The rather distasteful controversy regarding Mary Seacole’s statue, recently installed at the Royal College of Nursing, should be put aside as quickly as possible. Simply put, she matters. Why?Because she mattered to the men who fought in the Crimean War.
“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead” wrote Sir William Howard Russell, the Times War Correspondent in the Crimea. The Adjutant General of the army wrote that she “frequently exerted myself in the most praiseworthy manner in attending wounded men, even in positions of great danger.”
Sadly England did forget.
Nevertheless this kind faced, roly poly Jamaican woman of Scots-African descent, who to look at was almost the human embodiment of Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy Winkle, (though she was the farthest thing from prickly) was extremely important to the redcoats of the Crimean Army.
So much so that after the war when she was destitute, old friends and soldiers, happily contributed funds to keep “Mother” or “Mami” Seacole solvent, as any good son would. Their affection for her was demonstrated countless times during the war.
“I’ll see you tonight at Mother Seacole’s” officers used to say to each other before parting. Mother Seacole’s was her store, eatery and bunkhouse on Spring Hill where the main British Field Hospital was to be found, two miles from the siege batteries opposing Sevastopol, and three miles from the port of Balaclava, where the British supply base was.
Here officers had made a sort of informal club were they could relax, eat “comfort food” and buy little luxuries. Soldiers frequented the place as well and stopped in for a drink when they passed, rooms could be rented for functions and it was patronised by General’s, prince’s and humble line officers alike.
Finding it was no problem, everyone knew were the “British Hotel” was. A straight shot up the muddy road from Kadikoi, a small village a mile north of Balaclava. Described as a metal shed with wooden huts attached, sitting dominant amongst the ramshackle habitations and tents, with smoke slowly rising from the kitchen stove and a Union Jack flying from a flagpole outside. No one could miss it.
From the port the ground rises in a series of rolling hills which flatten into a plateau before dropping back down to Sevastopol. A grey brown landscape of grass, scrub and rock devoid of tree’s and rugged in its desolate beauty, which turned into a sea of mud and snow in winter. The collection of buildings on this exposed high point naturally drew the eye.
Here Mother Seacole spent her days, cooking, cleaning and visiting wounded soldiers in the field. Her cooking was legendary throughout the army, her hospitality was second to none, her home cures were more reliable that those of the army doctors, and no one could help the soldiers forget their troubles like her.
Mary had been born to a Scottish soldier and a free African mother in Jamaica and had once been married to a short lived English merchant. When she was young, her mother ran a boarding house for sick soldiers, something there was no shortage of in the West Indies. She had studied conventional and traditional medicine, learning nursing from her mother and at the local army hospitals. She had a natural affinity towards soldiers and an adventurous spirit. She always “turned a bold front to fortune”.
One day in 1855 an officer came in with a familiar request that sums up the relationship between Mary and those whom she called her “Sons”.
“You see, Mrs. Seacole, I can’t say good-bye to the dear ones at home, so I’ll bid you good-bye for them. Perhaps you’ll see them some day, and if the Russians should knock me over, mother, just tell them I thought of them all—will you?”
There was no request too great that Mary would not grant her boys, she took his hand and told him to trust in God’s providence, then let him go. So many men would be sure to pay her a visit and shake her hand before going into the lines and she made so many friends that she was constantly grieving for those who never came back.
To the men of the varying regiments of the army, Mary, was mother, wife, sister and sweetheart. The surrogate woman in their lives, the phantasm of the girl they left behind them, who they might never see again.
She wrote “I used to think it was like having a large family of children ill with fever, and dreading to hear which one had passed away in the night.” One day news came that a young gunner, whom she had nursed through a long sickness, had been killed at his post. Mary had come to see the boy almost as her own flesh and blood, and his death nearly broke her heart. She saw him buried soon afterwards:
“It was a long time before I could banish from my mind the thought of him as I saw him last, the yellow hair, stiff and stained with his life-blood, and the blue eyes closed in the sleep of death.”
The death of friends would haunt her for many years, one was a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and when she heard he had been killed she became fairly ill with grief for a whole day. “Mind you” Mary noted ominously “a day was a long time to give to sorrow in the Crimea.”
Yet as a private, volunteer battlefield nurse, this was the job she had chosen. No one else was doing this on the front, except for the regimental women, To be where the need was greatest, to try to alleviate pain and, when she could, to give respite to the mind for an hour or two, which all too often proving to be the last hours of a man’s life. Nowhere was too dangerous for Mother Seacole.
The 17th of June 1855 was spent making sandwiches, loading up mules and packing her bag full of necessities in preparation to go up to the line. She would be needed the next morning when the Allies attempted to storm Sevastopol.
Setting out, no doubt dressed in her usual bold tones she reached the Cavalry screen keeping out spectators. Some soldiers recognised her approaching and called her forwards, she was allowed to pass. From there Mary was let into the temporary hospital on the right flank. The sandwiches soon disappeared, but her oversized bag was passport enough to get her to where she was needed. Gunfire was thundering away from the port, high shots from the Russian guns were flying through the air as she arrived.
“Lie down, mother, lie down!” The soldiers yelled at her, prompting Mary to “embrace the earth” with indecent haste. She was quite used to artillery fire but heeded the advice nonetheless. Someone or other always helped her up again, and she stayed at the field hospital with her bag of bandages and flasks of cold drinks for most of the day, serving as a nurse to wounded men awaiting the tender mercies of the doctors, who she perhaps unkindly said looked more like “murderers”.
Mary returned to the centre of the position at Cathcart’s hill, with a dislocated thumb from a hasty dive for cover. Her hands were stained and smelling of the sherry she had used to clean wounds. Collecting her mules from the errant boy who had absconded with them earlier she then rode to the extreme left flank in the gathering twilight, were she was able to help some men of General Eyre’s Division before heading back to Spring Hill.
The outposts told her the attack had failed with huge losses, although she had been as close as one might get to the action she had been so busy with the wounded, she had no clue as to the outcome of the attack. The next day an armistice was put in force and Mary rushed to the scene.
“That battle-field was a fearful sight for a woman to witness”, more death, more friends lost, another funeral to attend. In addition to her everyday jobs in the rear of the lines, where she viewed the war like any other combatant did, Mary was witness to the last field battle of the war.
From a spot on a hill, just above the allied cavalry, with her laden mules she watched the Battle of the Tchernaya play out on 16th August 1855. “I was near enough to hear at times, in the lull of artillery, and above the rattle of the musketry, the excited cheers which told of a daring attack or a successful repulse”
After the Russians were repelled, she and the ambulances descended onto the field and helped to evacuate the wounded French, Sardinians and Russians. While probing a wound that hit a Russian soldiers jaw, his dying spasm caused his mouth to shut over her finger and left a scar she carried for the rest of her life.
Despite this all the Russians she met and cared for were deeply grateful. A wounded officer remained prominently in her memory “In return for the little use I was to him, he took a ring off his finger and gave it to me, and after I had helped to lift him into the ambulance he kissed my hand and smiled far more thanks than I had earned.”
She returned to England in 1856 and began a lifelong struggle to pay off debtors as the war had bankrupted her. After her death in 1885 all but a few forgot about her, although between 1857 and 1867 efforts had been made to keep her solvent and commemorate her service, earning her some celebrity, but it would be Florence Nightingale who survived into legend not Mother Seacole.
Mary matters most of all because she mattered to the redcoats in the Crimea. She matters because she is an example of self sacrifice and she should remain an inspiration to all today. Denied by the war office, the medical board and Florence Nightingale herself the chance to be an official nurse, she went on with her own money, helped by a business parter Mr. Day.
23,000 British soldiers died during the Crimean war. None are yet remembered on a memorial in the Crimea, were they lie. So it is only right that the woman who held so many hands, and closed so many eyes on the very fields they now reside in should have one. Some see her as a challenge or threat to Nightingale’s legacy, but since when did it become a crime to acknowledge a worthy soul, who only wished to “to be useful all my life”.