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Mary Seacole – the “black Florence Nightingale”

My day has been deranged by the discovery, which I made at about 4 pm, that Simon Schama’s televised History of Britain has been shown and is still being shown continuously on UK History (one of the free digital channels) throughout the day, from 7 am until 1 am tomorrow morning. I’ve been dipping into it ever since I found out about this, having only caught bits of it when it was on one of the bigger channels first time around.

Most of the historical personalities mentioned by Schama were reasonably familiar to me. I know who Elizabeth I was, and when. I know who Thomas Cromwell, Tom Paine, William Wordsworth were, approximately speaking. But one name, in the the episode about the Victorian age, was entirely new to me: Mary Seacole:

Mary Seacole, the “black Florence Nightingale” was once one of the best-known women in England. She was a Caribbean doctress who had travelled widely, and was able to put her skills to good use in the Crimean War. Denied the opportunity to work with Nightingale, she travelled there on her own to minister to wounded British soldiers. Thousands of them remembered her with gratitude and affection.

That’s her. That’s definitely who Schama was talking about. Denied an official nursing position, she simply went out to the Crimea on her own initiative, and got to work, feeding the soldiers before they went into action in the ‘hotel’ she somehow contrived to have built (I think that’s what Schama said), and then prowling the battlefield searching out the wounded and feeding them and caring for them, and even curing them with her West Indian remedies, which, said Schama, saved many a life, as the word “doctress” certainly suggests.

I’m guessing that knowing about Mary Seacole is probably a generation thing. I am of the generation that learned dates and maps and chaps, but which made no great effort to search out worthy people other than White Male worthies for deserved – and I dare say sometimes undeserved – celebration. So I’m guessing that Mary Seacole is now an increasingly well known figure among younger people with any curiosity about Britain’s past. But I’d never heard of her. Thanks to Simon Schama and the UK History channel, now I have.

And thank you also to the Internet, and in particular to Google (apparently some are complaining about Google – for its sinfulness in wanting to make money). All I had to go on was how the name sounded, but soon, up came the magic words: “did you mean Mary Seacole?” and the means were in front of my to satisfy any curiosity I might feel about this remarkable woman.

5 comments to Mary Seacole – the “black Florence Nightingale”

  • Harry Payne

    I recall a brief part of history lessons in the mid-70s referring to Mary Seacole. I also recall a comment to the effect that her cure rate was somewhat higher than Florence Nightingale’s.

    I knew a public school education had to be good for something…

  • Brian, met you in the bar with Dan Gillmor, Red Lion…lol

    Check out Clive Soley’s (MP) weblog, hes running a Mary Seacole campaign…

  • Yes, schoolchildren are taught all about her now, as much or more than they are taught about Florence Nightingale. Maybe there’s a bit of PC overload these days, but some aspects of PC are exaggerations of an originally good impulse: to seek out people neglected by older conventional histories. Seacole was obviously a woman of tremendous drive.

  • John Anderson, RI USA

    I am not sure if it is the same woman, but some of Anne Perry’s novels mention a black woman in the Crimea who would go out while the battle was still on and bring in wounded.

  • Philip Andrew Brooks

    I didn’t know anything about Mary Seacole until Channel 4 broadcast their programme about her.I feel we should remember her and put a statue of her up in a place where people see her.She must NOT be forgoten.