age 60. Her memoirs show no nursing work at all in the immediate post-Crimea period. She did offer to nurse in India for the Sepoy Mutiny, and got an interview with Lord Panmure in the course (Robinson 2005 192). But the British Army sent no nurses, and the uprising was put down brutally and quickly. She enjoyed her celebrity, was much feted, converted (privately) to Roman Catholicism, and dealt with the bankruptcy of her and her partner's business. She had plenty on her plate. She returned to Jamaica for some years.

Back in England by 1870, she offered to nurse in the Franco-Prussian War, but Britain was not a party to it, and the British Army sent no nurses. Both France and Germany had nuns, and Germany also had Protestant deaconesses who nursed — they did not want nurses from England. Nor was there any need of a 'British Hotel,' for there were no British officers to serve. Seacole recorded no work as doctress or nurse in Britain, at any time, nor is any evident from contemporary sources. Her last years in England were retirement years. She died at age 76 and was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery at Kensal Rise.

4. The Memorial Statue planned for St Thomas' Hospital:
Seacole's contributions certainly deserve recognition, and a bronze statue is a fine tribute. But why St Thomas' Hospital, home of the original Nightingale School, and the base of Nightingale's decades long work to establish the modern profession of nursing? Seacole is not known ever to have set foot in the hospital, even as a patient. She did not nurse there, or in any hospital in Britain.

The Nightingale School was based for more than a century at St Thomas' (it is now at King's College Hospital). The original school influenced nursing throughout the world for Nightingale mentored visiting senior nurses and matrons from Europe and America and sent them there for experience.v

Nightingale also influenced the design of the St Thomas' buildings of her day (hit in World War II and rebuilt). It was a British pioneer of the healthier "pavilion" style of hospital, visited by architects, engineers and hospital authorities worldwide.

The planned Seacole statue is to be 3 metres in height, or taller than the statues both of Nightingale and Edith Cavell elsewhere in London. Seacole is to be shown carrying a medical bag, setting off alone, as if she were an army doctor. Yet her own description of her expeditions is quite different, for she went as a sutler or caterer, with two mule loads of food and drink for sale as well as bandages and medicines (156).

The statue is to show Seacole with 'her medals, of which she was proud … pinned to her chest' (Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal website). Again, as stated above, this is false, and Seacole herself never claimed to have won any. The real Mary Seacole is worthy of being honoured, but no honour should be based on gross misrepresentations of the person's work, or false comparisons with that of another.

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