tending to british soldiers during the crimean war -- 3/17/20

Today's selection -- from Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands by Mary Seacole. Born in Jamaica, Mary Seacole was a nurse, adventurer, and writer who was part Creole, Jamaican, and Scottish. Early in her life, she learned the "Creole medicinal art" from her mother. Exceptionally well-traveled and knowledgable, she eventually served as a nurse in Crimea despite being rejected by Florence Nightengale's "Angel band" outfit because she was black:

"When Seacole reached England, the Russians had been defeated at Alma, and English and French forces had marched towards the Russian naval base at Sevastopol on the Black Sea. Russell's uncompromising accounts of the losses incurred as a consequence of disease and mismanagement provoked a wave of national hysteria and recrimination which led to the scapegoating of those in command. ... This dire situation prompted the Secretary at War, Sidney Herbert, to write a letter to his long-time friend Florence Nightingale in October 1854, inviting her to take a group of nurses to the Crimea under government sponsorship. Nightingale immediately accepted Herbert's offer that she should be 'Superintendant of the Female Nursing Establishment in the English military hospitals in Turkey' with a preliminary budget of £1,000, and on 21 October 1854 she and her 'Angel Band' of thirty-eight nurses departed for the war zone.

"Seacole arrived in London just after Nightingale and her nurses had left, and later in the winter she began her 'unwearied' efforts to be recruited as a Crimean nurse. Nightingale had appointed a delegation of women charged with selecting two more parties of nurses in a matter of weeks. Finding suitable personnel proved difficult, and although Seacole was by no means among the first applicants, the decision not to recruit her for subsequent parties seems to have been motivated by racism (later, in the Crimea, Nightingale was to express her disapproval of Seacole for moral reasons).

Mary Seacole, by Albert Charles Challen

"There cannot have been many black nurses applying to serve in the Crimea in 1854, and Seacole was clearly regarded as something of an anomaly by the white people she encountered in her quest for employment. ... When she failed to gain an interview with the Secretary at War, Seacole tried the Quartermaster General, but she was forced to change her tactics when these efforts yielded no results either. Having obtained Sidney Herbert's private address from Cox's Army Agents, Seacole 'laid ... pertinacious siege' to his house until she received a message from Elizabeth Herbert 'that the full complement of nurses had been secured, and that my offer could not be entertained'. Now it dawned on Seacole 'that had there been a vacancy, I should not have been chosen to fill it', and 'for the first and last time' she suspected that something like American racism was operative in England. ... [S]he asked herself, 'Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?'

"Having teamed up with Thomas Day, a distant relation of her late husband whom she had met in Panama, Seacole went to the Crimea as an independent caterer or sutler. The two of them established the British Hotel at 'Spring Hill', two miles from Balaclava, where they catered for officers of the British army until the end of the war in 1856. ... Seacole occasionally mentions her Caribbean cultural heritage (for example, when describing her superlative culinary skills), but she repeatedly asserts that she is doing 'woman's work' in the Crimea, and it is as a mother and a nurse that she most insistently represents herself. So, while she claims that the battlefield in all its horrors is not a fit place for a woman, she also insists that only a woman's hands are 'moulded' to the task of nursing injured soldiers back to health. In the Crimea, the 'blood-line' she acknowledges is gendered rather than racial: she is 'Mother Seacole' and the English soldiers are her 'sons'.

"Seacole is careful to point out that even when they are close to death, her surrogate offspring are conscious of their carer's gender. "'Ha!'" exclaims 'a poor artilleryman' as Seacole treats his wounds, "'this is surely a woman's hand'". The soldiers are fond of calling Seacole 'Mother' because, as she puts it, 'there was something homely in the word', so that her hotel, the food and drink on offer there, and Seacole herself come to stand for everything British and imperialistic. Although careful not to display an 'unladylike' awareness of which battles were fought, when and where, Seacole is enthusiastic on the subject of war, and she repeatedly draws attention to her own function as a representative of the British nation."

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Mary Seacole & Sara Salih (Introduction)


Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands


Penguin Books


Copyright 2005 Penguin Classics


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