To Sir David Cannadine, editor, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Sir David Cannadine, FBA

Dear Sir David,

We write with concern about errors in the short entry on Mary Seacole in the ODNB. It is by Alan Palmer, certainly an expert on the period, but it shows uncritical acceptance of Seacole myths all too widely available. This is not to fault him so much the lack of good sources when he wrote it (the entry is very similar to his 1987 book, Banner of Battle, which is particularly good on Nightingale and the other nurses).

We are especially concerned because, when we informed English Heritage about the more numerous and more serious errors in its Seacole coverage, on its Blue Plaques website, it replied that it had depended on a reputable source, the ODNB! (It agreed to make a couple of minor alterations, but the worst errors remain.)

The picture shown of Seacole in your entry is the fine bust by Gleichen, which shows her wearing medals. She did not win any, nor did Palmer ever say she did, but it would be better to note that the medals were not her own, or use another illustration.

Herewith the faulty textual material in your entry, with contrary information from Seacole’s own memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (Palmer seems to have relied more on the enthusiastic introduction to this book than to the text itself).

1. The entry title describes her as “nurse,” a term Seacole never used for herself, but for Nightingale and her nurses; she called herself “doctress, nurse and mother” (p 124) and, more often, “doctress.” She would be better described as “businesswoman, adventurer” or “sutler, adventurer” or “businesswoman, doctress” or some such. “Nurse” is misleading.

2. From her mother, she “acquired nursing skills and an understanding of the Creole medical tradition, based on herbal treatment,” yes to the Creole medical tradition, but she also made it clear that she added toxic metals to “herbal” remedies to make them stronger, and admitted “lamentable blunders” (p 31). Doubtless there were – she dehydrated bowel patients, a common mistaken treatment at the time. The “nursing skills” point is an exaggeration; she never explicitly claimed learning nursing from her mother, and their boarding house, a small hotel, was a regular commercial establishment.

3. She was “briefly nursing superintendent at Up-Park military camp.” No. Her memoir states that she was asked to bring nurses to the camp, but, after briefly visiting on her own, went back to her boarding house in Kingston (p 63).

4. “The coming of war with Russia in 1854 prompted Mary Seacole to sail to England.” No, war was declared in March 1854, and she made one last trip to Panama (noted in her Chapters 7 and 8), then left for England in September, from Panama. When “she tried to join Florence Nightingale’s vanguard of nursing sisters she met a rebuff.” No, her memoir is perfectly clear that the Nightingale team had already left when she decided that she wanted to go to the war, too, after some two months activity in London on her gold stocks (pp 73-74). Seacole never formally applied for the post (applications and letters of reference for those who did are at the National Archives, Kew). The “rebuff” occurred when she dropped in informally, too late, at various offices connected with the war, but never the correct one! to seek a post.

5. That she went at “her own expense.” Why not? She had profits from her two years in Panama, and had a plan with a business partner to start a business in the Crimea. Why should the British government fund a sutler’s trip? The expression “own expense” is much used in the Seacole campaign literature, to contrast her treatment with that of Nightingale, but Nightingale in fact led the nursing, and had already left months earlier.

6. Seacole’s “hotel” housed “an officers’ club and a good, clean canteen for the troops”; the club is correct, but she gave no information on the quality of the quarters of the canteen, or what she served at it; it gets one mention: “a canteen for the soldiery” (p 114); three chapters go to the food, drink and catering she did for officers.

7. “She was a familiar figure at the battle-front.” This presupposes a different kind of war. The Russians were behind their fortified walls at Sebastopol – not trench warfare with a clear battle-front. She was only on the battlefield 3 times, in a war of 2 years. She was a familiar figure in the camp, quite a different thing, and not so dangerous.

8. Her “riding forward with 2 mules in attendance,” with “medicaments and other food and wine,” is an over-statement. Seacole described 3 occasions on which she took mules with food and wine, available for some hours first for sale to spectators. Later she went onto the battlefield; what medicaments she did not state. Doubtless this work was kindly and generously done, but it amounts to, in hours, less than one shift in a hospital. Seacole missed the first three, major, battles of the war, busy in London trying to realize a profit from her gold investments, her “gold mining speculation on the river Palmilla (p 74). Yet none of this is mentioned in the entry.

The best source on Seacole’s Crimea experiences, other than her own memoir, is Soyer’s Culinary Campaign, which is listed in the References. However, it seems that no use was made of it. Soyer knew both Nightingale – he worked with her for a year – and Seacole – whom he visited socially. Seacole asked him for advice on her “speculation,” with its “large capital” (p 233), but this key point is nowhere mentioned. No critical sources on Seacole are noted in the References, not available then, but they are now.

For further examples of Seacole misinformation see A short book exposing frequent myths, with primary sources, is Lynn McDonald, Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth, 2014.

There is so much fallacious material in circulation on Seacole that we wish for more good, reliable sources. Given the ODNB’s high reputation, we urge you to have your entry reviewed and revised.

[signed by 15 members of the Nightingale Society]