As Russophobia gripped Britain, the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 provoked joy among many who wanted to give the “Rooshians” a jolly good beating. At the forefront of the warmongers was Queen Victoria, who longed to don armour and join soldiers on the frontline. But this imagined glory soon faded to reveal the harsh realities of conflict, and the queen spent much of her time writing letters of condolence to bereaved families, and also quietly funding the fitting of prosthetic limbs for the injured.
The bungled Charge of the Light Brigade left the reputation of the British military in tatters, and the subsequent squabbles were just as unedifying. Further battles were similarly devastating, leaving thousands dead or seriously wounded, and the bitterly cold weather compounded the prevailing sense of misery. Finally, the authorities back home realised that help was needed and despatched a part of thirty-eight nurses. Among them was Florence Nightingale, a remarkable woman whose forceful character often dominates accounts of the Crimea. Although in the book Helen Rappaport credits Nightingale’s many achievements, her focus is on the women whose stories remain largely untold: Fanny Duberly, the energetic and indomitable officer’s wife, whose eyewitness accounts of key battles give us a uniquely vivid perspective on the human (and equine) cost of war; and Mary Seacole, the Jamaican-born nurse who overcame institutional racism in her determination to help the men risking their lives.
It is Mary Seacole who really shines in Rappaport’s magnificent book. Although she had considerable nursing experience, Seacole was turned down as an official volunteer on the grounds that a “West Indian constitution is no the one best able to bear the fatigue of nurse,” a spectacularly offensive and fatuous claim, given Britain’s earlier willingness to exploit black women as slaves. Undaunted, Seacole simply paid for her own transport, establishing herself just outside Balaclava. There she set up ‘The British Hotel’, providing home comforts to the military, and also acting as “doctress, nurse, and mother”. Although she attracted criticism for running what was in some respect a clubhouse, that was exactly what the men wanted, and the prices paid by officers meant that Seacole could distribute free food to the poor soldiers. Apart from making life more comfortable for her visitors, Seacole also possessed the same skill and experience of a male doctor, and her medical interventions improved the recovery prospects of many wounded men.
Given her significant contribution, it is hard to fathom why Mary Seacole has been effectively whitewashed from our history. If Lords Cardigan, Raglan and Lucan can be remembered for their incompetence, then why shouldn’t Seacole be immortalised for her bravery and compassion? Historians, including Helen Rappaport, have done much to raise awareness, but some of this good work has been undone by Michael Gove in his misguided attempt to remove Seacole from the National Curriculum. While it is true that her contribution specifically to the nursing profession did not rival that of Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole is undeniably an important part of our history, and a figure who represents our diversity. Let us celebrate this enterprising and inspirational woman.
No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War is available in a Kindle edition.