Tuesday evening, at 10.40 ITV broadcast a documentary, ‘In the Shadow of Mary Seacole’, in which the actor David Harewood went on a journey from Britain to Jamaica and the Crimea tracing the life of Mary Seacole. Seacole was one of the Victorian heroines that have been forgotten with the march of time. In her forties, she went to Crimea to open a hotel to serve the troops, as well as going on to the battlefield to try to heal them with traditional Jamaican herbal remedies. She was at one time as popular as Florence Nightingale, and her memory has been preserved by Black historians and activists. Amongst those Harewood spoke to about her, were a group of mainly Black, but with one or two White ladies, who had formed a society to commemorate her. These ladies had succeeded in their campaign for a monument to be erected to her. As Harewood traced Seacole’s physical journey around the globe, so he also followed the story of the her statue from the initial design as a maquette, or scale model, to the completion of the final, 3 metre tall statue and its installation outside one of London’s hospitals.
Apart from Harewood himself and the ladies of his commemoration society, the other speakers in the programme included Diane Abbott, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, the comedian Jo Brand, a Black actress, a White woman, who had written a biography of Seacole, and a biographer of Florence Nightingale. The latter was very critical of Mary Seacole. He felt that, in contrast to Nightingale, Seacole’s achievements in nursing had been blown out of proportion. He declared that there was no evidence she had saved thousands of lives. He felt she was only being commemorated due to ‘political correctness’ – the need to find a Black counterpart to Nightingale. He stated he had no objection to a statue being put up to her, but did object to where it was to be sited: outside the very hospital associated with Nightingale. Harewood correctly commented that she continued to divide opinions today.
He began the programme at the side of the lakes in Birmingham, where he and his brother used to play as children. He said that at the time he was growing up in the 70s, there were no major figures of his skin colour, and no women. Mary Seacole had been a particular heroine of his. Seacole had been born in Jamaica in 1805, the illegitimate daughter of a free Black woman and a Scots soldier. Her mother ran a boarding house, and it was from her mother that she also learnt her knowledge of Jamaican herbal medicine. She later on married a White Englishman, Horatio Hamilton, who claimed to be the illegitimate son of Horatio Nelson and Lady Hamilton. The marriage unfortunately only lasted nine years. Hamilton was sickly, and Seacole nursed him through his final years before his death. With the outbreak of the Crimean War, Seacole used her own money to journey to Crimea to construct a hotel. There she was known for serving good food, as well as dispensing ‘liquors’ to the troops. Her hotel was particularly patronised by the officer class.
Harewood explained that the purpose of the War had been to quell fears that the Russians were going to expand southward. The Crimea, then as now, was home to the Russian fleet. And so the British invaded and besieged the town of Sebastopol. After several years of fighting, the British managed to break the Russians, who retreated, sinking their own ships as they did so. The sequences showing the Crimean War were illustrated by clips from a Russian movie made in 1912.
Mary’s fortunes were not so successful, however. She came back to Britain in debt. A banquet was held in her honour, in order to raise money for her, supported by several of the soldiers. Although the banquet was a success, it did not raise any money for her, and she died penniless, eventually to be all but forgotten. She had, however, left an autobiography, a modern edition of which Harewood was shown reading.
The sculptor showed Harewood the model he had made. This would show Seacole as the strong, purposeful woman she was, striding forward with her clothes swirling around her. Behind would be a metal disc, which would bear the imprint of the ground from Crimea. It was designed to be lit up from below at night. To illustrate this, the sculptor showed Harewood the intended effect using the light from his mobile phone. His intention was not only to show Seacole herself, but that the shadows of the people admiring the statue would also be cast onto the disc behind her, so that for a brief moment they too would share her space.
The sculptor stated that there were a lot of photographs showing Seacole’s face from the front, but he wanted to know what she looked like from all sides. Thus he asked Harewood to go to the archives in Jamaica to see what material they had on her. The British archivist there produced a bust of the heroine, in reddish-brown clay, that was made by one of the army surgeons. It was, he said, one of the rarest of its type in the archives and easily the most valuable. Harewood duly photographed the bust from all angles.
Also in Jamaica, Harewood spoke to a former pharmacist, a doctor, who had given up her career in orthodox medicine for one in complementary healing. She explained that Seacole didn’t have any formal medical training, but would have been a ‘doctress’. This meant that she had a knowledge of herbal lore, which she used to treat and heal. It was this knowledge that she used to treat the wounded squaddies on the frozen battlefields of the Crimea.
This led to Harewood and the sculptor, back home in England, discussing Seacole’s features. There’s a debate and a little controversy over how ‘Black’ Seacole was. She was clearly a woman of African heritage, but the sculptor also felt that there would have been some elements in her appearance from her White heritage. Her features, he believed, would have been a little narrower from other Black Jamaicans as a result. He then sent Harewood on to the next stage of his journey of discovery, to the Crimea to find suitable ground from which to take the impressions for the statue’s metal disc.
At the Crimea, he met a local historian, a mature lady, who guided him to some of the battle sites. He looked over the ‘Valley of Death’ through which the Light Brigade charged to spike the Russian guns, celebrated in Tennyson’s poem, and illustrated in a painting from the period. Poring over maps, he traced the site of Seacole’s hotel, and was delighted to discover that there were still relics of her stay littering the ground. These included some of the wine and alcohol bottles she had stocked. Looking at the shards of glass, Harewood and the historian discussed how the British used to shoot the tops off the bottles. Harewood was accompanied on his journey by the technician, who was going to take the impression of the ground. While Harewood and the historian discussed Seacole’s hotel and its remains, he went off to find a suitable rock formation. This was scanned using a laser, which the technician held up to shoot its rays at the rock face, slowly building up a three dimensional computer model of its surface.
The Black actress commented on what a strong, modern woman Seacole would have been. She had travelled on her own across the world without a husband, something which was extremely rare at the time, and which few women did today.
Back in England, Harewood returned to see the immense metal armature the sculptor had constructed, which would serve as the three-dimensional framework for the clay from which the statue would be made. The sculptor trowelled a few pieces of clay into place before inviting Harewood to join in. Harewood did so, but not unsurprisingly found stirring and getting the great gobs of clay from the bucket onto his trowel, and then on to the frame hard work. It struck me that this part of the statue’s construction was not so much like the image of sculpture everyone has, with delicate fingers moulding pliant clay, so much as like a navvy laying down mortar on a brick wall.
Harewood then said that there were a few more things that needed to be done to the statue, with footage of it being covered with various other substances, one of which looked like rubber, before it was due to be taken to be cast into bronze. The programme showed the statue being driven to the foundry on the back of an open truck, securely fastened with tarpaulin and ropes. Once there, the programme showed the molten bronze being poured from a crucible into the mould formed from the clay statue. This was the moment of truth, and the sculptor described it as a form of alchemy.
The statue was being cast in pieces, and the sculptor took Harewood to see some of the pieces that had already been cast, which included her head. At this stage of the process, the bronze was a bright, coppery colour. The pieces would be assembled and welded together. The welding marks would then be removed, before the statue was finally put in place. There was a little footage of this being done. When completed, the statue was a much darker colour.
The programme showed the ceremony for the statue’s installation. Amongst those speaking were Diane Abbott, and the sculptor himself. He said in his speech that there were plenty of statues of White men, mostly monarchs and generals, but only 15 per cent of the statues in Britain were of women, and very few Black people. It had therefore been his privilege to try to redress this. Back in the studio, Jo Brand paid tribute to Seacole, saying that she was a woman of immense compassion. Her biographer answered the criticisms of Nightingale’s biographer by saying that the comments about her going to run a hotel there were meant to disparage her accomplishment by pointing out that there was also a commercial motive. But this did not detract from her achievements. She also answered the criticism that Seacole didn’t have formal medical training by pointing out that nursing as a distinct, respected profession didn’t exist at the time, and was only created by Nightingale after the War. Harewood himself also commented, stating that there were few, if any, statues of people of his colour. But it was important to have them, to show that people of colour had been a part of this country’s history for a very long time.
It was an interesting glimpse into the life of a determined woman, who was rightly celebrated in her day. I don’t think you could quite make her Nightingale’s equal – Nightingale herself was an expert mathematician, who added much to statistics, and whose achievements included the invention of the pie chart. And Nightingale is the genius behind the creation of modern nursing. Nevertheless, she played her bit providing comfort to the wounded in during the horrors of the Crimean War. Brand at one point said she must have been an immense comfort to some poor, teenage soldier dying far away from his mother. And the troops also doubtless appreciated the alcohol she brought on to the battlefield. So, while may be not as great a figure as Nightingale, she certainly deserved her statue.
One other thing also struck me about Seacole and her unofficial status as ‘doctress’. While this may strike people today, used to modern, professional scientific medicine, as something close to magic, it would have been immediately familiar to the ordinary troopers from working class or rural poor backgrounds. Before it was applied to African spiritual healers and practitioners, the term ‘witchdoctor’ originally meant the white witches and wizards of rural Britain, to whom the poor turned to heal their illnesses. Professional doctors before the establishment of the NHS and the welfare state were rare in rural areas, and expensive. Unofficial healers with a knowledge of herbalism were therefore the only people available to the poor, whether they were White British or Black Jamaicans. Professional doctors also had a reputation as rapacious quacks, whose treatments were more likely to kill you as cure you. The rank and file squaddies in the British army were thus probably more prepared to trust her as the type of healer they had grown up with at home, than the properly trained medical men. And clearly, the army surgeon, who had sculpted the bust respected her courage and professionalism, otherwise he would not have tried to preserve her image in clay.
And Harewood is right: Black people have been in Britain since the Romans. It is thus only right that Seacole should have a statue in her honour.