Think of Victorian nurses and Florence Nightingale comes to mind but London’s National Portrait Gallery holds a tiny portrait of another celebrated nurse who fought far harder for recognition: Jamaican born, Mary Jane Seacole. Seacole (nee Grant) (1805-1881) was mixed race (her mother was a Jamaican nurse; her father a Scottish soldier) and experienced discrimination in Victorian England. She accompanied relatives to London when she was young and later recalled:
“Strangely enough, some of the most vivid of my recollections are the efforts of the London street-boys to poke fun at my and my companion’s complexion. I am only a little brown – a few shades duskier than the brunettes whom you all admire so much; but my companion was very dark, and a fair (if I can apply the term to her) subject for their rude wit”
On her return to Jamaica, she studied Creole medicinal art with her mother and, before marrying Edwin Seacole in 1836, travelled widely including to Cuba, Haiti, and the Bahamas. Widowed by 1844, Seacole continued to travel and soon became an expert in treating cholera. When there was a huge outbreak of cholera during the Crimean War, she went back to England in 1854 to ask the War Office to send her to Crimea. However it was the inexperienced Florence Nightingale who was sent and Seacole was twice rejected when she asked to join her. Undeterred, she travelled to Balaklava independently and set up her own hospital (the British Hotel) as well as treating the wounded directly on the battlefield.
In 1856 a British soldier wrote to The Times complaining that while Florence Nightingale had become famous, the contribution made by Mary Seacole was in danger of being forgotten. He was probably right because unlike the many records of Nightingale, this little oil on panel portrait (measuring a mere 24 x 18 cm) from 1869 is the sole image we have of Seacole. The artist Albert Charles Challen depicts her wearing the three medals she was awarded for her service. Aside from that nod to her professionalism, the portrait is wonderfully human, giving a hint of the warmth that led soldiers to nickname her “Mother Seacole.” Compare it with the more formal portraits of Florence Nightingale in the same room (Room 22).
That the officers were glad of me as a doctress and nurse may be easily understood. When a poor fellow lay sickening in his cheerless hut and sent down to me, he knew very well that I should not ride up in answer to his message empty-handed. And although I did not hesitate to charge him with the value of the necessaries I took him, still he was thankful enough to be able to purchase them. […] How often have I felt sad at the sight of poor lads who in England thought attending early parade a hardship, and felt harassed if their neckcloths set awry, or the natty little boots would not retain their polish, bearing, and bearing so nobly and bravely, trials and hardships to which the veteran campaigner frequently succumbed. Don’t you think, reader, if you were lying, with parched lips and fading appetite, thousands of miles from mother, wife, or sister, loathing the rough food by your side, and thinking regretfully of that English home where nothing that could minister to your great need would be left untried – don’t you think that you would welcome the familiar figure of the stout lady whose bony horse has just pulled up at the door of your hut, and whose panniers contain some cooling drink, a little broth, some homely cake, or a dish of jelly or blanc-mange – don’t you think, under such circumstances, that you would heartily agree with my friend Punch‘s remark:–
“That berry-brown face, with a kind heart’s trace
Impressed on each wrinkle sly,
Was a sight to behold, through the snow-clouds rolled
Across that iron sky.” ”