Who would have thought that a statue of a West Indian-born nurse in south London has a role in today’s culture wars? Unveiled in 2016, it stands three metres tall outside the great teaching hospital, St Thomas’, and depicts Mary Seacole, an extraordinary Creole woman who was loved and renowned for giving succour to British troops, first in her native Jamaica and then in Crimea during the bloody and prolonged war with Russia of 1853-6.
It is controversial on two main counts. First, it stands on hallowed ground at the hospital where Florence Nightingale pioneered nursing as a profession after returning from Crimea. Critics deemed it wrong to site a likeness of Seacole in Nightingale’s backyard, because she had no connection with the place and only the original Lady of the Lamp was a nurse in the modern sense. In comparison, say these detractors, Seacole was a charlatan, a camp follower who acted as little more than a sutler, selling food and drink to (mainly) officers, and who boosted her reputation by publishing memoirs which may well have been ghost written.
The first charge hints at elitism: it suggests Seacole was an amateur in the increasingly specialised world of medicine. Certainly she was dismissed by the inflexible Nightingale. But that only highlights a second theme of racism. Seacole was a mixed-race woman who practised a particular sort of Jamaican medicine centred on herbs and potions, backed by tender loving care.
Over the past quarter century, as Seacole has been rediscovered, she has become a political touchstone. Since being voted Britain’s greatest black person in 2004, she has again been widely feted (fuelling the campaign which led to the statue a dozen years later) but also translated into an often contentious symbol of immigrants making their way in an inhospitable society.
Helen Rappaport has set about bringing clarity to Seacole’s life. Known as a historian of Russia, she was spurred by being asked to identify the contemporary portrait used on this book’s cover and opposite. Recognising its subject and importance, she paid £850 for it at auction, and later sold it to the National Portrait Gallery for £130,000.
Intrigued by Seacole’s story, she sought to uncover more. In broad outline it’s about a good-natured woman of mixed Scottish and Creole parentage who followed in the Jamaican tradition of running a lodging house in the island’s capital, Kingston. She took in British soldiers and gained a reputation as a caring ‘doctress’ when tropical diseases such as cholera and yellow fever descended. She was widely known and liked, but the vagaries of the Jamaican economy caused her to seek her fortune elsewhere – in Panama and Britain, where she had family.
Warm, hardy, enterprising and intensely patriotic, she volunteered to take her proven nursing skills to Crimea when war broke out. But she was given short shrift, first by officialdom in London and then by Nightingale in her hospital in Scutari. So, with assistance from a businessman, Thomas Day, Seacole established a facility (known as the British Hotel) in two iron houses near Balaclava, where she could tend the sick and wounded while paying her way by supplying food and wine. This was highly rated (winning plaudits from the Times correspondent W.H. Russell) but financially unsuccessful. Back in England she was declared bankrupt. Various funds were set up to help, but the proceeds amounted to little. She returned to Jamaica, but then decided she preferred being in London, where she died in 1881 aged (probably) 75.
Rappaport fleshes out Seacole’s own account in her rollicking memoir Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (written as a post-Crimea money-making exercise). Drawing on newspaper and genealogical resources, Rappaport shows that Seacole was born not in Kingston, as she herself wrote, but 80 miles west in the hamlet of Haughton. She throws light on her subject’s family, particularly her sickly husband Edwin and her intrepid daughter Sarah, who accompanied her mother to Crimea and whose almost certain illegitimacy gave Nightingale yet another excuse not to advance Seacole in any way. Rappaport informs us about the Jamaican herbal apothecary and nursing practices. And there are vivid passages about British and Caribbean society, with the free-born Seacole getting exercised by the vulgarity of Americans still living in a slave state as she navigates a bold path in her post-abolition world.
Rappaport is particularly good at addressing her subtitle. Given her involvement in the portrait’s discovery, she might have been parti pris. But she gives an even-handed account of the controversies surrounding Seacole’s bumpy elevation to near-sainthood. One example is her considered appraisal of Lynn McDonald, the world’s foremost Nightingale scholar, who is dismissive of attempts to describe Seacole as a nurse.
Lacunae remain, but this portrait of an outstanding woman is timely in explaining to a Windrush-conscious world the struggles and triumphs of a woman of colour making her way in the ‘mother country’.