In Search of Mary Seacole by Helen Rappaport review — the intrepid life of a great black Briton

The entrepreneur and nurse had an astonishingly rich life, but a feud with Florence Nightingale condemned her to obscurity.

A review by Ysenda Maxtone Graham for The Times of London.

A typical weekday dawns in the Crimea, 1855. The Siege of Sevastopol is in its tenth month. At Mrs Seacole’s hut at Spring Hill two miles away, the day’s cooking has started: a good Irish stew, beef on the spit, her “capital” meat pies. It’s rice pudding day. Mother Seacole’s rice pudding is legendary among the clientele. At 9am the patients start arriving — mostly navvies injured at work — and Mrs Seacole bandages their wounds, using her famed Jamaican homeopathic treatments involving pomegranate juice and cinnamon bark.

During the day army officers start rolling up, “the dandies of Rotten Row” who order copious amounts of alcohol from the bar and run up huge bills that they never pay, leading to Mrs Seacole’s eventual bankruptcy. They dote on “Old Mother Seacole” (she’s 49, but is always referred to as “old”) describing her as “a dear fat bundle of scarves with a smiling dark countenance”. Also working at this famed store is a boy nicknamed “Jew Johnny” and a mysterious girl called Sarah or “Sally” whom Mrs Seacole refers to as “my little maid” but is probably her illegitimate daughter.

I salute Helen Rappaport for taking us to this place so completely with all her imagination, research and thinking. On the day of the final battle for Sevastopol, Mrs Seacole puts on her bonnet with its bright ribbons and rides up to the battlefield on her shaggy pony, a satchel over her shoulder containing her medicines and dressings. She ministers to the dying as shells fall around her. She tends Russians as well as British — a wounded Russian throws her his religious medallion and she throws him a bag of tobacco — but she prioritises officers of the 97th, “my own regiment, known so well in my native land”, as she wrote in her bestselling, annoyingly coy memoir Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.

Seacole was rediscovered after a curious nurse in Kensal Green Catholic cemetery in the early 1970s found her grave in a state of disrepair, but a number of widely held misconceptions have attached to her life since then. This book dispels the myth that the Jamaica-born Seacole “nursed alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimea”. She did no such thing. A formidable, single-minded entrepreneur who sailed to the Crimea on her own on a commercial ship after countless rebuttals of her offers to be taken on as a nurse, she was an instinctive Good Samaritan with a lifelong urge to heal people and earn her living while she was at it.

Nightingale couldn’t stand her. The snootiness of Miss Nightingale towards Mrs Seacole is one of this book’s leitmotifs. Seacole was given a letter of introduction to Nightingale and went to visit her at her hospital in Scutari on her way to the Crimea, but was greeted with frosty politeness and made to sleep in the washerwomen’s flea-ridden quarters.

This was not just the everyday racism of a high-born Victorian woman towards an upstart “Creole” — Seacole was born in 1805 to a freed black woman called Rebecca and a Scotsman called John Grant, perhaps Rebecca’s former master. Nightingale was deeply suspicious of Seacole and profoundly disapproved of the alcoholic reputation of her hut. She had heard on the grapevine that Sarah was Seacole’s illegitimate daughter by one Colonel Bunbury. Horrors!

Rappaport believes that the reason Queen Victoria never invited Seacole to tea to thank her for her war work was that Nightingale had whispered poison into her ear. Nightingale was, Rappaport surmises, jealous of Seacole’s nickname “Mother of the Army”, a title she felt should be hers alone. She had no respect for Seacole’s Jamaican remedies. When Nightingale fell ill with fever in 1855, she refused Seacole’s offer to nurse her. “She wanted to quack me,” Nightingale would later shudder with disdain.

This is an astonishingly rich story, of which the Crimea episode was only 16 months of a restless 76-year life. It takes us from Jamaica to Panama to England to the Crimea and back again to all those places as Seacole went from place to place to set up her businesses, moving on briskly when they failed. Before and after Crimea she ran hotels in Jamaica and Panama, where she nursed British soldiers (in Jamaica) and gold prospectors (in Panama) through yellow fever and cholera, and acted as midwife to a clientele of wives. The reason why Sir John Hall, principal medical officer in the Crimea, did support her (much to Nightingale’s annoyance) was that he had been assistant surgeon to the forces in the West Indies and had developed a deep respect for the local nurses’ skills and cures for yellow fever.

Rappaport, whose previous books include The Race to Save the Romanovs and Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917, refreshingly doesn’t claim to know everything. We share her frustrations when the trail runs cold. Her title is In Search of . . . and she still is. For example, the last sighting we have of the mysterious Sarah was in the classified ads in an English newspaper, The Bazaar, in 1871: “Wanted, by a young lady, a situation as companion to a lady, or to an invalid. Address Mrs Seacole, 40 Upper Berkeley Street, Portman-Square.” That was Seacole’s London address. Was the “young lady” her daughter Sarah, now facing a bleak future as a paid companion? Rappaport hopes that this small ad might jog a contemporary reader’s memory of a photograph in a great-grandmother’s album.

It didn’t help that Seacole was maddeningly evasive in her florid memoir, which was aimed at a white Victorian readership. “It is not my intention to dwell at any length upon the recollections of my childhood,” she begins — this coyness would plunge her biographer into decades of thankless research. We would love to know, for example, when, how and where her mother gained her freedom.

Seacole is a rare surname, easier to trace. In 1836 Mary agreed to marry Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole, a white provision merchant living in Jamaica, not because she loved him, but because he was “not a well man” and needed nursing. Was Edwin the secret illegitimate son of Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton, taken in by the male midwife Thomas Seacole when Emma gave birth in Southend? This is a rumour that “won’t lie down”. In her will Mary bequeathed a diamond ring “given to my husband by his Godfather Lord Nelson”. Poor ill Edwin didn’t live long after the marriage. He’s matched and dispatched in a single page of Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands.

Then, when did Colonel Bunbury come on to the scene, if he did? We don’t know. And when and how did Seacole obtain her British Crimean Medal, which was never awarded to female civilians? Was it through the back door, someone in a high place circumventing the protocols?

Seacole’s financial situation is similarly a mystery. Thanks to those officers not paying their bills, and also to the poor acumen of her business partner Thomas Day, Seacole was hauled before a bankruptcy court in London and given two guineas a week to live on. In 1857 the journalist William Howard Russell launched the Seacole Fund in a letter to The Times, praising her as a heroine fallen on hard times. There were in fact two Seacole Funds, Queen Victoria donating £50 to one of them.

(When Seacole applied to be a nurse in France during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Nightingale wrote a letter containing a put-down of her that successfully blocked her application. “A shameful or ignorant imposture was practised on the Queen who subscribed to the ‘Seacole Testimonial’.”)

When Seacole died in 1881, her estate turned out to be worth today’s equivalent of £320,000, so perhaps Nightingale was right, and Seacole had been squirrelling away money all that time while pleading poverty. This wonderfully informative book presents Seacole in all her roundness: a ministering angel who was no angel; a driven woman who basked in adulation, and was forgotten for 90 years after her death.
In Search of Mary Seacole: The Making of a Cultural Icon by Helen Rappaport, Simon & Schuster, 416pp; £20

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