To Winsome Hudson, executive director, National Library of Jamaica
Mrs Winsome Hudson, executive director
National Library of Jamaica
12 East Street
P.O. Box 823
Dear Mrs Hudson
We are writing with concern about numerous erroneous statements in the entry “Mary Seacole (1805-1881)” in your online Biographies of Jamaican Personalities. You, as a librarian yourself, we trust, will understand our dismay about the circulation of misinformation. It is the more remarkable as the National Library is located on the site of the Seacole family home and business, Blundell Hall. Herewith some examples:
1. “In 1853, when yellow fever raged all over Jamaica, Mrs Seacole’s skills were again brought to the fore. From Panama she went to Cuba. Her arrival coincided with the cholera epidemic in that country. Here she proved herself capable in dealing with the situation and became known as the ‘yellow woman from Jamaica with the cholera medicine’.”
But Seacole’s own memoir mentions a visit to Cuba only in passing, no cholera epidemic (Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands 5); the quotation is from her stay in Panama (27).
2. “Later in 1853, when England, France and Turkey declared war on Russia and bitter fighting took place in the Crimean Peninsula, Mary felt driven to offer her services as a nurse.”
Turkey declared war in September 1853, but France and Britain not until March 1854, and the first battle did not take place until 20 September 1854. Seacole, according to her own memoir, did not decide to go to the war until she was in London, where she went to look after her gold mining stocks (74). She did not make any effort to go to the Crimea until after Nightingale and her nurses had already left, and only then, according to her memoir, did she begin to call at offices asking to be added to the nursing team (74-79). However, she never submitted the required application (they can be seen at the National Archives, Kew).
3. Seacole, “despite a letter of introduction to Florence Nightingale…was not recruited to join the group of nurses going to the Crimea.”
However, in her memoir, she stated that when she went around applying she had a letter from “A.G.M. Late Medical Officer, West Granada, Gold Mining Company (77), without other specifics, and no mention of one to Nightingale. While in Malta she obtained a letter to Nightingale from a doctor she knew in Jamaica then on his way back from Scutari (85), but by then she was on her way to join her business partner. Her interview with Nightingale was entirely cordial. She asked for a bed for the night, as she was departing the next morning, and was given one, although the hospital was terribly crowded. She reported Nightingale as saying: “What do you want, Mrs Seacole-anything that we can do for you? If it lies in my power, I shall be very happy” (91). All Seacole’s references to Nightingale show good will, on both sides.
4. Seacole set out “to build her own ‘hotel for invalids’ in the Crimea,” a quotation from her stated intention on printed cards she sent out to officers (in her memoir 80-81), but she did not pursue the “hotel” or “invalids” plan.
“Mrs Seacole’s hut,” as it was called in the Crimea, was a restaurant, bar, takeaway and store, never a hotel. It closed at 8 p.m. and on Sundays (145). The store sold remedies, to people whom Seacole called “patients” (125), but they were all walk-ins.
5. “Good, well-cooked food could always be had for soldiers of all ranks.”
Officers and ordinary soldiers did not mix socially. “Mrs Seacole’s” was for officers, and entirely beyond the price range of ordinary soldiers, who had access to a “canteen” (114), for exactly what she did not specify. Her memoir devotes three chapters to food and drink served to officers and provided for their dinner parties and excursions (see her chapters 12, 14 and 18).
5. “Mrs Seacole would set out carrying….arriving on the battlefield at dawn. She was sometimes under fire attending the wounded and taking food to the famished….She risked her life in faithful devotion to the soldiers she loved so loyally.”
However, her memoir records precisely three occasions on which she ventured onto the battlefield, all of them after the battle. She left early on two she described to provide food to the spectators on Cathcart’s Hill (155-57 and 169-71). She used the expression “under fire” in quotation marks, and the context shows she was not in serious danger-anybody in the area was at some risk.
7. Seacole “was presented with the Crimean medal, which she always wore afterwards on her dress.”
She is not known to have “always” worn the medal-she certainly did not in the Crimea-nor did she ever claim to have won it. She did have her picture taken and portrait painted wearing medals, which she either purchased or received as gifts-it was not then illegal to wear someone else’s decorations, but doing so in the U.K. became a criminal offence in 1955.
There are also less important inaccuracies, such as that her husband was a “godson” of Lord Nelson. Researchers who tried to verify this claim simply were unable to (Jane Robinson, Mary Seacole 29-33). “Spring Hill” was a location, not the name of her “hotel,” and, in any event, she built no hotel.
Mary Seacole should be celebrated for her own contributions, which should not be confused with those of Florence Nightingale. Oddly, the entry makes no mention of her fine travel memoir, Wonderful Adventures. It should, and give Seacole full credit for an important literary contribution. Seacole was a businesswoman primarily, a “doctress” on the side. She was known to be kind and generous, to ordinary soldiers as well as to officers. She gave away remedies to people who could not pay, and occasionally provided tea and cake to soldiers, kindnesses greatly appreciated. These are all worthy qualities, if not the stuff of medals and heroics. Surely you owe it to her memory to present her biography accurately.
Oddly your entry omits mention of the honour that your own government gave to Seacole, the Order of Merit (posthumous). It is inscribed “He that does truth comes into the light.” We call for no less than truth and light about Seacole!