Ten years ago the BBC conducted a poll on the 100 greatest Britons. Those who notice this sort of thing noticed that no black people made it on to the list, so a black list was produced. Sorry; how else am I to describe it?! If I tell you that it features the Labour MP Diane Abbot that might give you a measure of the quality of ‘greatness.’
The whole thing is really quite ridiculous, risibly so at points. I have no problem at all with black people looking for positive role models, but who really needs this kind of silly condescension? These is also a kind of desperation, it seems to me, in the search for the century. Philipa of Hainault, queen consort of Edward III, is on the list. Why? Because she was the mother of Edward, the Black Prince of Wales! You know, and I know and anyone with any wit knows this had nothing at all to do with the colour of his skin!
Mary Seacole is also there. In fact she tops the list, this supposed black heroine of the Crimean War. She’s rather the flavour of the day, this woman, even replacing Florence Nightingale as the true Lady of the Lamp. This is not just a result of black elevation, but white guilt, as Lynne McDonald suggests in a brilliant, eye-opening piece in the latest issue of History Today (Nursing’s Bitter Rivalry). I almost passed over this because, quite frankly, the subject does not really interest me that much. I’m so glad I didn’t. The Seacole story, I know now, is a lot of black propaganda. (Sorry; I couldn’t resist that either!) It’s only fair to add that it’s not of the lady’s devising.
I give you Jamaican-born Mary Seacole, an hotelier and herbalist by profession. So far as the quality of ‘blackness’ is concerned black people would be well-advised to stay well clear of the truth; the myth is much more comforting. She was three-quarters white and, as she explains in her journals, proud of her ‘Scotch blood’. Her writing, moreover, is full of the usual nineteenth century stereotypes. She refers to black people as ‘negroes’ and ‘niggers.’ It’s never a self-reference. No, she took considerable pains to distance herself from what she called the ‘lazy Creole’ image, evidenced in her “good for nothing black cooks.”
But the myth has wings. I understand that a massive statue is to be erected to this ‘Pioneer Nurse’ at
St Thomas’ Hospital in London, the place where Florence Nightingale was based for forty years. The monument, McDonald says, will even be visible from the House of Commons, taller both than that of Florence Nightingale at Waterloo Place and Edith Cavell in St Martin’s Lane.
I suppose I have to congratulate the fundraisers on fighting such a brilliant campaign, brilliant enough for the hospital trustees to grant permission on a foundation of evidentiary quicksand. The statue will show ‘
Britain’s black heroine’, with medals won for bravery, walking on to a Crimean battlefield to treat the wounded. There is only one problem: it’s a lie.
Here are the inconvenient facts. Unlike Nightingale, Seacole never nursed, never trained as a nurse and never worked in a hospital. In the
Crimea she ran a hotel, catering specifically for officers, a thing she remarks on with a snobbish sense of delight. She never won any medals, and never claimed to have won any medals, though that did nor stop her from wearing medals.
Even the Nursing Standard, a magazine owned by the Royal College of Nursing, which supports the Seacole statue campaign, has contributed to the mythology. Over the past ten years it has published more than seventy articles lauding her ‘achievements’, even though they give not a single concrete example of Seacole’s contribution to the profession.
The media has taken up the angel Seacole and devil Nightingale campaign. In Mary Seacole: a Hidden History, a Channel 4 documentary broadcast in 2005, it was claimed on no evidence at all that Seacole had “saved thousands of lives.” The fakery, for fakery it is, has even made it into children’s literature. In The Life of Mary Seacole by Emma Lynch she is described as nursing soldiers from 5am until midday before going on to the battlefield, presumably to look for more.
It never happened. She was present at only two engagements, the Redan assault in June and Tchernya in August 1855. In her journal she gives no details, other than to say that it was ‘pleasant enough’ and a source of ‘strange excitement’.’ Yes, I suppose it was. Meanwhile it was back to the British Hotel, where lightly wounded officers (the serious cases were sent to Nightingale in
Turkey) could feast on such delights as lobster, oysters, wild fowl and game, all items well beyond the means of ordinary soldiers.
If you really want to know about Seacole it’s best to ignore the saccharine-sweet hagiography. Go instead to The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, her own account originally published in
1857, a reasonably honest testament, unlike so much of the present dishonesty surrounding her memory. We are all ill-served by this sort of nonsense, black people most of all, treated by a certain shade of white liberal opinion as though they were children to be indulged in a state of innocence. It’s just a mirror image of the old racism.