I have witnessed her devotion and her courage; I have already borne testimony to all who needed them...I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.
— Sir William H Russell (1820 - 1907) The Times War Correspondent.

 

She was turned down by the War Office, rejected by the Quarter Master General’s Department and refused by the Medical Office....No-where was the establishment’s attitude more clearer than amongst the women recruiting for Florence Nightingale’s army hospital in Turkey.
— Mary Seacole: The Real Angel of Crimea, Movie, Channel 4 UK, 2005

When you think of nursing heroines in history, chances are, Florence Nightingale is the only one that comes to mind. Less well known is Mary Seacole, who also served in the Crimean War (1853-1856), as did Nightingale.

I discovered Seacole's history in the Crimean War for the first time this year, in the course of researching Nightingale's medical achievements.

In June 2016, six months ago, a monumental statue of Seacole was erected in London at St Thomas Hospital, overlooking the River Thames across from Parliament, the very same hospital where Florence Nightingale established her nursing school in 1860.

Mary Seacole's life and upbringing could not be more different to Nightingale's. When Seacole served as a combat nurse in the Crimean War, she did not enjoy the same privileges or official government support that Nightingale did.

Seacole's application to volunteer as a hospital nurse to help British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War was overwhelmingly rejected by the British establishment which included Florence Nightingale's team of nurses heading for Turkey.

Regardless, Seacole pressed forward and made her own way, heading direct to the battlefield of the Crimean War and set up a canteen she called the British Hotel.

Meanwhile, Florence Nightingale served in her hospital in Scutari, Turkey, across the Black Sea, at a safe distance from the battle scenes.

Once Seacole reached Crimea, she earned the admiration and respect of the soldiers she helped, and those who witnessed her nursing. She earned the name "Mother Seacole" and the soldiers became her 'sons'. She cared for them with kindness, nursing the sick, the injured and dying soldiers on the battlefront. Her knowledge of herbal remedies in the 1800s learned at the feet of her Jamaican mother, helped save the lives of soldiers.

Her devotion to the soldiers and their care is best expressed by Seacole herself in her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole, in this quote:

I used to think it was like having a large family of children ill with fever, and dreading to hear which one had passed away in the night.
— Mary Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole, 1856

When she returned to Britain at the end of the Crimean War, when peace brought her financial ruin, those same soldiers, many of them officers and members of the aristocracy, came to her rescue. They held fundraisers and celebrated her service and spread the news of her service in newspapers at the time.

In 2004, Seacole, who born in 1805 and died 14 May 1881, was voted the greatest black Briton of all time.

On Friday 14 October 2016, Google celebrated the life and legacy of Mary Seacole with her own Doodle.

Both Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale served as nurses with clear distinction in the Crimea War. Florence oversaw the management of her hospital in Turkey.  Seacole served as a combat nurse, going direct to the battlefield, risking her life to do so.

Florence Nightingale became national heroine, although her work was essentially hospital management, while Mary Seacole combined a profitable canteen business in the Crimean with combat nursing.
— Lambert, Andrew. "BBC - History - The Crimean War". bbc.co.uk. N.p.,2011.

Who was Mary Seacole?

In 2004, Seacole, who died in 14 May 1881 at the age of 76, was voted the greatest black Briton of all time.

On Friday 14 October 2016, Google celebrated the life and legacy of Mary Seacole with her own Doodle.

Born Mary Grant in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica, to a Scottish military soldier and a mixed race Jamaican mother, Mary Seacole. Biographers have pointed out that she was very proud of her Scottish roots and identified strongly with her Scots side.

At the age of 49 or 50, at her own personal cost, she made her way out to the Crimea battlefield, after being rejected by the British authorities including Florence Nightingale's recruiting assistant.

By all accounts, ever optimistic and confident, Seacole refused to let Victorian Britain define her role in society or dictate what she could or couldn't do. So, she followed her inclination and left for the Crimea, where she opened a hotel and served as a combat nurse.

I have never been long in any place before I have found my practical experience in the science of medicine useful. Even in London I have found it of service to others. And in the Crimea, where the doctors were so overworked, and sickness was so prevalent, I could not be long idle; for I never forgot that my intention in seeking the army was to help the kind-hearted doctors, to be useful to whom I have ever looked upon and still regard as so high a privilege.

But before very long I found myself surrounded with patients of my own, and this for two simple reasons. In the first place, the men (I am speaking of the "ranks" now) had a very serious objection to going into hospital for any but urgent reasons, and the regimental doctors were rather fond of sending them there; and, in the second place, they could and did get at my store sick-comforts and nourishing food, which the heads of the medical staff would sometimes find it difficult to procure. These reasons, with the additional one that I was very familiar with the diseases which they suffered most from, and successful in their treatment (I say this in no spirit of vanity), were quite sufficient to account for the numbers who came daily to the British Hotel for medical treatment.
 - Mary Seacole. "
Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole", 1857. 

Credit: By Sjwells53 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10013063

Briefly on Crimean War 1853 to 1856

To fully appreciate Mary Seacole's bravery, the Crimean War sustained significant loss of life and injured. It's reported that more than 21,000 British soldiers died on the battlefield. This war was a battle between the Russian Empire and the allied forces of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and the Italian Kingdom of Sardinia (pre-Italy). In the end, Russia lost.  In total, across the nations, it's estimated that upwards of 290,000 died.  The Crimean War is reported to have set the stage for the First World War.

Today, Crimea remains a flashpoint of conflict, this time between Russia and Ukraine. It is on Ukraine soil but it is occupied militarily by Russia who went to war with Ukraine, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths. Russia maintains it will never give back Crimea. The international community responded in support of Ukraine's sovereignty. The European Union and the USA imposed economic sanctions against Russia which are due to expire by mid-July 2017.


Newspaper Coverage of Seacole's Death in 1881

In life, her compassionate care on the battlefields of Crimea were extolled by those who were there. She also recounted her wartime experiences at Crimea in her autobiography, titled The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole.

On her passing on the 14th May 1881, her death was announced in newspapers throughout the British Empire including England, Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand.

Here is one tribute from one of the English papers:

The death is announced of Mrs Mary Seacole, who greatly distinguished herself as a nurse and in hospitals during the Crimean War. She established a mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent soldiers at Balaclava, and was present at many battles, and at the risk of her own life, often carried the wounded off the field.
At Sebastopol, she was stricken with cholera, and after the Peace, she returned to England, ruined in fortune and injured in health. A fund, of which the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Duke of Cambridge were patrons, was started on her behalf and the sum raised enabled her to end her days in ease. She was a Creole, born in Jamaica early in the present Century.
 - Western Morning News, Devon, England, Monday 23 May 1881

 



Google Doodle's Tribute: Friday 14 Oct 2016

Today we celebrate Mary Seacole, the Jamaican/Scottish nurse widely known to the British Army as “Mother Seacole.” She learned the ways of herbal medicine from her mother, a “doctress” well-versed in traditional Caribbean and African herbal remedies. Despite the challenges she faced as a woman of mixed race in the 1850s, she began experimenting with medicine under her mother’s guidance at one of the best facilities in Kingston, Jamaica. She moved to Gorgona, where she briefly ran a women’s-only hotel before she set off on a journey that would cement her place in history.

When the Crimean War broke out, Mary’s application to assist was refused despite her nursing experience. Determined to help, she used her own limited resources to travel and set up a hotel behind the lines in Crimea. Here, she tirelessly tended to the curing and comforting of wounded soldiers coming off the battlefield and people from all walks in need: “The grateful words and smiles which rewarded me for binding up a wound or giving a cooling drink was a pleasure worth risking life for at any time.”

 


Who Remembered Mary Seacole ?

St Thomas' Hospital, London, June 2016: Statue of Mary Seacole unveiled. Photo Credit: Nursing Times.

The British establishment figure who started the ball rolling to get recognition for Mary Seacole was Lord Clive Soley of Hammersmith, Chairman of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal. In 2014, he wrote online about how he found out about the forgotten nurse from the Crimean War:

I became involved in 1979 when I was MP for Hammersmith. A group of Caribbean women who had served in the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service during the Second World War asked me to help them identify Mary Seacole’s grave in St Mary’s Cemetery, Kensal Green. Many of these women had serviced the anti-aircraft guns and balloons that were deployed in Wormwood Scrubs from 1939.
— Lord Soley of Hammersmith, Chairman of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal.

Controversy Surrounds the Acknowledgement Given to Seacole

There is a vocal and active group of people, more like activists, who are deeply opposed to the recognition given to Mary Seacole, and they've created organisations and websites dedicated to removing Mary Seacole from her place in history. They have published their claims in newspapers and medical journals. 

It's as though the legacy of Florence Nightingale can't shine unless Mary Seacole goes away. 

I've read the claims online and researched ones where they quote historical newspaper searches or evidence that can be easily verified. I don't wish to use any more time on this, because once time's gone, it's gone. Suffice to say, it's clear that their claims were untrue or don't make sense. There seems to be an underlying ideology, outside of the realm of facts, driving their resistance. 

The best insight into their thinking and attitudes is Guardian's interview last year with Martin Jennings, the sculptor for the monumental statue of Mary Seacole.

Why Mary Seacole matters

Let both Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole stand as heroines of the Crimean War. After all, if the soldiers they helped during the Crimean War could speak from beyond the grave, they would pay tribute to them too...never mind, the detractors.

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