Online sources circulate misinformation about Seacole’s purpose, role and achievements, for example, a “History of Surgery and Anaesthesia” which describes Seacole as “the second nurse of the Nightingale era. Rejected by Florence Nightingale (some suggest because of race reasons) when the call was made by the Times newspaper for nurses to go to the Crimea.” It is wrong also about the British Hotel, which it incorrectly claimed “provided soldiers with accommodation, food, other provisions and nursing care” (an ODPs Perspective. Historyofsurgery.co.uk/Web%20Pages/0447.htm).
Facebook entries can be succinct and very wrong. For example, that “we will see the first line of prejudice; Florence Nightingale refused to send Mary Seacole to the Crimea as part of her nursing team because of prejudice” (Facebook: Franca Harrison October 13 2011: looking at Mary Seacole and Miss Nightingale).
Encyclopedia of World Biography. “Mary Seacole.”
One of the myth techniques is to name the person what you want them to be, regardless of what they were. This encyclopedia opens its entry: “British war nurse Mary Seacole…cared for the wounded and maimed,” calling Nightingale a “fellow army nurse.” Seacole’s “soldier” father, as she called him in her memoir, is here promoted to officer rank. The entry repeats the (entirely groundless) accusation that Nightingale “spread rumors that Seacole ran a brothel.”
A very speculative offer of help in the Franco-Prussian is described, with the fact that Nightingale’s brother-in-law was in the National Aid Society resulting in Seacole’s “generosity” being “spurned.” But what could she usefully have done? The British were not belligerents in the Franco-Prussian War, which took place 15 years after the Crimean War. Seacole herself, by then 65, had been retired for years. She spoke neither French nor German. Whatever her offer might have been–and there is no firm evidence of any offer–it does not seem to have been a practical one. Nightingale herself sent no nurses to the Franco-Prussian War, but did assist with other relief measures.
“Mary Seacole–Pioneering Nurse.”
The web page title gives a hint of what Patrick Vernon, organiser of the 100 Great Black Britons poll, wants to be understood about Seacole. The misinformation oddly begins with a statement that she heard “when the war began in 1854” that the solders were falling ill from “malaria and cholera.” The cholera is true, but malaria not. He added that Seacole had had experience of dealing with “these maladies,” but Nightingale not. She, Nightingale, he said to have “again” rejected Seacole’s offer of help, although Seacole’s own memoir shows that she never made any offer in their brief meeting. Seacole’s kind acts during the war are exaggerated: “she administered aid to sick and wounded soldiers, changed the soldiers’ bandages and offered them sponge cakes and lemonade,” and “even entered the battlefield, risking her own life, to help those that were suffering.” Her entering Sebastopol with her stores of refreshment is dramatized to being “the first female medic to receive a pass that allowed her entry to tend to the solders who were injured, ill and in need of food and water.” But the pass was not to a “medic,” but “to pass Mrs Seacole and attendants, with refreshments for officers and soldiers in Redan and Sebastopol” (173).
A Guardian online story has the unusual error of placing Seacole’s British Hotel in Turkey (it was in the Crimea), but repeats the usual errors in crediting her with providing “food and care to British soldiers close to battle lines,” and being “awarded several medals for bravery” (Tim Campbell, “A hero of the Crimean war”).
Royal College of Nursing
The Royal College of Nursing has a website section celebrating the Mary Seacole stamp issued by Jamaica on the occasion of the 1991 International Council of Nurses meeting there. On the stamp is a picture of the bronze bust displayed at Mary Seacole House, headquarters of the Jamaican General Trained Nurses Association. It is a reproduction of the bust at the Institute of Jamaica, which prominently displays several medals–the stamp shows only the top of the ribbons for them. The description of Seacole’s work is flagrantly wrong and entirely undocumented.
There are statements given as facts that simply do not coincide with what Seacole herself said in her memoir, and for which there is no independent evidence, such as that such as that she was taught “traditional African herbal medicine and midwifery by her mother,” when her memoir never mentions African remedies or midwifery but merely calls her mother “an admirable doctress” (2), from whom she learned “a great deal of Creole medicinal art” (5).
Seacole is said to have “learned to treat cholera, yellow fever and other tropical diseases in her travels to Haiti, Cuba, the Bahamas, the USA and England,” although in her memoir she mentioned Haiti and Cuba only in passing : “I visited also Hayti and Cuba” (5), never traveled to the USA, and in the Bahamas she collected “handsome shells and rare shellwork” for sale back in Jamaica, where were “a sensation” (5). On her England trip she sold West Indian preserves and pickles (4). The RCN statement continues with Seacole supposedly learning about “surgical techniques and European medical practice” while in England, although she said not a word to that effect in her memoir.
Although the RCN account is in line with Seacole’s on her being, in the yellow fever epidemic of 1853, “asked to take on responsibility for the nursing care at the large military camp in Kingston,” she soon made it clear that she did not in fact do this, for there “was but little we could do to mitigate the severity of the epidemic” (63). This significant point the RCN failed to mention. The RCN version continues, incorrectly, that “it was here [Jamaica, 1853] that she heard from British soldiers about the dreadful conditions faced by the wounded on the Crimean Peninsula,” but the first battle on the Crimean Peninsula took place on 20 September 1854! Further, and now the year, 1854, is correct, although other points are wrong: “she decided to pay her own passage to the scene of the Crimean War, and borrowed money specifically for the purpose,” although Seacole herself said that she had sufficient money, “limited capital,” to pay her passage there, and she had a business partner, too, before she left (81).
The British Hotel in Balaclava is incorrectly said to have been a “convalescent home for officers,” in which she also ran “a free casualty ward…to provide medical treatment for the rank and file soldiers,” again not a claim Seacole herself ever made–rather she described “patients” dropping in for remedies for purchase and, after hostilities were over, and many social and sporting events in course, she treated people with injuries from them.
The legend continues with her receiving “wide recognition” for her medical treatment, although her own account makes clear that the doctors would allow her to give tea, lemonade and cake on the wharf, but not any medical treatment (101).
Seacole’s description of taking food and first aid (on three occasions), post-battle, is exaggerated into her providing “food and first aid on the battlefield for the British, French, Turkish and Russian soldiers,” becoming known “on both sides of the front as Mother Seacole.” In fact, Seacole’s account mentions the Turks only once, when she rode out to watch a skirmish, but did not take supplies to sell or first aid equipment (147-48). Russians she could only have seen after one battle, the Tchernaya–she mentioned helping “several” (166), but otherwise they were in their fortified Sebastopol, the British and French outside it. The term “battlefield” does not work well here, and the three battles for which it would, the Alma, Balaclava and Inkermann, all took place in the autumn of 1854, months before she arrived. The “Mother Seacole” expression was British, not used by the French or Turkish or Russian.
Seacole was not “awarded the Crimean Medal and the French Legion of Honour,” as the RCN statement claims, and she did not claim to have won any medals in her memoir. The picture of her on the cover of Wonderful Adventures shows no medals. She started wearing them in November 1856, back in England–whose or how she got them we do not know.
Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice
The Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice was based at Thames Valley University, which is now the University of West London. Although the centre is now closed, the historical portions of the centre’s website are online as maryseacole.com. Keywords in bold below refer to individual pages on both the past and current versions of the website.
- The website frequently shows the fine bust of Mary Seacole by Count Gleichen, which has her wearing 4 medals. However Seacole won no medals. Her biographer Jane Robinson suggested that she likely “distinguished herself” with them (Mary Seacole: The Most Famous Black Woman of the Victorian Age 167) and that Gleichen might have loaned her the medals for the sitting (192 and 214). This should be pointed out.
- “Mary Seacole was a Nurse and Carer who went to War.” Seacole was a caring person, but not a nurse; she called herself a “doctress” and claimed medical and surgical skills. In effect she practised medicine without a licence, making her own diagnoses and administering remedies; these are not normal nurse functions.
- The History of the Crimean War” section is thoroughly incorrect. “Sir Sydney Herbert” was Mr Sidney Herbert, and if he refused to see her (we have only Seacole’s memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, to say this) it should be noted that she never submitted the required written application (these are at the National Archives, Kew).
- Seacole announced the intention of opening the “British Hotel” by sending out printed cards (Wonderful Adventures 81), but she did not open a hotel, but only a hut/store, for officers.
- “Mary was up everyday by 5 a.m. busily tending soldiers until 8,” but no one ever saw her do this, and she did not claim any such schedule in her memoir. Most of her day, according to Chapters 12, 14 and 18, was spent in preparing (with 2 hired cooks) meals and catering for officers. When she had a customer for her remedies she went and got them. It would be fair to say that the British Army’s efforts to feed, clothe and nurse soldiers were grossly inadequate, but it was Nightingale who worked to change that. It is ludicrous to claim that Seacole’s sales of champagne and lobster to officers in any way improved the nutrition of ordinary soldiers.
The “About Mary Seacole” page states: “Her mother ran a boarding house for British soldiers and sailors,” but her memoir clearly describes her clientele as officers and their wives; ordinary soldiers and sailors could hardly have afforded such quarters. Her father was likely not a “Scottish army officer,” for her memoir simply says “soldier” (WA 1). Seacole described him as a godson of Lord Nelson, but her biographer made clear that there is no evidence to this effect (Robinson 30-31).
Seacole was “armed with glowing testimonials from high-ranking British military personnel…traveled to the recruitment offices in London” and was rejected “at least 4 times.” However, the only example of a testimonial letter given in her memoir is from the “late medical officer, West Granada Gold-mining Company” (77)
She “set up the British Hotel at her own cost. Here she provided nourishment and care to her beloved soldiers whom she referred to as ’my sons.’” The expression “my son” was mainly used for her officer customers. The British Hotel was an intention, but abandoned simply for the provision of food and drink.
“When the Crimean War ended abruptly, it left Mary bankrupt.” But the last battle took place on 8 September 1855, and the peace treaty was not signed until 30 March 1856, so that there was ample warning. Seacole and her partner, however, laid in expensive new supplies and made renovations, as they did a brisk business in this period with no fighting (189).
Her supporters were “from all backgrounds, ranging from ordinary soldiers to the Prince of Wales,” but lists of supporters show only the names of very high ranking officers.
“After the war, Mary was awarded several medals for bravery,” not a claim she ever made in er memoir, and absolutely without foundation.
In London after the war, she was “a confidante to some members of the Royal family.” No names are given, and none are known of.
“Key Dates concerning Mary Grant Seacole” shows a Crimea medal with 4 clasps, but she did not win one, and the clasps recognize participation.
- “Her adventures involved being a masseuse to the Princess of Wales,” which may be true, but there is no evidence of this. She gave ”much needed sustenance to the wounded soldiers of the Crimean War,” but her memoir rather describes food and drink available to officers, for a price. For about a month, she gave tea, lemonade and cake to soldiers waiting for transport to the general hospitals (101), which was certainly generous and kind–but hardly the “sustenance” implied.
- 1853 Seacole was “invited to supervise nursing services at UpPark Camp in Kingston,” a statement in her Wonderful Adventures, where she goes on to indicate that she did not in fact do this (111).
- 1854: She was “rejected several times” to join Nightingale, but Seacole never actually submitted an application, and her memoir reports a cordial meeting with Nightingale, with no request for a job (90-91). She “sails for the Crimea to nurse British soldiers fighting there.” However, her memoir explains that she went to establish a mess table and comfortable quarters for convalescing officers (81).
- 1855 Seacole “successfully raised funds to pay for her passage to the Crimea, where she set up the British Hotel. This provided soldiers with accommodation, food, other provisions and nursing care.” But, according to her memoir, she had money from her last business to pay her way (74): she planned to set up the “British Hotel,” but did not; she never provided accommodation to anyone, officers or soldiers, and her food and provisions (lobster, champagne), were clearly for officers.
- 1857: She was “stopped from going to India,” but there is no evidence she ever had any serious plan to go. Her sister reported to Anthony Trollope that Queen Victoria told her her life was “too precious” but there is no documentation on this.
- 1873: Seacole was “masseuse to the Princess of Wales,” possibly, but there is no evidence showing this.
- 1881: reviewing obituaries, the entry refers to her receiving “English, French, Russian and Turkish decorations,” without noting that this was not true.
“Gallery” has pictures of Seacole wearing medals, with no explanation that these were never awarded to her.
“Medicine in the Victorian Age:” “Mary’s skill as a nurse was put to the test in the 1850’s by an outbreak of cholera.” If so, it was a test she failed. She claimed few cures, and one she claimed thanks to the use of lead acetate (31), a substance that dehydrates, and thus speeds up and intensifies the illness.
The Punch cartoon shows Seacole in an army hospital selling or giving away the magazine, with no explanation that she did not nurse in any army hospital, and that the picture was a cartoon in a humour magazine, not a literal description (she is shown at the bedside of a soldier).
“Mary’s Journey ends in London” shows a map, and again the bust with medals. But Seacole gave as the reason for her trip to London in autumn 1854 the need to deal with her gold mining stocks (74). She left for London from Panama, not Jamaica, as the map suggests, so that most of her journey was for business on her gold stocks; the trip from London to the Crimea was for her planned business for officers.
“Mary Seacole Statue Appeal.” “Mary Seacole was a celebrated Crimean nursing heroine,” but she was not a nurse or a heroine, although she was a celebrity on her return to London.” Further, she was “left out of the Crimean War memorial in London” because she was not white, as Nightingale was. But Nightingale was a major figure in the Crimean War, leading the first team of British women to nurse in war, the author of major works analyzing what went wrong in that war and recommending reforms, and founding the first secular training school for nurses from the proceeds of a fund raised in her honour during the war. Seacole did nothing comparable, so there is no reason to include her in the Crimean War memorial.