In Praise of Mary Seacole21 January 2013
Poor Mary Seacole. A century and a half after she was celebrated across Britain, a mean-spirited campaign is underway to expunge her from the national curriculum, and to prevent her statue being erected in sight of Parliament. And because we have a building in her honour, I’m in receipt of unsolicited “advice” from the Nightingale Society as to how we should – and should not – acknowledge Mary Seacole’s role in history.
Mary Seacole was born in Kingston Jamaica in 1805. In 1853, after a brave and pioneering trip to Panama, among other places, she travelled to London to volunteer as a nurse in the Crimea. Despite having letters of recommendation from Jamaica and Panama, she was turned down repeatedly by the War Office in favour of more “conventional” volunteers. Undeterred, Mrs Seacole set off for the Crimea using her own resources and set up a “hotel” (then a general term for anywhere providing food, lodgings and support), built from salvaged driftwood and abandoned building materials, and intended as “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”.
In taking this course, Mrs Seacole exposed herself to criticism and opprobrium as a “sutler” – the hawkers who followed nineteenth century armies to sell provisions and services to troops, often at exorbitant prices. Indeed, this prejudice follows her today, in the implication that her ghost belongs at the service entrance to hospitals and health facilities, rather than in the front lobby. But many of her contemporaries knew otherwise as The Times, then a pillar of the establishment, reported on 26 September 1855: “Mrs. Seacole…doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle-field to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessings.”
Our new building for Health and Social Care was named for Mary Seacole when it opened in 2006. As with similar facilities in other universities, there’s no specific association with Salford; this was the popular choice of our employees, to mark the contribution of a significant individual to the development of health care. This recognition is as justified now as it was seven years ago.
Mrs Seacole is also distinguished as the author of the first known autobiography of a black woman to be published in Britain (in 1857). No autobiography is “truth”, and I’m sure that The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands is no exception. It’s a great read, and still readily available both to purchase, and free online. It’s Preface, by the Times’ war correspondent W.H. Russell, is as good as any commendation:
“If singleness of heart, true charity, and Christian works; if trials and sufferings, dangers and perils, encountered boldly by a helpless woman on her errand of mercy in the camp and in the battle-field, can excite sympathy or move curiosity, Mary Seacole will have many friends and many readers. She is … a plain truth-speaking woman, who has lived an adventurous life amid scenes which have never yet found a historian among the actors on the stage where they passed. I have witnessed her devotion and her courage; I have already borne testimony to her services to all who needed them. She is the first who has redeemed the name of “sutler” from the suspicion of worthlessness, mercenary baseness, and plunder; and 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”.
And, more recently, a nod from Salman Rushdie: “See, here is Mary Seacole, who did as much in the Crimea as another magic-lamping lady, but, being dark, could scarce be seen for the flame of Florence’s candle” .
Mary Seacole The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.
Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, page 292.