The Fake History of Mary Seacole

Massive statue of Mary Seacole outside St Thomas' Hospital London

Lies, damned lies and statistics’ has nothing on the campaign (overwhelmingly successful) to depict Jamaican businesswoman and Crimean War celebrity Mary Seacole as a medal-winning, daredevil battlefield nurse, who built a hotel, or a clinic, or a combined hotel and clinic, to nurse wounded soldiers (from battles she never saw) and later went on to become the pioneer nurse practitioner and invent modern nursing; claims made in a nursing journal article and a biography, respectively.

The perpetrators of such misinformation are well meaning: Nursing leaders, NHS officials, the Royal College of Nursing, the Department of Education, the National Portrait Gallery, National Science Museum, National Army Museum and teachers from KS-1 and KS-2 to GCSE teachers and examiners. Their goals are to teach racial equality and provide a model for black minority ethic nurses, pupils and people generally. Laudable objects, but the problem is that Mary Seacole did not do most of the things attributed to her – while some of them Florence Nightingale did do.

Moreover Seacole never claimed any of these feats in her highly readable memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857, available in many editions with grossly inaccurate introductions. That book gives, after briefly describing her early life in Jamaica, her truly wonderful adventures in the Caribbean and Panama. She took over the running of her mother’s élite boarding house (a small hotel) in Kingston, and operated a small hotel in Panama for men travelling across the isthmus (pre-Canal) to join the California Gold Rush. Her father was a Scottish soldier, her mother Creole and her husband (who died young) British. Seacole travelled with two black servants, a maid and a porter. She called herself ‘yellow’ to indicate her light complexion: she was one quarter white and had a white clientele in all her businesses.

School Book

Some accounts blame Nightingale’s associates not her – for Seacole’s rejection as a Crimean War nurse, and some blame the British government, again with varying numbers of rejection, from one to four. The difficulty here is that Seacole never applied for a nurse’s job at all. She went to England in September 1854 to look into her failing gold stocks, by coincidence arriving just after the first battle of the Crimean War. By the time she gave up on her gold stocks (she had invested while in Panama), not only had Nightingale and her team left, but so had a second team. Seacole described dropping into various offices informally and asking for a position. She never submitted the required application with references (they are at the National Archives, Kew), nor had she the required hospital experience.

Seacole, in fact, never nursed a day in any hospital before or after the Crimean War. She made her own ‘herbal’ preparations, for sale to walk-in customers. Their success, too, has been boosted from remedies for tummy aches to cures for cholera and yellow fever – again, claims she never made. Indeed, she acknowledged that she had made ‘lamentable blunders’ on cholera, which she shuddered to think about. And so she might, given that she added substances that dehydrate the body when rehydration is needed. She was in this respect, no worse than many doctors of the time, but mercury and lead do not cure cholera or yellow fever. Her mustard poultices (to cause sweating), emetics and purging through the bowels are all known (now) to be harmful.

Seacole gave a whole chapter in her memoir to a yellow fever epidemic in Kingston. She courageously and kindly stayed up all night with the dying victims, putting screens around them, giving comfort until all died. This surely deserves great commendation, but the mythmakers turn her into a miracle worker who saved them.

The NHS, as the major employer of BAME staff in Britain, has reason to seek a black model to celebrate. But they did not look carefully. They ignored an outstanding Nigerian nurse, Kofoworola Abeni Pratt (1915-92), the first BAME nurse in the NHS. Pratt came to London to train at the Nightingale School, seeing Nightingale as a model. It was her husband, a Nigerian pharmacist who had begun medical training in London, at Bart’s, who made the approach to the matron on her behalf. Mrs. Pratt was accepted and started training in 1946.

Pratt was on duty at St Thomas’ Hospital when the NHS officially opened in June 1948. She was an outstanding student (the documentation is available at the London Metropolitan Archives). She passed with honours, took extra certificates (midwifery, tropical diseases, administration) and passed the final state examinations in 1949.

British nursing leaders encouraged her to go back to (pre-independence) Nigeria to assist in founding the nursing profession there. This she did, and went on to give leadership in international organizations. None of this, apparently, is known to the NHS or British nursing leaders.

Nor do NHS leaders, especially the ill-named NHS ‘Leadership Academy’, seem to know that it was Nightingale who articulated the vision of the NHS quality care for all, regardless of ability to pay – and the integration of health promotion and disease prevention with treatment. Nightingale called for this in 1866, and worked mightily over the next decades to effect the first steps, notably by getting trained nurses into the workhouse infirmaries, and, for some infirmaries, better, safer buildings. It is inconceivable that the NHS could have come into being in 1948, as it did, without those earlier, gradual, reforms, for when she started at least 80 per cent of hospital patients were in workhouse infirmaries, not the regular hospitals. Workhouse infirmaries then had no trained nurses, only an occasional medical attendance, and bed sharing was still common.

Yet it is Seacole’s massive statue that is located on the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, home of the first nurse training school in the world, not Nightingale’s. The statue faces the Houses of Parliament, although it was Nightingale who lobbied Cabinet ministers, prime ministers and MPs for improvements in health care. A peer, Lord Crisp, former chief executive of the NHS, called for Seacole to be added to the 2020 Bicentenary in honour of Nightingale’s birth. Asked what Seacole had done for the NHS or health care, he had no reply.

How many schools teach the Seacole propaganda is not known for, although both Nightingale and Seacole are in the National Curriculum, there is no requirement that they be taught, either separately or together. Typically, from an examination of school websites, the two are taught together and the contrast between them made. Schools that teach misinformation range from regular state schools to Roman Catholic and Church of England schools and fee-paying schools.

In a world of ‘fake facts,’ do we need more? Should students writing GCSE examinations in History be required to regurgitate misinformation about Seacole? Should books for school children portray her as a battlefield nurse, complete with blue-and-white nurse’s uniform (although she never wore one)? Should she be depicted in battle scenes of battles she never saw? Such books do exist, and indeed you can purchase a flagrant example at the Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’ Hospital.

Not the least harm done by avid Seacole supporters in denigrating Nightingale is losing her as a model, for she was not only the founder of nursing, but an effective political activist (she got laws changed) and researcher (the first woman Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society). Are politically effective, mathematically adept women so thick on the ground as to dispense with her?

Lynn McDonald, PhD, LLD (hon), professor emerita, is the author of Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth, Iguana Books, 2014.

This article is in the current edition of the Salisbury Review (out now)

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6 Comments on The Fake History of Mary Seacole

  1. Has any objection been raised to St Thomas’s Hospital for erecting this misleading statue or replacing it with something to honour Koforolowa Pratt? I think there is a statue of Nightingale somewhere, but not, apparently, appropriately at St Thomas’s.

  2. Top class piece of research Lynn. Hard facts will always trump propaganda in the end.
    I suspect that the Seacole myth has been propagated more by gullible, ignorant, virtue-signalling white liberals such as Lord Crisp than by mixed race people such as myself, many of whom find it vaguely amusing, but baffling (and sad), to watch the British Left destroy a once great nation in the space of a couple of generations.

  3. Statues are erected and removed often to reflect present-day concerns. When the statue of Mary Seacole was unveiled the communique put out by St Thomas’ emphasised in a series of negatives that the real history of Mary Seacole was irrelevant, as was any comparison with any other – deliberately un-named – person (obviously Florence Nightingale).

    It’s obvious that the statue is meant to serve another purpose. What Mary Seacole actually did, what sort of person she was like – although the most interesting part of her or anyone’s life – is completely irrelevant. It’s the hagiography that matters. In good weather parties of small schoolchildren are sat at the foot of the statue to learn whatever political dogmas are required.

    Nor would you get a sympathetic audience from those who declare that Mary Seacole was turned down in her application as a nurse by Florence Nightingale because the latter was racist. Nor from those who refer to the statue in hushed and reverent tones as if merely touching the statue’s feet could produce the sort of miracle cures attributed to saints. It’s the iconography that matters, not the historical accuracy.

  4. Mary Seacole did apply for posts in nursing, was rejected because she was a woman, in those days women can only practice under their husband or father not independently. She brought women as leaders into medicine and nursing. This enable Kofo Pratt too to attend the all women nursing training and took it to Nigeria, she was a British, remaining remnants of Yoruba nobility of Britain, the founder of Britain. Mary Nightingale was a cleaner never any influence in nursing cannot read nor write. After the Kirijija Karimi, Kiriji (Kirimi, Crimea) the freed white from slavery were given cleaning jobs. After the end of slavery of white people in 1800s, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a nobily of Britain, campaigned for white people to be given good jobs than cleaners, nannies and butlers. Mary Nightinggale became cleaning supervisor. By early 1900s the white were given positions as protectors of land and properties which is called security job today. This was how the white became the British today as the Afrikans, original British left the land and handed over the protection of the land to them. Queen Elisabeth (Elisabi, Olisabi) mother was a daughter of Ottoman Fulani solder and he was only a cook in the army. Olisabi, Elisabi were the Abeokuta monarchy who were still supplying food items up till 1960s to Britain. Sara Aina Forobi (Forbes) Obanitta (Boneta), the Iyalode of Britain was the real Queen Victoria never the fake white actress. The white Victoria was an actress and the crown was photo shoot. King Edward VII was a Dravidian Fulani who claimed the throne after the death of Queen Victoria. The throne was vacant for long time after the death of Queen Victoria and the monarchy returned to Afrika, this is where modern white British royal line started. Afrikans were the ancient Europeans, the Dravidians free slaves later lived in Britain and lastly their children, the white people.

  5. And *this*, folks, is what you get when universities teach “other ways of knowing” and “black studies” instead of history or logic.

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