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Book reviews >

Mary Seacole


Haus Publishing £10.99 (1-904950-03-5); Church Times Bookshop £9.90

The greatest black Briton: Sarah Mullally enjoys a warts-and-all story of determination, skill and love
 
WHEN I began to train as a nurse in the 1980s, I looked for nursing heroes, and I happened to come across Mary Seacole. At the time little was written about her, probably because she was of Caribbean parentage. Since then, the nursing profession has rightly rediscovered her.

There is always the risk with heroes of building them up into someone they weren't, but Ramdin tells it as it is. He rightly reports that she was a plain-speaking woman who lived an adventurous life. He suggests that she was the right woman in the right place at the right time.

Nevertheless, his account of Mary Seacole's life tells us she was more than that. He describes a woman who was in the right place at the right time only because she was a woman of courage, skill, and determination, who valued humanity. This account contains important lessons for those of us who care, and demonstrates why she was voted the greatest black Briton in 2004.

Ramdin gives a clear and concise account of her life, using primary sources by her and by other authors of the period. He sets her clearly within the context of race, gender, class, and war.

Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805 as a free coloured, two years before the abolition of the slave trade by Britain. She learnt her skill as a nurse and doctoress from her mother, but she continued to constantly seek opportunities to learn more and to use her skills. She didn't wait to be asked, but saw needs, and worked to meet them. Her reputation went before her, as she cared for those in Jamaica, Panama, and the Crimea.

Mary was a woman of determination, and on arrival in the Crimea she set about building a British hotel from the driftwood and timber she found in the harbour. It was completed, only to be lost when a dam burst. Undeterred, she set about building it again. A woman of courage and love, she attended wounded soldiers regardless of the danger she faced when under fire. There, in the front line, she provided food, medical care, and compassion.

As a black woman and as a single mother, Mary experienced discrimination, but she was never deterred, not even when facing Florence Nightingale.

But Ramdin also highlights her refusal to identify more fully with her African heritage, and her pride in being of light skin-colour. He also points to her tendency to exaggerate, and to the fact that campaign medals ( see picture above) she wore after the war were never awarded to her.

Student nurses today would do well to take Mary Seacole as a role- model; and those of us who care for others would do well to learn from her compassion and determination.  Ramdin's book gives a clear account from which to learn.

Dame Sarah Mullally is Assistant Curate of Battersea Fields, and was formerly Chief Nursing Officer in the Department of Health.

To order this book, email the details to Church Times Bookshop

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