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.
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.