In Search Of Mary Seacole: The Making of a Cultural Icon

Helen Rappaport

Simon & Schuster, £20

Review by Trevor Royle

Rarely, if ever, has a biography been given a more apt title. Usually when authors embark on a biographical project of this magnitude, they will have a pretty fair idea of what tools and materials they will require. A workable and carefully preserved archive would be a good starting point and it would be still better if it contained previously unseen material. Even a trustworthy timeline would be helpful, as would be previously published books on the same subject. But that’s not the case here.

Helen Rappaport is a seasoned writer with at least a dozen well-respected books to her name and is thoroughly at home in the world of letters. Her subject too is hardly unfamiliar. In 2004, Mary Seacole was voted Britain’s best-known black woman, her visage has appeared on first-class stamps, statues have been erected in her honour and her work as a nurse in the Crimean War (1854-1856) is beyond dispute. In short, in an age when the black contribution to British history is an acknowledged fact, the name of Mary Seacole should need no introduction following long years of unjustified neglect.

Except that as Rappaport discovered when she embarked on her quest, very little is known about Seacole beyond her Crimean exploits and the fact that she was born and raised as a Creole woman in Jamaica. She even wrote an unrevealing autobiography called Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands and her name is present in most Crimean War histories, but beyond that her life was essentially a blank canvas.

That much became clear to Rappaport from the outset of her quest. Indeed, it was the serendipitous acquisition of a naïve portrait of Seacole that sparked her original interest; on first inspection she admits that she was “overtaken by a powerful sense of mission” to make Seacole’s story better known, so much so that her first instinct was to loan the painting to the National Portrait Gallery in London before starting to unravel Seacole’s life.

This proved to be no easy matter although some facts were sacrosanct. Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805 and her birth name was Grant, Mary herself admitting that “my father was a soldier, of an old Scotch family”.

So far so good: 19th-century Jamaica was a strategically important colonial possession prized for its sugar plantations, many of which were run by Scots. But with Grant being the 10th most common surname in Jamaica, Rappaport encountered her first brick wall, a hurdle not helped by the British Army’s management of the resident garrison. Regiments were constantly being changed or renumbered, records were scant or inaccurate and matters were not helped by the island’s insalubrious conditions and unhealthy climate.

Far from being disheartened by the paucity of information or weighed down by the frequently contradictory facts, Rappaport seems to have been energised by them and from an early stage in her task the narrative quickly takes on the complexion of a detective story. Nothing is too modest or too unpromising to be put to one side. Setbacks are shrugged off, and disappointments are either ignored or confronted and then addressed. For evidence, just read the promising chapter entitled The Myth of Blundell Hall, in which Rappaport disposes of many infelicities surrounding the Grant family’s involvement in the lodging house business in Jamaica’s capital Kingston, including an oft-repeated slur that their enterprise was run for immoral purposes. All the while young Mary Grant was waiting and watching and honing her skills as a healer or “doctress” to use her own favoured description of her work, gaining her expertise from the use of holistic herbal remedies allied to some sturdy common sense.

This has led some commentators and supporters to claim that Seacole was a pioneering professional nurse whose exploits were ignored due to ignorance brought about by racial prejudice, but Rappaport will have none of it. While acknowledging that Seacole was not trained in the modern medical sense, she makes a powerful case for upholding her reputation as a nurse in the widest possible interpretation of the role, whose skill, patience and kindness saved many lives. She also adds that from all the available evidence, Mary Seacole was a hard-headed businesswoman who took every advantage of the possibilities that came her way and benefited as a result. In other words, and in another age, she would have been recognised as a steely and effective networker who made a point of winning friends in high places. And what is more, keeping them.

She first came to the fore in the isthmus of Panama – “a villainous looking little place” – during the Californian gold rush in the Sacramento Valley where she had to deal with the ravages of cholera yet still sensed the business opportunities by opening a hotel-cum-hospital to cater for the needs of the many prospectors. This proved to be a good business model which she adapted during the episode, which brought her fame through her services as a nurse during the Crimean War, the ill-judged conflict fought between Britain and France on one side and Russia on the other. Hailed by the British troops as “Mother Seacole”, Mary had no right to be near the battlefield and had to pay her own way to get there, losing a fortune in the process, but she clearly felt an inner compunction to be on that bleak Ukrainian peninsula which witnessed some of the worst blunders in modern warfare.

Inevitably comparisons have been made with Florence Nightingale who also achieved fame for her nursing exploits in the Crimea, but this is unfair to both women. Nightingale came from a well-to-do English family and enjoyed connections at the highest level of government whereas Seacole had to struggle for everything she achieved. Yet both had a vivid understanding of the needs of their patients and were united by a burning desire to improve their lot. Rappaport’s eloquently argued work sets the record straight by revealing the life story of a most extraordinary woman.