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Missing sign of royal approval

11 March 2022

When Mary Seacole returned to England from nursing the Crimean war injured, why didn’t Queen Victoria contact her, asks Helen Rappaport


Portrait of Mary Seacole (1869) by Albert Challen, now in the National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of Mary Seacole (1869) by Albert Challen, now in the National Portrait Gallery

WHILE the British Army was celebrating Mary Seacole’s contribution to the war effort loud and clear, and the British press was widely reporting on it, one person who one might have expected to voice her approval was decidedly silent. The Queen.

One of many who had written to Mary in Crimea thanking her for all she had done for him had said: “I am sure that when her most gracious Majesty the Queen shall have become acquainted with the service you have gratuitously rendered to so many of her brave soldiers, her generous heart will thank you.”

It goes against the grain of everything we know about Victoria that she would not have sent her a note, if not been consumed by curiosity to meet the celebrated Mrs Seacole.

Queen Victoria had long had a concerned interest in her Black and Asian subjects, and did not share the views on race and colour held by most of her peers; for she took pride always in judging people on their merits alone.

In 1833, as a 14-year-old, she had wholeheartedly welcomed the emancipation of enslaved people across the British Empire and, later, with her husband, Prince Albert, had been a staunch supporter of abolition in the United States.

At the Great Exhibition of 1851, she expressed great interest in the sole Black exhibitor, Josiah Henson, who had been the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s eponymous hero in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book over which Victoria had wept. So moved had she been, in fact, that Victoria had contrived a private meeting with Mrs Beecher Stowe when she visited England.

(When Beecher Stowe visited England in 1853, on the back of publication of her bestselling Uncle Tom’s Cabin the previous year, Victoria, who was a passionate fan of her book, wanted to meet her, but the American embassy in London objected, arguing that a formal meeting would be seen as a royal endorsement of the abolitionist cause in the US and be diplomatically compromising. In defiance, Victoria contrived an “accidental” meeting when they both passed through Paddington Station: Stowe en route for Scotland, and Victoria arriving from Windsor.)


MOST notably, in November 1850, she had taken under her wing an Egbado princess, Omo’ba Aina (who was given the name Sarah Forbes Bonetta), who had been rescued from captivity in Dahomey by Captain Frederick Forbes; the Queen paid for her education, and on numerous occasions invited Sarah to Windsor.

We know that the Queen later donated privately to the second Seacole Fund of 1867 set up for Mary; so why did the Queen not invite her to tea on her return from Crimea? After all, she had the personal recommendation of members of Victoria’s own family who had served in Crimea, such as Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar (a colonel in the Grenadier Guards), and the Duke of Cambridge (who had commanded a division).

There can be only one rational explanation: Florence Nightingale. It’s clear how greatly she disapproved of Mary, despite grudgingly acknowledging her obvious good works; and this was for the simple reason of Mary’s perceived lack of propriety. She sold alcohol, and some of her customers at Spring Hill drank more than they should.

But worse, of course, was the private knowledge Nightingale had of Mary’s illegitimate daughter, Sally, by a white British officer. For Queen Victoria, that would be too schocking — as the monarch might well have said with her unmistakable German intonation.

For her part, Victoria regarded the Lady of the Lamp as a paragon of feminine virtue, whose opinions she took as gospel, so much so that she was extremely anxious to meet her the minute she set foot back in England — or rather Scotland; for Victoria commanded Nightingale’s presence at Balmoral in September 1856, as soon as she heard she was making a visit to the royal physician Sir James Clark, at nearby Birkhall.

Over the course of several subsequent private meetings in Scotland, there is no doubt the Queen interrogated Nightingale on all things Crimean, and this must have included the much-lauded Jamaican heroine.

Predictably, there is no mention of Mrs Seacole in this regard in either Nightingale’s letters or the Queen’s, nor for that matter in Victoria’s journals. Was Mary deliberately redacted out of them?

This is an extract from In Search of Mary Seacole: The making of a cultural icon by Helen Rappaport, published by Simon & Schuster at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-1-39850-443-1.

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