Well, this should come with a warning . . . it’s an article by Martin Robinson for The Daily Mail.
Plans to give Britain’s most famous black nurse a statue have today been blasted by Florence Nightingale fans, who say it is a ‘history hoax’ because all she did was ‘sell wine and sandwiches’ in Crimea.
Mary Seacole is set to have a £500,000 bronze unveiled in her honour at St Thomas’ Hospital in London this month – the first public memorial to celebrate the ‘black pioneer nurse’.
It will be taller than Florence Nightingale’s statue in Pall Mall and Edith Cavell’s off Trafalgar Square.
And it will be unveiled this month at St Thomas Hospital where Nightingale founded her nursing school, and Seacole has no connection to whatsoever, critics say.
Mark Bostridge, Nightingale’s biographer, wrote in a letter to The Times today: ‘Mrs Seacole’s battlefield excursions – three only she missed the major ones – took place post-battle, after selling wine and sandwiches to spectators. Mrs Seacole was a kind and generous businesswoman, but was not a frequenter of the battlefield “under fire” or a pioneer of nursing.
‘We would gladly support a Seacole statue, to honour her for her own work and not at Nightingale’s hospital.’
He added: ‘We regret that such a campaign of misinformation should have succeeded, noting that false achievements were used at all stages of the promotion’.
Former Labour MP Baron Soley has called the anger from Nightingale supporters ‘frustrating and sad’.
He added: ‘Florence Nightingale will not be undermined by this statue. As we all know, she created modern nursing, her international reputation will not be affected at all. It is not one versus the other. These are two different women, in different roles who made different contributions.’
‘Frankly, we don’t know exactly which battlefields she went out on and when, but there is strong evidence that she went out after battles and helped patch people up’.
Mary Seacole is regarded as our greatest black Briton, a woman who did more to advance the cause of nursing – and race relations – than almost any other individual.
On the bloody battlefields of the Crimea, she is said to have saved the lives of countless wounded soldiers, and nursed them back to health in a clinic she paid for out of her own pocket.
But some historians have long complained that she has become almost as famous as that other nursing heroine, Florence Nightingale.
For decades after her death in 1881, Seacole’s story was largely overlooked, but for the past 15 years, her reputation and exploits have undergone a remarkable rehabilitation.
Every schoolchild is taught about her achievements, she is a statutory part of the National Curriculum, and for many, she is seen as a secular saint.
Numerous schools, hospitals and universities have rooms or buildings named after her, and shortly she will get her greatest tribute yet: an 8ft tall bronze statue is to be erected to her memory in the grounds of St Thomas’s Hospital, facing towards the Houses of Parliament.
The £500,000 memorial will show Seacole marching out to the battlefield, a medical bag over her shoulder, a row of medals proudly pinned to her chest.
Born in Jamaica in 1805, she was the daughter of a white Scottish officer called Grant, and a Creole woman, from whom Mary learned her ‘nursing skills’. In her early 20s, Seacole married a Jamaican merchant called Edwin Seacole and travelled with him around the Caribbean, Central America and England until his death in 1844.
Seacole then set up a ‘hotel’ in the town of Cruces in Panama, where she is reputed to have treated cholera victims.
With the outbreak of the Crimean War later that year, Seacole was determined to offer her nursing services to the British, and, when she was turned down by the authorities, she paid her way to the peninsula out of her own pocket.
Once she had arrived in the Crimea, Seacole tried to work for Florence Nightingale, who supposedly turned her away.
Instead, she established her ‘British Hotel’ – part boarding house, part medical centre – from where she sold alcohol, hearty food, and ran a daily clinic, as well as tending to the sick on the battlefield, even when it was under bombardment. For all this work, she was awarded the Crimea Medal.
After the war ended, Seacole returned to Britain, so impoverished that she had to declare bankruptcy. However, such was her reputation, that a benefit fund was established for her, which even received the blessing of Queen Victoria. By the time she died in 1881, Seacole had retreated into obscurity, and it has not been until recently she has been ‘rediscovered’ as a heroine of Crimea.
But historians from around the world are growing increasingly uneasy about the statue, amid claims that the adulation of Seacole has gone too far.
They claim that her achievements have been hugely oversold for political reasons, and for a commendable desire to create positive black role models.
William Curtis of the Crimean War Research Society told the Mail previously: ‘The hype that has been built up surrounding this otherwise worthy woman is a disgrace to the serious study of history’.
Major Colin Robins, a Fellow of the Historical Society, who has written a paper for an academic journal stating that Seacole is the ‘subject of many myths’, arguing that numerous ‘facts’ concerning Mary Seacole are simply untrue.
Indeed Major Curtis singles out the teaching of some of the stories about Seacole as being ‘irresponsible’ and ‘certainly not history’.
Lynn McDonald, a history professor and world expert on Florence Nightingale, feels that Seacole is being unduly promoted at the expense of Nightingale.
She said: ‘Nightingale was the pioneer nurse and not Mary Seacole. It’s fine if you want to have a statue to whoever you want, but Seacole was not a pioneer nurse, she didn’t call herself a nurse, she didn’t practise nursing, and she had no association with St Thomas’s or any other hospital.’
BATTLE OF THE NURSES: THE LIVES OF NIGHTINGALE AND SEACOLE
1820 in Florence, Italy – she was named after the city.
William Nightingale, who inherited a fortune, and Fanny, who gave birth to their daughter while the couple were on an extended honeymoon.
She grew up in two large country houses: Embley Park in Hampshire, and Lea Hurst in Derbyshire.
Idyllic, with picnics, theatre and music. But as a devout teenager, she had what she labelled a ‘call to service’, and told her parents that she wished to be a nurse.
It was almost unthinkable that a young lady would consider this supposedly lowly occupation and, for a time, she was not allowed to follow her chosen path.
Educated mainly by her father in literature and the classics. In her 20s, Nightingale made long trips around Europe and Egypt, and she became fluent in Italian, German and French.
Despite a decade-long courtship with the poet and politician Richard Milnes, she never married.
Family life, she decided, would prevent her from carrying out the ‘work of God to do in the world’.
In 1851, her parents finally let her gain some nursing experience at a hospital near Dusseldorf, after which she spent a few months with a nursing order in Paris.
Back in Britain, equipped with a generous private income – equivalent to some £45,000 today – she became the Superintendent of the ‘Establishment for Gentlewomen during Illness’, a nursing home in London.
When war broke out in the Crimea, the papers were full of the terrible conditions at the British military hospital in Scutari. Nightingale resolved to help.
There, she took part in amputations, dressed wounds, made beds and cleaned – and, of course, she toured the wards by night with her lamp.
‘Every poor fellow’s face softens with gratitude at the sight of her,’ wrote one observer.
The biggest killer was infectious disease, which was not tackled until a sanitary commission recommended a thorough cleaning of the hospital’s sewers and ventilation systems.
Never the less, Nightingale reduced the death rate from 42 per cent to 2 per cent, according to one estimate.
She herself nearly died of the deadly ‘Crimean fever’ – which may have been the infectious illness today known as brucellosis.
She returned home to a heroine’s welcome.
A fund, worth the equivalent of £2 million today, was established in her name and used to set up the Nightingale Training School in London.
She also wrote a guide, Notes on Nursing, which laid the foundations for a modern approach to the profession.
Her contribution to nursing is lasting, and immense.
Nightingale was the first woman to be awarded the Order of Merit.
She also received the Royal Red Cross and was made a Lady of Grace of the Order of St John.
August 1910, at the age of 90.
Around 1805 – in her autobiography, she was cagey about the exact year.
‘I do not mind confessing that the century and myself were both young together,’ she wrote.
Her mother was mixed race, and ran a boarding house in Jamaica. Her father was a Scottish soldier, according to Seacole.
As a result, she was only one-quarter black. ‘I am only a little brown,’ she told readers in her memoir, ‘a few shades duskier than the brunettes whom you all admire so much.’
While Nightingale lived a life of privilege and wealth, Seacole appears to have been taken in by a ‘patroness’ while her mother worked.
She seems to have received no formal education, but she learned how to be a ‘doctress’ from her mother and practised upon her doll.
‘I had from early youth a yearning for medical knowledge and practice which has never deserted me,’ she wrote.
She married Edwin Seacole in November 1836, but he was ‘very delicate’ and died just eight years later.
According to family legend, Edwin was an illegitimate son of Lord Nelson, but this is unlikely.
The couple were childless, and she never married again.
With no formal medical training, her remedies were a mixture of folk remedies and her own concoctions – some downright dangerous.
She did appear to have some expertise in dealing with tropical illnesses, but such skills were not needed in the Crimea.
Although some claim that her business in the Crimea was a hospital, it was nothing of the sort – it was a place for officers to buy food and drink.
While she did visit sick soldiers, rather than treat them, she sold them comforting items such as a ‘cooling drink, a little broth, some homely cake, or a dish of jelly or blancmange’.
On one occasion, after the battle of Tchernaya in 1855, she is known to have carried some wounded off the field, and helped to dress injuries.
It was there that she came across a soldier who was shot in the jaw – clearly beyond help.
‘Incautiously I inserted my finger into his mouth to feel where the ball had lodged,’ Seacole recalled, ‘and his teeth closed upon it, in the agonies of death, so tightly that I had to call to those around to release it.’
When Seacole returned from the Crimea, she was impoverished and bankrupt, but popular among the soldiers, and championed by journalists.
A benefit fund was established for her, which received the blessing of Queen Victoria.
Her contribution to medicine was negligible, but she was undoubtedly a kind-hearted woman.
Contrary to many historical accounts, Seacole was never awarded a Crimea Medal for her efforts.
Although she often wore the medal, her name does not appear on any of the official records of those honoured.
Aged 76, in May 1881.