Archive for January, 2013

To Winsome Hudson, executive director, National Library of Jamaica

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
Kingston, Jamaica

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!

Yours sincerely

To Sharon Ament, Director, Museum of London

To Sharon Ament, Director, Museum of London

Sharon Ament, director
Museum of London
150 London Wall
London EC2Y 5HN

Dear Ms Ament

We are writing with concern about your website and tour material on Mary Seacole, about whom an enormous amount of misinformation is in circulation. Especially since the Museum of London takes tours of school children, we urge that the errors be corrected.

Minor errors, or uncorroborated points, on your coverage of Seacole include the point that her mother was a “free black woman,” although Seacole never used the term “black” for herself or her family members-they were of mixed race; she called herself “Creole” (Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands 1). She described her father as a “soldier” (1) not an officer. She gave her mother’s occupation as “boarding house” keeper, who was also an “admirable doctress (2), never a nurse. There is no documentation that Seacole was employed by the royal family post-Crimea.

On the Crimean War the errors escalate. When war broke out in the Crimea-the first battle was on 20 September-Nightingale’s team of nurses did not exist, and Seacole was en route to England from Panama, to attend to her gold-mining stocks (74). Seacole never submitted an application to be a nurse (they are at the Public Archives, Kew). According to her memoir, she went around to various offices to apply in person-after Nightingale and her team had left (75-79). She may have been rejected for racism, but it is impossible to tell-she was also old for nursing, and lacked hospital experience.

Seacole then decided, with her business partner, to establish a hotel, and sent out printed cards to this effect (81). On consultation with chef Alexis Soyer, however, she decided to keep the business to food and drink, not hotel accommodation (see his Culinary Campaign 233). She never claimed to have run a “daily clinic,” but rather saw “patients,” all walk-ins, while running her kitchen (125). The food was for sale to officers, not ordinary soldiers, who clearly could not afford the lobster, fine wines, champagne, etc. Nor did soldiers buy boots or saddles, but officers did. The “cannon fire” statement is an exaggeration, and her helping “on the battlefield” occurred on exactly three occasions (156, 167, 169). Seacole sold herbal remedies, and gave some away to those who could not pay. However, she also added toxic non-herbals to her cholera remedies, such as lead acetate and mercury chloride (31). Her remedies for bowel diseases were unhappily similar to those used by doctors, and, like theirs, either ineffective or positively harmful.

Seacole was given no medals by any country, nor ever, in her Wonderful Adventures, claimed to have been awarded any. She did not wear medals for her picture on the cover. However, she started to wear them in London after the war, which was not then illegal. Since 1955, it has been a criminal offence in the Army Act to wear military medals not your own. This is a common myth bandied about, but is entirely false. (Only the military were awarded those medals-see John Horsley Mayo, Medals and Decorations of the British Army and Navy, vol. 2 on the Crimean War). The one medal Seacole was awarded, although posthumously, was the Jamaican Order of Merit, but you do not mention it!

Seacole and her partner had to declare bankruptcy (they had expanded the business, expecting the British Army to stay longer in the Crimea after hostilities were over than it did). Officers did the fund raising for her after the war, for officers were her main customers.

We note also that your website has almost nothing about Nightingale-a “carte de visite.” Yet her decades-long work, all based in London, brought in modern professional nursing, health care reforms and changed hospital design.

Yours sincerely

To Michael Gentles and Lance Hylton, Postal Corporation of Jamaica

To Michael Gentles and Lance Hylton, Postal Corporation of Jamaica

Mr Michael Gentles, Postmaster General/CEO
Mr Lance Hylton, chairman
Postal Corporation of Jamaica
Central Sorting Office
6-10 South Camp Road
Kingston, Jamaica

Dear Mr Hylton and Mr Gentles

We are writing you with concerns about the stamps commemorating Mary Seacole. We do not at all oppose her being honoured with the issuing of commemorative stamps, but the inaccurate information on several of them. She should be celebrated for her own merits, but for some years now flagrantly false information has circulated about her. Several of the false statements are clearly contradicted by what she said herself in her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, a commendable book still worth reading!

1991 two stamps. One is thoroughly wrong, depicting Seacole in a nurse’s uniform at the bedside of a soldier at the Scutari Barrack Hospital, the main hospital nursed by Nightingale and her team. Mrs Seacole in her memoir described visiting there one day, and having a brief (about 5 minutes) interview with Nightingale, when she asked her for a bed for the night, as she was leaving the following morning for Balaclava. (Her business partner was waiting for her there and their supplies were en route.) Nightingale found a bed for her and had breakfast sent to her. Seacole’s memoir records the encounter (pp 89-91), which clearly shows that she never nursed at that hospital (it is not a mistake in hospital name, but Seacole did no hospital nursing at all, nor ever wore a hospital uniform).

The reference work which reproduces the 1991 stamp, “Mary Seacole Nursing in Hospital in Scutari,” explicitly states that Seacole “did not participate in the care of any of the wounded soldiers in Scutari, as portrayed on the Jamaican stamp issued in 1991” (Susanne Stevenhoved, “Mary Grant Seacole,” Six Hundred Women and One Man: Nurses on Stamps 33).

It was Nightingale’s mission to provide care for ordinary soldiers; Seacole was a businesswoman running a restaurant, bar, takeaway and store for officers, with a “canteen for the soldiery” (Wonderful Adventures 114), function not specified, on the side. Mrs Seacole is known for her kindness to soldiers, which is praiseworthy, but should not be confused with providing nursing care, which she did not, nor ever said she did.

2005 four stamps. The $70 stamp has a portrait of Seacole by Challen, wearing 3 medals, with pictures of 4 medals beside it: the French Legion of Honour, the British Crimea Medal, the Turkish Order of the Medjidie, and the Jamaican Order of Merit, this last the only medal she was actually awarded (posthumously). The other 3 are myths. Seacole herself never claimed in her memoir to have won any medals, and the picture of her on the cover shows her without medals. She began to wear medals post-Crimea, for the first time at her bankruptcy court appearance in November 1856, presumably to attract sympathy. It was not then illegal in the U.K. to wear other persons’ military medals, although it has been since 1955. Seacole also had her portrait painted, photographs taken and her bust sculpted wearing medals, again not illegal. However to reproduce those depictions now without explanation is highly misleading.

The simple facts are that Seacole was not eligible for any of the 3 medals she is usually shown with, for she was not in the military. The Crimea medal was a service medal, for officers and soldiers only, present at particular battles (see John Horsley Mayo, Medals and Decorations of the British Army and Navy vol. 2 Crimea). The British Army sent in nominations for the Turkish and French medals, which were awarded by senior officers on behalf of those governments. They were then, in effect, military medals.

The $30 stamp, “Herbal remedies and medicines,” is innocently misleading. Seacole, as well as using herbal remedies, also added toxic substances such as mercury and lead, which she considered effective but which are now known to be harmful.

We would appreciate hearing from you why these erroneous portrayals were decided on. The stamps are history now, and cannot be undone, but we would ask you to modify your website to give an accurate account.

The Jamaican Order of Merit is inscribed, as can be seen on your $70 stamp, “He that does truth comes into the light.” We hope that you will agree with us that Jamaica owes Seacole both truth and light.

Yours sincerely

To Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health

To Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health

Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt, PC, MP
Secretary of State for Health
Richmond House, 79 Whitehall
London SW1A 2NS

January 20, 2013

Dear Mr Hunt

Brian Mawhinney, a predecessor in your office, launching the Mary Seacole awards in 1994, contributed significantly to the misinformation about Seacole in circulation. Presumably he did not write his own speech, and we accordingly wish to warn you of the bank of misinformation existing about Seacole in your own office.

In his speech the then secretary for health erroneously stated that Seacole had “considerable nursing skills and made a major contribution to nursing the wounded in the Crimean War,” and that she “later worked as a nurse in and around London.” She was “in fact,” he claimed, “an outstanding black British nurse.”

However Seacole did none of these things. She did not nurse the wounded in the Crimean War, and she did not nurse in London, at any time. She was a boarding house keeper in Jamaica, who later ran a restaurant/store in Panama and then in the Crimea. She was known to be kind to soldiers in providing herbal remedies to them-all walk-ins, not the wounded. She missed the three largest battles of the war, but did provide assistance on three days in 1855: 18 June, 23 August and 8 September-in each case a few hours, post-battle. She also gave out hot tea and lemonade to soldiers waiting transport to the Scutari hospitals. No doubt Mrs Seacole acted kindly on these occasions, but her work would hardly count as a “major” contribution.

She spent her last years in Britain, but was never a “British nurse,” for she never nursed in Britain. She is commonly called “black” now, but it should be realized that Seacole was three quarters white, proud of her Scots heritage, but not of her African heritage-the words “black” and “African” never appear in her memoir in connection with her. She was married to a white man, had a white business partner, and all her customers were white. Like white Jamaicans, she hired blacks-indeed she had two black servants with her both in Panama and the Crimea. To call her “black” then is somewhat incongruous, especially when it is realized that her own views of “good-for-nothing” blacks and “niggers” were far from enlightened, if understandable for the time. To name her now as a “black British nurse” is to misrepresent her.

The secretary for health was correct in describing Seacole as a “contemporary” of Nightingale’s, but so were millions of people-the two met probably for about five minutes, but at no time worked together, for the obvious reason that Nightingale’s work during the Crimean War was to provide nursing and better nutrition for ordinary soldiers, while Seacole was running a restaurant, bar, takeaway and catering service for officers. That they were both in London 1856-59 and 1865-81 signifies nothing, for Nightingale was then highly occupied in starting training for nurses and sending out nurses to other hospitals, while Seacole was then effectively retired (apart from briefly, in 1856, trying to run a shop at Aldershot).

We would add that there are a number of other genuine black nurses, and nurses of Asian and other non-white backgrounds who deserve attention for their contribution. This inordinate concentration on Seacole has had the unhappy result of ignoring important contributions to nursing by a number of non-white pioneers. Mrs K.A. Pratt, for example, was an early black nurse in the NHS, and a leading figure in nursing when she went back to Nigeria. She would be a worthy person to commemorate in an award. See

Yours sincerely

To Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education

To Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education

Rt Hon Michael Gove, PC, MP
Secretary of State for Education
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA

January 20, 2013

Dear Mr Gove

We commend you for the decision to remove teaching of Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum.

We remind you, however, that a great deal of damage was done by the years of false teaching on Seacole, and suggest that your department take at least minimal measures to address this. At the very least a statement should be issued that the teaching of Seacole winning medals for bravery and pioneering nursing was not based on fact. A brief (correct) outline of her life could be given, with her actual occupations.

As well, teaching on Nightingale was affected, for the two were linked in the curriculum, which required the denigration of Nightingale’s work to make it more like Seacole’s. We gave examples in our letter to you of September 10, 2012.

Nightingale’s contribution to British life and history has been enormously important, not only in the emergence of nursing as a modern, reputable profession, but for hospital safety (using an evidence-based approach to reduce death rates), methodology (the first woman Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society), and she was most notably a major pioneer of public health care. These are serious contributions, omission of which would result in poor coverage of major elements of British public life and society.

The suggestion (in a leaked document) that Nightingale could be dropped as well as Seacole we would see as extremely backward. Nightingale and Seacole were not equals-one white, the other black-each doing roughly the same thing. Seacole was a decent and kind person, who deserves better than to be used in a propaganda campaign, but she was not a heroic, medal-winning, pioneer nurse, and her contribution were neither similar to Nightingale’s nor of remotely comparable weight.

To Sir Robert McAlpine

To Sir Robert McAlpine

Sir Robert McAlpine
Eaton Court
Maylands Av
Hemel Hempstead, Herts HP2 7TR

January 20, 2013

Dear Sir Robert

We understand that you have agreed to construct the planned statue of Mary Seacole for St Thomas’ Hospital at cost, thereby saving the promoters of the statue a considerable sum. Generous as this is of you, we wonder what you have against Florence Nightingale.

We wish to make clear that we do not oppose the erection of a Seacole statue, but rather to the dishonest portrayal of her. The planned statue is to show her wearing medals, which in fact she never won. True, she wore medals, and had her portrait painted, photographs taken and a bust sculpted wearing them-but none of them were hers.

The statue is to name her “Pioneer Nurse,” at Nightingale’s hospital no less, the site of her school, the first secular nurse training school in the world, and for more than a century the base from which she sent out teams of nurses to bring in new standards of patient care throughout the world. Yet Seacole was not a nurse at all, and never claimed to be. She called herself a “doctress,” meaning herbalist (although she was known to add such toxic substances as lead acetate and mercury chloride to her remedies, which of course were not harmless herbals).

You as a leading figure in the construction industry might be interested to know that Nightingale was a major force in reforming hospital architecture in the late 19th century-when death rates of patients per admissions averaged 10%. She influenced the design of the St Thomas’ opened in 1871, which was a world leader in design. Three of the old pavilions still stand (the others were bombed in World War II). What a curious place to install a statue honouring another person as the “Pioneer Nurse”!

We urge you to make your donation of costs contingent on the statue being honest: no medals and no claim of “Pioneer Nurse,” and placement somewhere other than St Thomas’ Hospital.

Yours sincerely