Last Thursday, a monumental statue of Mary Seacole was unveiled in London. Sculpted by artist Martin Jennings, the bronze depicts the 19th-century nurse striding forward; a disc behind her has an impression of the ground in Crimea, where she served on the battlefield. According to a statement that the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal (MSMSA) shared with Hyperallergic, the statue is the first in the UK “dedicated to a named black woman.”
The sculpture on London’s South Bank stands in the gardens of St Thomas’ Hospital and looks across the River Thames to the Houses of Parliament. Lord Clive Soley, MSMSA chair, stated in a release that at “a time when the police are reporting an increase in hate crime we think Mary’s story should serve as a reminder that Britain has always been supported by committed and brave people from around the world.” To erect the statue, MSMSA led 12 years of campaigning and fundraising.
Born to Scottish and Jamaican parents in Kingston in 1805, Seacole had limited rights because of her race. Yet she managed to treat the afflicted in cholera and yellow fever epidemics in Jamaica and Panama, and, through her own initiative, went on to provide essential care for soldiers wounded in the Crimean War. According to the British Library, she arrived in London in 1854 to offer her services as a volunteer nurse but was turned away by the War Office. So she “borrowed money and travelled by herself to the battlefields of Eastern Europe.” A plaque near the new statue is engraved with the 1857 words of the Times newspaper’s Crimean War correspondent, Sir William Howard Russell: “I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”
For a long time, however, the country did forget, and Seacole’s reputation didn’t remain nearly as prominent as that of her fellow Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale. The placement of the statue by St Thomas’ Hospital, where Nightingale worked, has irked some, including the Florence Nightingale Society, which actively dispatched letters against the location of the sculpture and the equating of Seacole’s legacy with that of Nightingale. It’s true that they had different impacts —Seacole was more of hands-on nurse, while Nightingale excelled as a statistician — yet the outcry is counterproductive when so few public statues exist to honor historic women.
A 2012 survey revealed that of 640 listed statues in the UK, only 15% portrayed women, and of these most represented royalty or allegorical figures (although Nightingale does have a sculpture in Trafalgar Square). This imbalance exists around the world. For example, in New York City there are only five public statues of named women, and just one portrays a black woman: Harriet Tubman in Harlem. A campaign is underway to erect statues of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park, but the recent announcement that a 13-foot bronze of Captain America will be temporarily installed in Prospect Park shows that the tide is slow to change. Seacole’s London statue is a welcome tribute to a woman who was selfless in her work, overlooked in her death, and, more than a century later, finally receiving a memorial that will help assure she’s not again forgotten.