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Do you agree with the view that Mary Seacole, and not Florence Nightingale, was the real “angel of mercy” in the Crimea?

I perceive that the claim that Mary Seacole was in fact more useful, brave and a greater figure of inspiration for the British soldiers than Florence Nightingale is correct. Although contempories gave all the official credit to Nightingale, racial prejudices may well have influenced this. Seacole did receive praise from men well positioned to view her real effectiveness such as William Russell. The fact that Seacole was at the scene of the war and all its hardships, as highlighted in source V, also means she fulfills the term angel of mercy more than Nightingale in Scutari. It can be surmised from the idyllic nature of the scene that source U is a Government propaganda painting, or at least produced by someone in favor of the war and Nightingales efforts. It is a contempory painting from 1856 which lends itself to this view and therefore the painter would not have had the benefit of hindsight or the ability to study sources. Therefore it is more likely to reflect the general mood of the time. Hence the hospital in Scutari is seen looking remarkably clean and spacious, with almost as many surgeons and nurses as patients. The historical evidence is that this was simply not the case. In reality the squalid conditions and lack of qualified surgeons meant death rates in Scutari were incredibly high. Florence Nightingale herself, in her biography, wrote about the four miles of beds with merely 18 inches between them. In the picture windows are open whereas British hospitals actually had almost no ventilation. It was only later that Nightingale realized this was necessary, when using her Nightingale fund. Source U can therefore be seen as useless propaganda which built Nightingales false image of the “angel of mercy” in the Crimea. However there are some valid points about Nightingales positive contribution to the Scutari hospital. She was extremely persistent in writing letters to the British Government at home, begging them for basic supplies such as bandages. That she used her influential role to benefit the soldiers shows great concern and care for their welfare. By all reports she also worked with extreme devotion and dedication and had “formidable gifts of organization”, as mentioned in source V. Therefore there is no doubt that she was fully committed and had many talents, not least in doctoring itself, where she was more knowledgeable than Seacole in standard methods. There is also the argument that she did significantly improve the Scutari hospital from her arrival in 1854. However undoubtedly to nowhere near the level seen in source U. In fact, high death rates due to poor sanitation have led to the hospital being called a death camp by historians with the benefit of hindsight. The statistical information about conditions is not in keeping with Nightingale being “the angel of mercy” in the Crimea. Source V focuses on Mary Seacole’s involvement in the Crimean war. Unlike Nightingale, Seacole’s “British hotel” was in the Crimea, not situated “several hundred miles” away like Scutari. This is significant as the poor transportation of wounded soldiers led to many needless deaths. Seacole was available to treat soldiers without the arduous journey for the ranks who “had a fear of field hospitals”. Because of this the soldiers associated much more with her, as well as the fact many of them had served with her previously in Jamaica. Therefore by the men who really mattered she was often held in the highest esteem. Being at the centre of the action also meant Seacole was on the front line of war, living through the horrors of the fighting and as the source V says, “she showed courage under fire”. On top of this, her self-motivated desire to travel all the way to the Crimea to help the troops showed her determination and commitment to the welfare of the soldiers, whereas Nightingale was merely acting out of duty. Seacole in addition showed courage and passion as exemplified by the fact that she was the first woman to enter Sevastopol after its fall and then set about catering for and helping the troops. Source V is almost wholly positive about Seacoles involvement in the Crimea. However, she was criticised by Nightingale herself of running her “British hotel” as a “bad house”. Although this seems to be mere slander there was the sale of alcohol and many other items which suggests Seacole was in the Crimea for ulterior motives. These claims fail to mention that she returned to the Crimea with less money than she arrived with due to the cost of the journey and buying of medical equipment for the soldiers. Aspersions can also be cast over Seacole’s real prowess as a doctor. She learned her herbal medicines from her mother and didn’t have any of the standard medical education of Nightingale. Despite this her methods may well have been just as effective, if not more so as standard methods were not particularly advanced and all reports, including that of Russell, praised her healing skills. In conclusion, Nightingale was undoubtedly fully committed to her role of running the Scutari hospital in the Crimea. However death rates remained high as her failure to identify the poor sanitation as the cause of this cost thousands of lives. Despite rejection and shabby treatment by Nightingale, Seacole showed total dedication and determination to serve in the Crimea. Once there she associated a lot more with the men and unlike Nightingale administered treatment on the front line. Although Nightingale achieved much after the Crimean War for British medicine and the role of women, my judgment is that Mary Seacole was the real “angel of mercy” in the Crimea.

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