The Black Florence Nightingale and the Making of a PC Myth

Guy Walters, Daily Mail (London), December 30, 2012

She 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 Crimea’s bloody battlefields, she is said to have saved the lives of countless wounded soldiers and nursed them to health in a clinic paid for out of her own pocket.

Her name was Mary Seacole, and today she is almost as famous as that other nursing heroine, Florence Nightingale.

Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole

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.

Schoolchildren are taught about her achievements and for many, Seacole, born in Jamaica in 1805 to a white Scottish officer called Grant and a Creole woman from whom Mary learned her ‘nursing skills’, 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 – larger than the statue of Florence Nightingale near Pall Mall – will show Seacole marching out to the battlefield, a medical bag over her shoulder, a row of medals proudly pinned to her chest.

There’s just one problem: historians around the world are growing increasingly uneasy about the statue, amid claims the adulation of Seacole has gone too far.

They claim her achievements have been hugely oversold for political reasons, and out of a commendable – but in this case misguided – desire to create positive black role models.

Now Seacole is at the centre of a new controversy with the news that the story of her life will no longer be taught to thousands of pupils.

Westminster Education Secretary Michael Gove has decreed that instead they will learn about traditional figures such as Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill.

So is it unfair to reduce her standing in this way? Not according to several historians.

‘The hype that has built up surrounding this otherwise worthy woman is a disgrace to the serious study of history,’ declares William Curtis of the Crimean War Research Society.

His views are shared by Major Colin Robins, a Fellow of the Historical Society who recently wrote a paper for an academic journal stating that Seacole is the ‘subject of many myths’, arguing that numerous ‘facts’ concerning her life are simply untrue.

Indeed, Major Robins singles out the teaching of some of the stories about Seacole as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘certainly not history’.

Meanwhile, leading the charge against the statue being placed at St Thomas’s is Lynn McDonald, a history professor and world expert on Florence Nightingale, who feels Seacole is being promoted at the expense of Nightingale.

‘Nightingale was the pioneer nurse, not Mary Seacole,’ says McDonald.

‘It’s fine 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.’

So are these protests justified? Was the real Mary Seacole the heroine she has been made out to be?

Textbooks used for the current National Curriculum say that in her twenties, Seacole married a Jamaican merchant called Edwin Seacole and they travelled 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, 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 under bombardment. For all this, she was awarded the Crimea Medal.

After the war ended, Seacole returned to Britain, so impoverished she had to declare bankruptcy.

However, such was her reputation a benefit fund was established for her, which received the blessing of Queen Victoria. By the time she died in 1881, Seacole had retreated into obscurity and not until recently was she ‘rediscovered’ as a heroine of Crimea.

That is the version of events taught to schoolchildren in recent years. Unfortunately, many key details are either untrue or stretch credulity to breaking point.

Part of the problem is that much of the historical record concerning Seacole comes from her autobiography, which contains downright inventions, including meetings with people whom she could never have encountered.

Other key details have been embellished or invented by contemporary accounts. And although Seacole is championed as a black heroine – voted greatest Black Briton of all time in a 2004 poll – she was actually three-quarters white.

Her mother was mixed race and her father white. In her book, Seacole claims her skin is more ‘yellow’ than black, and she displayed more pride in her white Scottish ancestry than her black Jamaican heritage.

Furthermore, although one observer noted that she was ‘a few shades darker than the white lily’, her skin colour seems to have attracted remarkably little attention from those she helped in the Crimea.

However, today, Seacole’s skin colour is seen as being vitally important – and stated as the reason the War Office rejected her offers of assistance.

Seacole did wonder whether she was a victim of racism: ‘Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?’ she asked.

But although race could have been a factor, Seacole was more likely to have been rejected because of her age – she was 50 when she volunteered – and the type of home-made medicine she practised, which was regarded as quackery by the medical establishment.

Seacole herself admitted that when she treated the sick in Panama she made ‘lamentable blunders’ so she ‘lost patients which a little later I could have saved’. She even administered highly toxic lead acetate as an attempted treatment for cholera.

And she knew her lack of qualifications made the Army wary. ‘I am not for a single instant going to blame the authorities who would not listen to the offer of a motherly yellow woman,’ she wrote.

Another myth beloved of the politically correct telling of Seacole’s story is that her offers of help were personally rejected by Florence Nightingale. Once again, this is untrue.

In her autobiography, Seacole says she was not interested in working at Nightingale’s hospital at Scutari and instead only asked the celebrated ‘Lady of the Lamp’ for a bed for the night, which was duly granted.

Throughout her life, Seacole spoke warmly of Nightingale, although the feeling was not mutual. Nightingale regarded Seacole’s British Hotel ‘as something approaching a ‘bad house”, and believed that although she was ‘kind to the men . . . and did some good’, she ‘made many drunk’.

‘Anyone who employs Mrs Seacole,’ Nightingale wrote, ‘will introduce much kindness – also much drunkenness and improper conduct, wherever she is.’

Yet if the haughty Nightingale cared little for her, there is no doubt Seacole was a favourite among the men. Despite its high prices, her ‘hotel’ (more a glorified hut) was a popular place to eat, drink . . . and drink some more.

‘All the men swore by her,’ wrote one, ‘and in case of any malady would seek her advice and use her herbal medicines, in preference to reporting to their own doctors.’

But the idea that she ran a clinic or some sort of hospital is a gross exaggeration.

There was no accommodation at the ‘hotel’, and although she may have dispensed herbal home-made medicines to alleviate symptoms of ailments such as diarrhoea, the idea that a single woman working alone and away from a hospital could have done anything to combat an illness as deadly as cholera is far-fetched in the extreme.

In truth, Mary Seacole was more of a mother figure to the officers and men. She was well-liked and she undoubtedly did at some point go onto a battlefield dispensing comforts such as wine and doing her best to deal with the odd injury.

It was her popularity that led to a benefit fund being set up for her when she returned bankrupted to Britain – much to the chagrin of Nightingale, who felt Queen Victoria had been misled into supporting the campaign.

‘A shameful ignorant imposture was practised on the Queen,’ she wrote privately.

And 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 rolls.

Although some would say she was morally deserving of recognition –- and indeed a statue – for her warm heart and personal courage, the story of Mary Seacole has been spun out of all proportion, her memory hijacked and her achievements embellished in order to provide a role model.

It may be good politics, but it is poor history.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jessica-Bates/100000284781928 Jessica Bates

    ” ..her achievements have been hugely oversold for political reasons, and out of a commendable – but in this case misguided – desire to create positive black role models.”
    There is the problem: The desire to “create” black role models. Maybe I’m stupid, but for the life of me I can’t think of a black person I look up to. Or an hispanic while we’re at it. Okay, show of hands– help me out here. Who am I missing? Prove me wrong guys… prove me wrong..

    • The__Bobster

      Minority “heroes” tend to be scoundrels who only helped their own people at the expense of Whites.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jessica-Bates/100000284781928 Jessica Bates

        Right before my sister-in-law pulled my nieces out of their California school in order to homeschool them, I noticed they had pictures of Caesar Chavez on the wall next to George Washington. I just shook my head in disgust. We have Ford, Tesla, Edison, DIsney and on and on and on, and all they keep regurgitating is Malcolm X, or Maya Angelou and her silly rhymes. They know this, hence the giant chip on their shoulders.

        • mike

          You are correct. At some level they recognize their inadequacies.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Anglokraut Jacqueline Schumacher

      My go-to for “admirable Hispanics” is Isabella of Castille. That woman had a will of iron, and political savvy, too.

      • Andy

        Katherine of Aragon.

      • StillModerated

        I’m an El Cid man myself.

    • Tim

      I always kind of liked Ponce De Leon…

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jessica-Bates/100000284781928 Jessica Bates

        My mistake– I lived in California for years so you’ll have to forgive me— to Californians “hipsanic” means “mexican.” I should have been more specific. I am a big fan of the Spainards of old. The entire Aztec empire was taken over by 8 Spainards. The mexicans mistook them for gods! I get a kick out of that. We thought they were animals– such is life

    • Richard from Vancouver

      Whenever someone asks me who my favourite black hero, performer or celebrity is, I respond with great cheerfulness — Al Jolson! Few, and I mean very few, get my little joke.

      • Joseph

        The original “oreo cookie”.

    • StillModerated

      Aw c’mon! I can name a dozen: Shaft, Cleopatra Jones, Crowbar, Charlie Pride, Marcus Garvey, etc ad nauseam. But my favorite is Garrett Morgan — an “inventor” who was a whiz at inventing stuff White folks had already patented 20 years before. An intellectual thief. TNB.

  • Steve766

    How about schools teach that the British Empire almost single handedly ended the Atlantic slave trade and were met with strong opposition from the African chiefs who started it?

  • The__Bobster

    Her inflated story would make a great Spielboig movie.

    • mendells-selection

      the color “high yellow”

    • Oil Can Harry

      More like a George Lucas film. Just like his biopic about the similarly overhyped and overrated Tuskegee Airmen.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jessica-Bates/100000284781928 Jessica Bates

        He made that movie, and then ended up selling Star Wars to Disney for 4 billion even though it was valued at 9 billion. Hahahahahahahaha!!!! Look at the look on his sad little face as he signs everything over to Disney– oy vey!!!

        http://www.shockya.com/news/wp-content/uploads/george-lucas-disney.jpg

      • http://twitter.com/AFreespeechzone A Freespeechzone

        I think this at least the 3rd film released about the Tuskegee Airmen over the last 15 years or so; each time, elevating their status beyond reality.

        In a couple of generations, it history will be rewritten to teach that the Tuskegee Airmen are solely the reason the Allies won WWII.

        Mark my word…

  • http://www.dailykenn.com/ Daily Kenn

    I’ve often wondered why the one-drop rule always falls to the side of blacks.

    • Anne from NYC

      I’ve seen more blacks enforcing the one-drop rule than white racialists. Because, ya know, otherwise there wouldn’t be any “blacks” who achieved anything worth looking up to, right?

      Can we just call mulattoes and quadroons a separate race and be done with it? Amazingly, not all of us are dumb or brainwashed enough to let the, ahem, dark side claim us.

    • CaptainCroMag

      The most notable Blacks are almost always part White and they are only noticed in the first place because they are part Black.

      • Rasmus

        I know Africans who assert that Obama is a success because he’s part white.

      • bluffcreek1967

        True, that’s actually a very good point!

  • http://www.newnation.org/ sbuffalonative

    Blacks and their apologists will grasp at any straw to create a mythical black hero in the desperate but futile attempt to encourage such future heroes.

    • StillModerated

      For a really good chortle; google “black invention myths.”

  • Biff_Maliboo

    Re: The over-inflation of minority “heroes.”

    I graduated high school in the early 90’s. I was fortunate enough to have a history teacher who was very anti-PC. The “multicultural nonsexist all-inclusive” education nonsense was just beginning to rev itself up, but this teacher wasn’t having any of it.

    The teacher showed us the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” during 11th grade World War history class. There is a brief scene in the movie in which a black cook is shown firing an anti-aircraft
    gun. The teacher stopped the movie and made the following statement which I will remember until the day I die:

    “See that? (referring to the cook.) By the time you kids are my age, that guy’ll be credited with shooting down a Japanese Zero flown by Adolf Hitler himself.”

    We all laughed at the time, but I don’t think many of us realized what he was talking about. I sure do now, though. Once I understood the Left’s habit of elevating the trivial to universal significance and reducing the universally significant to trivia, it made sense to me.

  • mendells-selection

    Reminds me of so many recent stories. There is the one of the black person who either had some medical education from a turd world school, or none at all, and who killed people by practicing his own ignorant form of lipposuction. Or the other one, same background, who killed people by injecting automotive silicone into them. There have been a lot of stories like that. Then of course we have our black “reverends” who have no education in matters of religion but plenty of arrogance and ignorance.

  • mendells-selection

    Sounds like this woman was exactly like “Prissy’ from “Gone With The Wind” only she had a a little gin house too. One is amazed that every day every stereotype about blacks is proven true. They seem to lack the ability to understand anything more complicated than shaking their booties or making a lot of noise, the most they can accomplish is charlatanism.

  • Skutatoi

    “They claim her achievements have been hugely oversold for political reasons, and out of a commendable – but in this case misguided – desire to create positive black role models.”

    I guess Biggie and Tupac ain’t cutting the mustard, any more.

  • Dave

    1/4 black? She could have been Obama’s mother!

  • OlderWoman

    Comments on the original article were very un-PC.

  • razorrare

    This Briton Tale simly dosent compare to the Tale of MLK our Overlords here have spun…when if ever will the court ordered sealed records of MLK be allowed for all the people to see…nor does the Seacole statue compare in size to that erected for MLK…to add insult to injury the MLK statue was built in China…my guess is the Seacole statue was built by Brits.

  • bigone4u

    Mrs. Seacole sounds like a decent enough person. Thus, I have no interest in denigrating her accomplishments or arguing that her white blood led to those accomplishments. What is disgusting is what the story says about white liberals so desperate for a black heroine that they will flat out lie and inflate her accomplishments. I see nothing wrong in giving her real story 5 minutes of class time during the school year. The promotion of her is similar to the ignoring of MLK’s total lack of character and how that lack is ignored here in the USA. Something is dreadfully wrong when whites shill for MLK, Obama, etc. while doing their best to take down Washington, Jefferson, etc.

    • David Ashton

      You are right – the “white liberals” are the main problem.

  • Jeff

    George Washington Carver is a similar myth here in the US. He wasn’t a black scientist. Black, yes. Scientist, not so much. He wasn’t an inventor or a professor. He was, at most, what we would today call a motivational speaker.

    But who cares about facts!

    • Not Politcally Correct

      The fact is that George Washington Carver’s story is very legitimate. Stories that are true do not need to be discredited. We do not help our cause my attacking truths.

      • Jeff

        From what I have read, GWC’s mythos is hugely exagerated:

        http://www.network54.com/Forum/256246/thread/1088896552/last-1088896552/George+Washington+Carver-+The+Making+of+a+Myth

        He did very little, and nothing that would be considered scientific research. He was the acceptable black guy of his day and gave speeches and that’s all I can find about him. It’s nice that he went around giving nice speeches but that doesn’t make him a historical figure.

        • Jeff

          By the way, for future reference, the source article for that is:

          George Washington Carver: The Making of a Myth

          THE JOURNAL OF SOUTHERN HISTORY

          Vol. XLII, No. 4, November 1976, pp. 507-528.

          By BARRY MACKINTOSH

          MR. MACKINTOSH is a historian with the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.

          It has lots of footnotes for sources.

          I remember learning a bunch of “facts” about GWC’s accomplishments in high school but it’s all myth, not fact. He was a nobody.

  • Ulick

    Liberals:

    “We’re all the exact same and thinking less of minorities is racist…

    … but we’ll just go ahead and set a lower bar for minorties to get hired, admitted, recognized, etc.”

    It’s sheer madness and hypocrisy that we should be calling out everyday.

  • http://twitter.com/BillEBOBB1 Bill E. BOBB

    Just in time for black mythstery month

  • DK

    Where’s Lytton Strachey when you need him?

  • Tim

    Legend- A lie that has achieved the dignity of age…

  • TheAntidote

    A “Black Briton?” If this isn’t oxymoronic to you then it’s too late; your brain has been irreparably washed by political correctness.
    However, I do see much real history in the Seacole saga. Nothing to do with nursing or medicine but strongly linked to the two traditional pillars of Black achievement: Singin’ and dancin’ and food n’ drink. There is no doubt Seacole served up hearty food and cocktails in her shabeen, but is it to much of a stretch to say there was likely a lot of live entertainment? Singing, dancing, cake walks, improvisational percussive music?
    Yes, Seacole is part of history. She should be hailed as the founder of the USO (well, the British equivalent), and she should be depicted in statue with a harmonica in her mouth and in her triumphant upraised arms a skillet and a banjo.

    • Unperson

      “There is no doubt Seacole served up hearty food and cocktails in her shabeen, but is it to much of a stretch to say there was likely a lot of live entertainment?”

      This was the aspect of the story that jumped out at me, too: that this Seacole woman seems to have been, at best, a part-time caregiver during the Crimean war. Throughout more of her life she seems to have worked as a publican, a hostess, or a landlady.

      In Victorian times Britain had PLENTY of low-class pubs, flop-houses, “hotels”, etc, being run by women (think Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd). No doubt some of these tavern wenches also dressed the occasional wound when her customers got into fights; and from time to time performed other vaguely nurse-like duties. Yet somehow this kind of activity, when performed by White women, has never been considered so important to the nation and to history — as to warrant an eight-foot statue. Add one black grandparent, however, and suddenly it’s considered heroism of the highest order.

      The lengths that “progressives” will go to inflate the accomplishments of the virtually-accomplishment-free black race is both hilarious and disgusting. But mostly disgusting.

  • shattered

    Modern liberals believe a lot of false information and myths they were taught in the overpriced and badly failing modern liberal public indoctrination system. They can tell you all about Sarah Palin’s wardrobe but have no idea who Harry Reid is. They can go on for hours about Thomas Jefferson and his mythological slave children but don’t know that Abraham Lincoln argued for and supported repatriation of slaves to Africa after the Civil War. They think money grows on trees and that free trade is good for American workers. They can roll a marijuana joint and talk endlessly about all the various strains of the drug and create single mother households but have no idea how to live a sober life and build a functional family.

    • David Ashton

      Some of them are so astonished when you try to put them right on the facts, they just don’t (want to) believe you. We had the same problem with communists when you put to them facts about slave-camps and mass-murder, but at least those people were worthy opponents in their sobriety, dedication and even educational standards. Now we are dealing with a lot of “human” slop.

  • drofmanythings

    This is remindful of Margaret Mead and Rogabertha Menchu, both of whom became famous for bogus accomplishments. Mead made up the entire story of sexual bliss among the Samoans. Menchu still travels about receiving awards for her book, I, Rogabertha, which won a Nobel Prize in literature due to its can’t-lose narrative of a female, impoverished, illiterate, native, oppresed minority in Latin Ammerica, struggling against the evil Europpean Conquestadors. The problem was it was all fabricated and written by a French progressive activist…yet the award was never withdrawn. We live in an era when ever more obscure people are elevated into public glorification for make believe politically correct histories.

  • Joe

    “Westminster Education Secretary Michael Gove has decreed that instead they will learn about traditional figures such as Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill”

    I can’t wait to see the curriculum on these two. One tried to exterminate the Irish and the other tried to exterminate all of Bengal. Let’s face it, the Brits have a lot of history…99% of it truly awful.

    • David Ashton

      You can be pretty sure our left-wing Anglophobe teachers will also make these points. They will share and push your view that our entire national history from Alfred the Great – Shakespeare and Shackleton, Newton and Nelson, etc. is “truly awful”. What is the mere 1% exception (before or after the War of Independence)? Thank goodness observers like Emerson (1856) took a more enlightened view, or Alice Duer Miller (1941):

      “….I am American bred,
      I have seen much to hate here – much to forgive,
      But in a world where England is finished and dead,
      I do not wish to live.”

  • MAJ

    “On the Crimea’s bloody battlefields, she is said to have saved the lives of countless wounded soldiers and nursed them to health in a clinic paid for out of her own pocket.”
    Give me a break. In the mid-1800s I cannot see how she (alone) with the technology available could do anything more than dress a wound and hope for the best. Physicians could not do much more.
    Tell me – how on earth is this possible? Did she suddenly become a skilled trauma surgeon who operated on countless soldiers at one time? Did she invent antibiotics and not tell anyone? Did she build a CT scanner (paid for with her own money, of course) and pioneer blood transfusions (I know, don’t get me started on that, either).
    Oh, and I guess ALL the other nurses sat around chatting about various teas imported – oh, I mean ‘stolen’ – from the White-ruled colonies while Mary did all the work.
    I guess she also must have been the highest paid nurse in the British Army – a one-woman health insurance scheme – covering all those medical bills for the wounded.
    Why doesn’t someone call out the liars and revionsists on such blatant nonsense? It’s so obviously a fraud that only PC-gone-mad loonies would buy it.
    And it is so very dangerous because it really serves to demean the thousands of White nurses and soldiers and fighters who truly carried the day.