The Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal, the organization spearheading the campaign for a statue at St Thomas’ Hospital, is the source of flagrant misinformation.
The statue is to give a more glamorous and dramatic depiction of Seacole’s life than the facts warrant, for example: “When Mary Seacole nursed the sick and wounded on the frontline in the Crimea she did not ask for, or expect any reward. She did it for the British troops, who she loved and admired” (www.maryseacoleappeal.org.uk/memorial.htm). But Seacole’s account of her motives for going say rather that, when she learned that troops were leaving England for the East, “No sooner had I heard of war somewhere than I longed to witness it” (WA 73). Her chief interest was always in the officer class, the one she had served in Jamaica, the guests at her boarding house (WA 81). She also served soldiers, but the claim that this was her prime concern is simply untrue, given her own words.
The distinguished artist for the proposed statue, Martin Jennings, was apparently given false information as background, for his “Concept” describes Seacole, as well as being “intrepid, determined, dynamic” (true), as being on an endless intellectual journey “to find remedies for the sick” (Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal online). Seacole herself, however, credited her mother for her training in herbal remedies (WA 2), and reported no subsequent experimentation, apart from adding lead acetate to unspecified other remedies for cholera (WA 31).
The artist explained that “the sculpture represented her marching defiantly forward into an oncoming wind.” But Seacole did not set off alone on foot, as he wishes to depict her, but she went on horseback with two mule-loads of provisions for sale, and at least one employee to manage the mules. Her main function at the Crimean War was her business as a “sutler,” or supplier of food and drink and caterer, but this is entirely omitted, as is the role of her business partner.
The artist repeats the usual false statement about Seacole having been awarded medals: “Her medals, of which she was proud, are pinned to her chest,” but now she has won them the year before the end of the war! Seacole did indeed carry a bag of medications, which the artist plans to depict, but it was not the conventional doctor’s bag (she never claimed to be a doctor), but one she slung over her shoulder; her main supplies were loaded on the mules.
Finally, “At 3m high the figure will be taller than other London statues of nurses, of Florence Nightingale in Lower Regent Street” (actually Waterloo Place) “and Edith Cavell in St Martin’s Place, both of which are around 2.6m high.” The oneupmanship is obvious. The height was to ensure that the statue could be seen from Westminster Bridge, or well before anyone reached the hospital. Seacole’s replacement of Nightingale as the founder of nursing was to be to be very visible.
A major reason for wanting St Thomas’ Hospital as the site for the proposed Seacole statue is that it faces Parliament. But Seacole was never concerned with political reform, while Nightingale was. It was Nightingale who worked mightily on two royal commissions post-Crimea, the first to improve conditions for British soldiers and reduce hospital death rates generally, the second to improve health in India. Nightingale did a brief to a Parliamentary committee on the reform of the workhouse infirmaries. As early as 1864 she was so visionary as to call for hospital care for the poor to be of equal quality to that available to the rich.
Nightingale was a believer in the political process. She explained that she, like the great Italian independence leader Garibaldi, could not pass the Houses of Parliament without tears coming to his eyes. She is the one who should be keeping a watchful eye on Parliament, reminding legislators of the great principles that inspired the National Health Service in the first place, and the need for ongoing work on hospital safety.
Simply false is the statement of Seacole’s motives for traveling to London in the fall of 1854, “to offer her services to nurse soldiers alongside Florence Nightingale, who had just left for Scutari.” But Seacole’s own memoir states that she went to London to look after her gold stock, “a visionary gold speculation on the river Palmilla,” arriving soon after the battle of the Alma, or a month before Nightingale left (74). The statement exaggerates in referring to the “glowing references from senior medics in Jamaica and Panama,” despite which “her offer of help was rejected five times.” But Seacole gave only the initials of one doctor as a referee, a former doctor of the gold mining company in West Granada (78) . She did not submit the required written application with references (theapplications are on file at the National Archives, K ew). By the time she met Nightingale at Scutari she had (she stated in her m memoir p 87) a letter from a “Dr F,” whom she had known in Jamacia. But at that point she was not seeking a job, but only a bed for the night–her plans were made for the British Hotel and her business partner already at Balaclava.
The misinformation continues that Seacole “raised the funds for her passage,” although her memoir says that she had sufficient funds to get there (74), presumably from her business in Panama, and she had a business partner, Thomas Day. The British Hotel she set up supposedly “provided soldiers with food and nursing care that included a morning dispensary.” However, as Seacole made plain in her memoir, it provided food and drink and various supplies to officers, with only a one line mention of a “canteen for the soldiery” (114). Full chapters detail the sumptuous meals and catered excursions provided for the officers. She never described anything like a “dispensary,” but explained that she sometimes left her food preparation to “dispense medicines” (140).
The Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal website is seriously misleading again in having Seacole “often” ride out to the “front line with ‘baskets of medicines of her own preparation’ to treat the sick and wounded of both sides on the battlefields.” Quite apart from the sick being in hospital, not on the battlefield, the memoir describes precisely three occasions when she rode out, for the two assaults on the Redan and the Battle of the Tchernaya. For the first assault, Seacole described the food preparation (fowls, tongues, ham, wine and spirits, cheese, sandwiches) packed in baskets loaded on mules; she also carried a bag with needles, thread and medicines (156). She could hardly have been helping Russians at the Redan, who were behind their well-fortified bastions. The battle, moreover, was over in two hours. The Russians encountered were at the Tchernaya, on 16 August 1855 (166), again a very short battle.