Two BBC films continue to circulate the errors of Smith and Small to large audiences worldwide. Media coverage of the films, in turn, exaggerates the accusations, for example, on the first BBC film, “Nightingale’s nursing ‘helped kill soldiers’” (Richard Brooks, The Sunday Times 8 July 2001:14) and on the second BBC film, “The Liability with a Lamp” (Stuart Wavell, The Sunday Times 1 June 2008:5).
The Seacole statue campaign builds on 30 years of false statements and slurs. The Channel 4 film on Seacole uses Small’s bizarre conclusion that Nightingale was a demon not an angel, responsible for thousands of deaths, so that her rival now becomes, as the film is titled, “Mary Seacole: The Real Angel of the Crimea.”
Seacole, however, never attacked Nightingale, so that one asks, how is she honoured by campaigns of misinformation, both about her own work and Nightingale’s?
BBC Knowledge and the Times
The film on Seacole broadcast by BBC Knowledge in 2000 and rebroadcast in 2005, “Mary Seacole: A Hidden History” is woefully lacking in “knowledge” and “history,” favouring fiction and speculation. It seems not so much that Seacole has been “hidden” from history as that the facts available about her, and her own frank account have been ignored. The film itself is flagrantly wrong, and this Times story about it adds to the spread of misinformation promoting Seacole and denigrating Nightingale. It opens with “The true heroine of the Crimean War was not Florence Nightingale but a Jamaican healer.” Nightingale’s “legendary” status was false: “the ‘lady with the lamp’ was not really the best-loved nurse,” but Seacole. Nightingale is even accused of having walked past the beds of officers “without even a word,” “contrary to her popular image.” That her work was almost exclusively with ordinary soldiers, not officers, is not noted. A non-sequitur, the story next has Seacole going “into the war zone, armed with bandages and medicines to tend casualties,” ignoring her own description of taking food and drink by the mule load, to customers of various sorts, mainly spectators.
The story boosts the Jamaica boarding house of Seacole’s mother for officers and their wives (WA 2) into a “boarding house and dispensary for British soldiers.” And, while Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures proudly relates, and at length, the fare made available to the officers, at a fee, this story has her providing the food to the men—without explaining how they could have afforded such treats:
Her establishment, well stocked with linen, salmon, lobsters, oysters, game, wild fowl, eggs, cigars, alcohol and tobacco, as well as more prosaic items, was a hit with the men, as was her maternal hands-on care of the sick and wounded.
Seacole herself described leaving her kitchen to tend to customers at her store (140), but her “patients” were all walk-ins, not the seriously ill or injured.
A small point, the Times account mistakenly has the Crimean War breaking out in 1853, when in fact war was not declared until March 1854, soon after which troops sent to the East, but the first battle did not take place until September 1854. It repeats the frequent error of Seacole returning to England “proudly bearing four medals” none of which was awarded to her. The Times story throughout gives Seacole credit for Nightingale’s attributes and work, whose mission was to the ordinary soldiers. Seacole was primarily a businesswoman, whose customers were overwhelmingly officers. When acting as doctress she treated both officers and soldiers, and gave her services without a fee for those in need–obviously soldiers, not officers.
Another BBC short presentation for children is misleadingly titled “Primary History,” suggesting that it might have some facts from primary sources. However, it opens with:
Mary Seacole went to the Crimean War to help British soldiers. She nursed sick and wounded soldiers. When battles were raging, she gave everyone food, blankets, clean clothes and kindness.
The presentation gives no sources at all in support of these fictions, and of course Seacole herself never claimed to have given “everyone food, blankets, clean clothes,” etc., at any time, let alone when “battles were raging.” Nightingale, however, who is not mentioned, organized food, blankets and clean clothes for soldiers, although they were not given out “when battles were raging.”
BBC Famous People
The BBC “Famous People” series not only spreads misinformation by word but also by picture, manufacturing false claims for Seacole’s work both in Jamaica and in the Crimean War. Seacole is not merely said to have been a “black nurse,” contrary to her own self-identification, but actually is depicted as a black nurse, complete with uniform. Her mother is described as a “nurse” who treated people with local medicines and herbs, while Seacole called her mother a “doctress” (WA 2). The BBC misinformation continues with Seacole opening a “hotel” in Jamaica where she “cared for ill soldiers and their families,” when she herself called it a boarding house, and named officers and their wives as her customers, and they were normally in good health. Soldiers lived in barracks.
The Crimean War misinformation begins with a mis-statement as to its beginning (for the British and French 1854, not 1853) and Seacole’s desire “to help the wounded soldiers,” when she herself described only a vague longing “to witness” war (WA 73), to which she later added the ambition of becoming a “heroine” (WA 76).
“Famous People” gives to Seacole Nightingale’s work on improving the nutrition and living conditions of ordinary soldiers. Oddly it has Seacole selling ordinary soldiers “things they “needed” such as “tins of soup, saddles and boots,” contrary to her own description of selling tins of salmon and lobster (WA 179, with no soup mentioned), to officers of course. And, while a cavalry officer might want a new saddle, an ordinary soldier hardly would, or could have afforded one.
She is depicted in a nurse’s uniform, at the bedside of a soldier, although she never wore a uniform at any time in her life and did not work in any hospital. She is shown serving food on a tray, when in fact the nurses did not serve food at the bedside, but only helped those who could not eat by themselves.
The BBC’s Famous People has Seacole winning medals from “Britain, Turkey and France” for her “bravery,” a claim she never made in her memoir. The fine bust of her by Gleichen, which makes the medals prominent is shown. Again, there is no law against her wearing medals she did not win, but it is quite wrong for any author to broadcast this fiction.