Last week saw the unveiling of the first ever statue to a black woman in Britain – Mary Seacole, a wartime nursing pioneer. PETER FROST has the story.
In the face of rampant racist abuse and xenophobic graffiti making the headlines after the referendum we should specifically celebrate one most positive contribution to multi-cultural understanding in Britain today.
Last week the first ever public statue of a black woman anywhere in Britain was unveiled. Crimean nurse Mary Seacole, sculpted in bronze, now stands in the grounds of St Thomas’s hospital in London — she’s facing the Houses of Parliament across the river.
The £500,000 bronze memorial shows her marching out to the battlefield, a medical bag over her shoulder, a row of medals proudly pinned to her chest.
Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS foundation trust have provided the site. The sculptor, Martin Jennings, is well known for his bronze of John Betjeman at St Pancras station in London.
So who was Mary Seacole (below)? Why should she have a memorial?
She was born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805 — her father was a Scottish soldier and mother a Jamaican.
Mary learned her nursing skills from her mother.
Although not actually slaves Mary and her family had few civil rights — they could not vote, hold public office or enter the professions. In 1836 she married Edwin Seacole who sadly died in 1844.
An inveterate traveller even before her marriage, she roamed across the Caribbean visiting Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas as well as Central America. She also visited Britain.
On these trips Seacole added to the knowledge of traditional herbal medicine she had learned from her mother as well as honing her skills in mainstream conventional medicine.
On returning to Jamaica she was briefly nursing superintendent at a military camp. When in 1850 Kingston was hit by a cholera epidemic Seacole combined traditional herbal and conventional medicines in the treatment and became quite an expert on cholera.
She also dealt with a yellow fever outbreak in Jamaica. Consequently her skill and fame as a medical practitioner grew and she was soon carrying out operations on people suffering from serious knife and gunshot wounds and even carrying out autopsies.
In 1854, Seacole travelled to England again to ask the War Office to send her as an army nurse to the Crimea where cholera had broken out among the British troops. There was clearly a desperate need for skilled nurses and only poor medical facilities for wounded soldiers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly a racist and misogynistic War Office turned her down. A black woman? “No chance” said those early Colonel Blimps.
Seacole wasn’t to be put off and used her savings to fund her own trip to the Crimea where her first action was to establish what she called the British Hotel near Balaclava. She described this as a “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers.” Soldiers called it Mary’s hut.
She made frequent visits to the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded. On the bloody battlefields of the Crimea, Seacole saved the lives of countless wounded soldiers and nursed them back to health in a clinic she paid for out of her own pocket.
The troops called her Mother Seacole and her reputation with the fighting men rivalled that of Florence Nightingale (below).
Although neither woman saw the other as a rival and Seacole actually volunteered to work in Nightingale’s hospital but was turned away.
After the war she returned to England, by now destitute and in ill health. Ex-servicemen raised funds at huge brass band concerts and other events but the War Office and government refused any assistance or a pension.
She was voted the Greatest Black Briton in 2004 — a woman who did more to advance the cause of nursing, and race relations, than almost any other individual.
Yet even in the plans to erect her long deserved memorial the shadow of racism showed its ugly face.
The Florence Nightingale Society raised objections. They and a few prejudiced historians have long complained that in some way Seacole’s fame detracts from that other — white — nursing heroine Nightingale.
The objections to the new statue include accusations that Seacole is a “history hoax” because all she did was “sell wine and sandwiches” in Crimea.
Not how William H Russell, The Times Crimean war correspondent at the time saw it: “In the hour of their illness, these men have found a kind and successful physician, Mrs Seacole.
“She doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battlefield to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessing.”
Even more childish is the argument that her statue will be taller than Nightingale’s statue in Pall Mall and Edith Cavell’s overlooking Trafalgar Square.
Should so serious an argument really be reduced to the level of “My hero is bigger than your hero?”
Former Labour MP Baron Soley has called the anger from Nightingale supporters “frustrating and sad. Florence Nightingale will not be undermined by this statue. As we all know, she created modern nursing (below), her international reputation will not be affected at all. It is not one versus the other. These are two different women, in different roles who made different contributions.”
For decades after Seacole’s death in 1881, her story was largely overlooked, but after a huge public campaign in the last 20 years her reputation and exploits were at last recognised.
Today every schoolchild is taught about Seacole and her many achievements — she is still a statutory part of the national curriculum despite a racist attempt, by then education minister Michael Gove, to remove her in 2012.
Despite his protestations Gove (below) has gone on to show his true racist and xenophobic colours in the post-Brexit immigration debate whereas Seacole rightly remains one of Britain’s greatest heroes — regardless of gender or colour.
Mary Seacole died on May 14 1881 but before her death she published her memoirs, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.
It may have taken 12 years of hard campaigning and over a century and a half of history but at last Seacole has the fitting memorial she has so long deserved.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 8 July 2016.