On Wednesday The Telegraph (and others) ran a news item entitled: ‘CBBC sketch ‘inaccurately’ painted Florence Nightingale as racist, BBC Trust finds’. As an historian of nursing, it caught my attention. It turned out that a complaint had been lodged (and partially upheld) against Horrible Histories which, it was claimed, had branded Nightingale a racist in her treatment of Crimean-war rival Mary Seacole. Why does Nightingale spark such controversy?
For those not familiar with the story, Nightingale had been drafted by the government to organise nursing in the Crimea, in the wake of terrible losses. She was put in charge of recruiting ‘nurses’ for the Front Line. Mary Seacole was a Creole woman from Jamaica, who hearing of the urgent need for experienced women and feeling herself to be British to her heart (her father was a Scot), volunteered her services. She believed she fitted the bill, having spent the whole of her life caring for the sick and injured in and around the Caribbean. She was an expert in local remedies, referring to herself as a ‘doctoress’. Seacole was rejected by Nightingale’s committee but undaunted set up her own ‘hospital’. Actually, it was more like an hotel (it was even called the British Hotel) and provided soldiers with home comforts and good food, in addition to nursing and ‘medical’ care. (And, it has been implied by some historians, some ‘other’ types of care as well.)
No-one disputes (I think) that Nightingale and Seacole did not get on – their backgrounds were almost diametrically opposed. While Nightingale was a product of mid-Victorian Britain (with all the social baggage that brings with it) Seacole was in many respects a ‘country’ girl, who had little grasp of middle-class British respectability.
Seacole’s story has been hidden from historical accounts of the Crimea until relatively recently, when she began to emerge from the shadows. Why was she rejected, asked some historians, perhaps desperate to find an alternative to the Nightingale myth (the Lady with Lamp, who could do no wrong?) And inevitably, given our own modern preoccupations, it wasn’t long before someone levelled the accusation of racism at Nightingale. Horrible Histories were not the first to do this, if indeed that’s what they did. And to be honest, would it be that surprising if it were true? We are all guilty of confusing modern customs and prejudices with those of the past; see the recent accusations of racism levelled at that much loved cartoon ‘Tom and Jerry’. You can’t change history by saying it wasn’t so because it offends us today – that road leads to totalitarianism and censorship. So really, is it that shocking to propose that one reason for Seacole’s rejection, by a committee composed of middle-class Victorians, might have been the colour of her skin? It might also have been because she described herself as a ‘doctoress’ – which would challenge the heavily demarcated line been nursing and doctoring which existed throughout the 19th century.
I have never seen Horrible Histories, so I googled the sketch which you can still find on YouTube. To be frank I failed to see where the accusation of racism came from. The critics picked up on one line by ‘Nightingale’ that Seacole was not chosen because ‘only British girls’ were being selected and she (Seacole) was Jamaican. Whether that conversation ever took place is by the by, but can it really be construed as endowing Nightingale with racist intent?
The main complainant in this case was the Nightingale Society; and this group has form. Not long ago they launched another attack against Seacole (or Seacole supporters – this has become a tribal affair) in History Today – this time when it was proposed to site a statue of her outside St Thomas’ Hospital. This presumption, to place a statue of Nightingale’s (or rather their) arch-rival outside her own alma mater certainly upset the Society, and a large number of the medical and nursing profession.
I really don’t understand their anger, although in the case of the statue perhaps, given the bad blood which exists between the two sides, the choice of site is somewhat provocative. Nightingale’s contribution to nursing is established and unassailable. Seacole is at best a bit-part player in the story of the Crimea and no player at all in the story of the development of nursing. She poses no threat to Nightingale’s already sealed reputation. But the version of history we have today persists in painting Victorian Britain as an homogeneously white society, so we should be encouraging, not stamping on, the little shafts of light which reveal the presence of others in our nation’s story.
Sometimes we need to see the bigger picture and that surely is the point. Making history fun (not making fun of history) is what will help young children develop a more serious and long-term interest in the subject. Making it fun does not have to mean subverting the ‘truth’, and by all accounts HH succeeds in this. Greg Jenner is talking at Kingston next Thursday (9 October at 6pm). I am looking forward to an energetic debate on ‘Why Making Historical Television Is Harder Than You Think!”
Sue Hawkins is a Senior lecturer in History and specialises in the history of nursing and healthcare.