“Mary Seacole (1805-1881),” Biographies of Jamaican Personalities. National Library of Jamaica. www.nlj.gov.jm/bios-n-z

There are many factual errors of no great consequence in this entry. Only those that constitute serious misinformation will be noted here, such as that Seacole’s mission was to ordinary soldiers, which was Nightingale’s mission.

According to this entry, Seacole set out “to build her own ‘hotel for invalids’ in the Crimea.” Howevever, in her memoir she announced to “former kind friends” her plans to establish “a mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers” (WA 81), but in fact she never established any “quarters.” She gave copious details of the meals and services she made available to officers (Chapters 14 and 15), with only a cursory mention of a “canteen” for the “soldiery” (WA 114). Yet the National Library of Jamaica entry claims that “good, well-cooked food could always be had for soldiers of all ranks.”

The entry also contains a common inaccuracy, that, after the war, Seacole “was presented with the Crimean medal, which she always wore afterwards on her dress.” She may have “always” worn it, but she never won it nor any other medals, nor claimed to have. She did have her picture taken and portrait painted with medals, which she either purchased or were given to her–there was then nothing illegal in wearing someone else’s decorations. The Army Act of 1955 made it a criminal offence.

A book on Nightingale’s nursing adds misinformation on Seacole, that she not only herself nursed “on the battlefields” but had a staff of nurses with her, proving that “Florence Nightingale was not the only nurse capable of organizing hospitals in the Crimea,” and that “many nurses worked with Mary Seacole on the battlefields of the Crimea” (Kay Barnham, Florence Nightingale: The Lady of the Lamp 24). However, Seacole’s memoir reports no hiring of nurses, but only servants to run her business. When she went to the battlefield she took with her her “steadiest lad” to look after the mule loads of supplies, no nurses.

Seacole stamps

The Government of Jamaica in 1991 issued two stamps. One is thoroughly wrong, depicting Seacole in a nurse’s uniform at the bedside of a soldier, at the Scutari Barrack Hospital, the main hospital nursed by Nightingale and her  team. Mrs Seacole in her memoir described visiting there one day, and having a brief (about 5 minutes) interview with Nightingale, when she asked her for a bed for the night, as she was leaving the following morning for Balaclava. (Her business partner was waiting for her and their supplies were en route.) Nightingale found a bed for her and had breakfast sent to her. Seacole’s memoir records the encounter (pp 89-91), which clearly show that she never nursed there, or at any of the hospitals in the Crimea (it is not a mistake in hospital name, but Seacole did no hospital nursing at all).

The reference work which reproduces the 1991 stamp, “Mary Seacole Nursing in Hospital in Scutari,” explicitly states: “However, she did not participate in the care of any of the wounded soldiers in Scutari, as portrayed on the Jamaican stamp issued in 1991” (in Susanne Stevenhoved, “Mary Grant Seacole,” Six Hundred Women and One Man: Nurses on Stamps 33).

In 2004 it issued four stamps. The $70 stamp with a portrait of Seacole by Challen, wearing 3 medals, along with pictures of 4 medals: the French Legion of Honour, the Crimea Medal, the Turkish Order of the Medjidie, and the Jamaican Order of Merit, this last the only medal she was actually awarded (posthumously). The other 3 are myths. Seacole herself never claimed in her memoir to have won any medals, and the picture of her on the cover shows her without medals. She began to wear these medals post-Crimea, for the first time at her bankruptcy court appearance in November 1856, presumably to attract sympathy. It was not then illegal in the U.K. to wear other persons’ military medals, although it has been since 1955. Seacole also had her portrait painted, photographs taken of her and her bust sculpted wearing medals, again, not illegal. However to reproduce those depictions now without explanation is highly misleading.

But Seacole was not eligible for any of the 3 medals she is shown with, for she was not in the military. The Crimea medal was a service medal, for officers and soldiers only, present at particular battles. The British Army sent in nominations for the Turkish and French medals, which were awarded by senior officers on behalf of those governments. See John Horsley Mayo, Medals and Decorations of the British Army and Navy vol. 2.

The $30 stamp, “Herbal remedies and medicines,” is innocently misleading, for Seacole, as well as using herbal remedies, added toxic substances such as mercury and lead to her remedies. These she considered to be effective, but they are now known to be harmful in any dose.