Jamaican-born Mary Seacole (1805-81), voted top of the list of the 2004 ‘100 Great Black Britons’ poll, is now slated to replace Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) as the true ‘heroine’ of the Crimean War. She is to be honoured as no less than the ‘Pioneer Nurse’ with a massive statue to be erected at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. This in spite of the strong links between Nightingale and the hospital, her base for over 40 years. It was there she established the first secular school for nurses in 1860 with funds raised in her name for her work in the Crimean War during the conflict of 1854-56. The Nightingale School operated for over a century from the hospital, whose redesign in the 1860s Nightingale also influenced.
At three-metres high, as the Seacole campaign points out, the planned monument designed by Martin Jennings will be visible from the Houses of Parliament across the Thames and taller than the statue of Nightingale at Waterloo Place and that of Edith Cavell in St Martin’s Lane.
Fundraising for the Seacole statue is supported by an audacious campaign, employing the same Seacole myths used to persuade the Guy’s-St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust to give over the hospital site. This permission was granted by its board of directors at a closed-door meeting in 2007, with no consultation with experts, the hospital’s governors or staff. The Lambeth Planning Committee, which approved the site at a meeting in April 2012, had no mandate to consider the merits of the statue or its message but only the technicalities of site, about which there was no objection.
The ‘history’ issued by the Guy’s-St Thomas’ NHS Trust in support of its decision brings several, now standard, fictions together. It credits Seacole with providing ordinary soldiers in the Crimean War ‘with accommodation, food and nursing care’ and with winning four medals for her ‘courage and compassion during the war’. It fails to mention any hospital in which Seacole ever nursed, trained or sent nurses, but simply asserts that ‘Britain’s black heroine’ gave her ‘life’s work’ for the ‘early development’ of nursing (Karen Sorenson, ‘Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Update’, July 20th, 2011).
The statue is to show Seacole with medals won for bravery, resolutely walking to the battlefield to treat the wounded, all points that feature in the makeover myth but do not survive a reality check. Seacole won no medals, nor ever claimed to have done so. She evidently wore three or four medals when back in London, including the Légion d’honneur. It was not at the time a crime in the UK to wear military medals other than one’s own – it has been since 1955.
Pictures speak louder than words. Many images of Seacole now depict her as a hospital nurse in a blue-and-white uniform. Black nurses today could well identify with this current portrayal of Seacole – she looks like an early version of a Jamaican NHS nurse. Yet she never wore any hospital uniform, for she never worked in a hospital. In the Crimea she dressed flamboyantly, as befitted the hostess of a restaurant.
White guilt is the likely explanation of this Seacole promotion and British whites have a lot to feel guilty about. Keenness for a heroic black role model is understandable, but why the denigration of another woman? Seacole herself had no grudge against Nightingale.
The vilification of Nightingale
The campaign promoting Seacole over Nightingale builds on 30 years of books, articles and films denigrating the latter. While she always had detractors, the serious assault on Nightingale’s reputation can be dated to 1982, with the publication of the Australian historian F.B. Smith’s Florence Nightingale: Reputation and Power (Croom Helm, 1982). The next major hit came in 1998 with Florence Nightingale: Avenging Angel (Constable, 1998) by a retired management consultant Hugh Small, which argues that Nightingale was actually responsible for the high death…