Although writing can help decipher history, it’s our humanity which keeps all of us striving for an improved future.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Helen Hunt Jackson: Human Rights Activist

by  • December 8, 2010 • Biographies 
Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), activist for Native American rights and author of Southern California’s most enduring historical romance novel Ramona, was born and reared in Amherst , Massachusetts , a schoolmate and friend of the woman who would become Amherst’s most celebrated resident, poet Emily Dickinson. (Born Helen Maria Fiske, Jackson would be twice married: first to U.S. Army Capt. Edward B. Hunt who died in a military accident, then to William S. Jackson, a wealthy banker and railroad executive.)
“As soon as I began, it seemed impossible to write fast enough…I wrote faster than I would write a letter…two thousand to three thousand words in a morning, and I cannot help it.”

— Helen Hunt Jackson describing her writing of “Ramona”
Jackson grew up in a literary environment, and was herself a noted poet and writer of children’s stories, novels, and essays (under the pseudonym H.H.H.), before turning her considerable intellect and energy to investigating and publicizing the mistreatment of Native Americans, especially the Mission Indians of Southern California.

Her interest in the subject began in Boston in 1879 at a lecture by Chief Standing Bear who described the forced removal of the Ponca Indians from their Nebraska reservation. Jackson was incensed by what she heard and began to circulate petitions, raised money, and wrote letters to the New York Times on the Poncas’ behalf. As one observer noted, she became a “holy terror.” (Friends and critics have variously described her as “passionate,” “volatile,” “defiant” and “uncompromising.” Historian Antoinette May said she “lived a life that few women of her day had the courage to live.”) Jackson also began work on a book condemning the government’s Indian policy and its record of broken treaties. When A Century of Dishonor was published in 1881, Jackson sent a copy to every member of Congress with the following admonition printed in red on the cover: “Look upon your hands: they are stained with the blood of your relations.” To her disappointment, the book had little impact.

In need of a rest, Jackson traveled to Southern California to study the area’s missions, a subject that had piqued her interest during an earlier visit. While in Los Angeles , she met Don Antonio Coronel, former mayor of Los Angeles (1853-4), city councilman (1854-66) and State Treasurer (1866-70). Coronel was a well-known authority on early Californio life in Southern California , and also a former inspector of missions for the Mexican government. He described to Jackson the plight of Mission Indians after 1833, when secularization policies led to the sale of mission lands and the dispersal of their residents.

“Many of the original Mexican grants included clauses protecting the Indians on the lands they occupied,” writes Valerie Mathes, author of Helen Hunt Jackson : Official Agent to the California Mission Indians. “When Americans assumed control,” Mathes continues, “they ignored Indian claims to lands, which led to their mass dispossessions. In 1852, there were an estimated 15,000 Mission Indians in Southern California , but because of the adverse impact of dispossessions by Americans, they numbered less than 4,000 by the time of Helen’s visit.”

Don Coronel’s stories galvanized Jackson into action. Soon her efforts on behalf of dispossessed Indians in Southern California came to the attention of the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hiram Price, who recommended her appointment as an Interior Department agent. Her assignment was “to visit the Mission Indians in California , and ascertain the location and condition of various bands…and what, if any land, should be purchased for their use.”

With the assistance of Indian agent and entrepreneur Abbot Kinney, Jackson criss-crossed Southern California , documenting the appalling conditions they saw. At one point, she hired a law firm to protect the rights of a family of Saboba Indians facing dispossession of their land at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains . Her 56-page report, completed in 1883, called for a massive government relief effort, ranging from the purchase of new lands for reservations to the establishment of more Indian schools. A bill largely embodying Jackson’s recommendations passed the U.S. Senate but died in the House.
Undaunted by Congress’ rejection, Jackson decided to write a novel that would depict the Indian experience “in a way to move people’s hearts.” She was particularly drawn to the fate of her Indian friends in the Temecula area of Riverside County . The inspiration for her book, Jackson admitted, was Uncle Tom’s Cabin written years earlier by her friend, Harriet Beecher Stowe. “If I can do one hundredth part for the Indian that Mrs. Stowe did for the Negro, I will be thankful,” she told a friend. The result was Ramona, which Jackson began writing in a New York City hotel room in December 1883. Originally titled, “In The Name of the Law,” the book was completed in slightly over three months and published in November 1884. “Every incident in Ramona…is true,” Jackson said later. “A Cahuilla Indian was shot two years ago exactly as Alessandro is “and his wife’s name was Ramona and I never knew this last fact until Ramona was half written!” Later, a local writer, George Wharton James, would lecture and write books linking Ramona to an actual murder. He even recorded the murderer’s voice on an early Edison cylinder phonograph!

Encouraged by the book’s popularity, Jackson planned to write a children’s story on the Indian issue, but died of cancer on August 12, 1885, less than a year after Ramona was published. Her last letter was written to President Grover Cleveland, urging him to read her early work, “A Century of Dishonor.” Jackson told a friend: “My Century of Dishonor and Ramona are the only things I have done of which I am glad…They will live, and…bear fruit.”
Ramona has indeed borne fruit over the years, but in ways unimagined by the author. Writing in “Los Angeles: A to Z,” Leonard and Dale Pitt note: “Although Jackson’s novel, about a part-Indian orphan raised in Spanish society and her Indian husband, achieved almost instant success, it failed to arouse public concern for the treatment of local Native Americans. Instead, readers accepted the sentimentalized Spanish aristocracy that was portrayed, and the Ramona myth was born. Jackson died a year after her novel was published, never knowing the impact her book made on the Southern California heritage. The novel Ramona has inspired films [the first directed by D.W. Griffith], songs [the 1920s hit “Ramona”], and a long-running pageant in Hemet , California. And the name Ramona can be seen on street signs and commercial establishments throughout Southern California.”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Ida B. Wells: journalist and activist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the US


A daughter of slaves, Ida B. Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862. A journalist, Wells led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States in the 1890s, and went on to found and become integral in groups striving for African-American justice. She died in 1931 in Chicago, Illinois.

Early Life

Born a slave in 1862, Ida Bell Wells was the oldest daughter of James and Lizzie Wells. The Wells family, as well as the rest of the slaves of the Confederate states, were decreed free by the Union, about six months after Ida's birth, thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation. However, living in Mississippi as African Americans, they faced racial prejudices and were restricted by discriminatory rules and practices.
Ida B. Wells's  parents were active in the Republican Party during Reconstruction. Her father, James, was involved with the Freedman’s Aid Society and helped start Shaw University, a school for the newly freed slaves (now Rust College) and served on the first board of trustees.  It was there that Ida B.  Wells received her early schooling, but she had to drop out at the age of 16, when tragedy struck her family. Both of her parents and one of her siblings died in a yellow fever outbreak, leaving Wells to care for her other siblings. Ever resourceful, she convinced a nearby country school administrator that she was 18, and landed a job as a teacher.
In 1882, Wells moved with her sisters to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with an aunt. Her brothers found work as carpenter apprentices. For a time, Wells continued her education at Fisk University in Nashville.

Journalist and Activist

On one fateful train ride from Memphis to Nashville, in May 1884, Wells reached a personal turning point. Having bought a first-class train ticket to Nashville, she was outraged when the train crew ordered her to move to the car for African Americans, and refused on principle. As she was forcibly removed from the train, she bit one of the men on the hand. Wells sued the railroad, winning a $500 settlement in a circuit court case. However, the decision was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
This injustice led Ida B. Wells to pick up a pen to write about issues of race and politics in the South. Using the moniker "Iola," a number of her articles were published in black newspapers and periodicals. Wells eventually became an owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, and, later, of the Free Speech.
While working as a journalist and publisher, Wells also held a position as a teacher in a segregated public school in Memphis. She became a vocal critic of the condition of blacks only schools in the city. In 1891, she was fired from her job for these attacks. She championed another cause after the murder of a friend and his two business associates.
In 1892, three African-American men—Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell and Will Stewart—set up a grocery store in Memphis. Their new business drew customers away from a white-owned store in the neighborhood, and the white store owner and his supporters clashed with the three men on a few occasions. One night, Moss and the others guarded their store against attack and ended up shooting several of the white vandals. They were arrested and brought to jail, but they didn't have a chance to defend themselves against the charges—a lynch mob took them from their cells and murdered them.
These brutal killings incensed Wells, leading to her write articles decrying the lynching of her friend and the wrongful deaths of other African Americans. Putting her own life at risk, she spent two months traveling in the South, gathering information on other lynching incidents. One editorial seemed to push some of the city's whites over the edge. A mob stormed the office of her newspaper, destroying all of her equipment. Fortunately, Wells had been traveling to New York City at the time. She was warned that she would be killed if she ever returned to Memphis.
Staying in the North, Wells wrote an in-depth report on lynching in America for the New York Age, an African-American newspaper run by former slave T. Thomas Fortune. She lectured abroad in 1893, looking to drum up support for her cause among reform-minded whites. Upset by the ban on African-American exhibitors at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Wells penned and circulated a pamphlet entitled "The Reason Why the Colored American Is Represented in the World's Columbian Exposition." This effort was funded and supported by famed abolitionist and freed slave Frederick Douglass, and lawyer and editor Ferdinand Barnett. Also in 1893, Wells published A Red Record, a personal examination of lynchings in America.
In 1898, Wells brought her anti-lynching campaign to the White House, leading a protest in Washington, D.C., and calling for President William McKinley to make reforms. She married Ferdinand Barnett that same year, and was thereafter known as Ida B. Wells-Barnett. While the couple eventually had four children together, Wells remained committed to her social and political activism.

Later Career

Ida B. Wells established several civil rights organizations. In 1896, she formed the National Association of Colored Women. After brutal assaults on the African-American community in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908, Wells sought to take action: The following year, she attended a special conference for the organization that would later become known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Though she is considered a founding member of the NAACP, Wells later cut ties with the organization; she explained her decision thereafter, stating that she felt the organization—in its infacy at the time she left—had lacked action-based initiatives.
Working on behalf of all women, Wells, as part of her work with the National Equal Rights League, called for President Woodrow Wilson to put an end to discriminatory hiring practices for government jobs. She created the first African-American kindergarten in her community and fought for women's suffrage. In 1930, Wells made an unsuccessful bid for the state senate. Health problems plagued her the following year.
Ida B. Wells died of kidney disease on March 25, 1931, at the age of 69, in Chicago, Illinois. She left behind an impressive legacy of social and political heroism. With her writings, speeches and protests, Wells fought against prejudice, no matter what potential dangers she faced. She once said, "I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap."

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole: Nursing's Bitter Rivalry

In recent years the reputation of Mary Seacole as a pioneering nurse of the Crimean War has been elevated far beyond the bounds of her own ambition. Meanwhile that of Florence Nightingale has taken an undeserved knocking, as Lynn McDonald explains.
Portrait of Mary Seacole wearing medals (never awarded to her) of the British Crimea, the Turkish Medjidie and the Légion d'honneur, 1869
Portrait of Mary Seacole wearing medals (never awarded to her) of the British Crimea, the Turkish Medjidie and the Légion d'honneur, 1869Article by Lynn McDonald
Jamaican-born Mary Seacole (1805-81), voted top of the list of the 2004 ‘100 Great Black Britons’ poll, is now slated to replace Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) as the true ‘heroine’ of the Crimean War. She is to be honoured as no less than the ‘Pioneer Nurse’ with a massive statue to be erected at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. This in spite of the strong links between Nightingale and the hospital, her base for over 40 years. It was there she established the first secular school for nurses in 1860 with funds raised in her name for her work in the Crimean War during the conflict of 1854-56. The Nightingale School operated for over a century from the hospital, whose redesign in the 1860s Nightingale also influenced.

At three-metres high, as the Seacole campaign points out, the planned monument designed by Martin Jennings will be visible from the Houses of Parliament across the Thames and taller than the statue of Nightingale at Waterloo Place and that of Edith Cavell in St Martin’s Lane.
Fundraising for the Seacole statue is supported by an audacious campaign, employing the same Seacole myths used to persuade the Guy’s-St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust to give over the hospital site. This permission was granted by its board of directors at a closed-door meeting in 2007, with no consultation with experts, the hospital’s governors or staff. The Lambeth Planning Committee, which approved the site at a meeting in April 2012, had no mandate to consider the merits of the statue or its message but only the technicalities of site, about which there was no objection.
The ‘history’ issued by the Guy’s-St Thomas’ NHS Trust in support of its decision brings several, now standard, fictions together. It credits Seacole with providing ordinary soldiers in the Crimean War ‘with accommodation, food and nursing care’ and with winning four medals for her ‘courage and compassion during the war’. It fails to mention any hospital in which Seacole ever nursed, trained or sent nurses, but simply asserts that ‘Britain’s black heroine’ gave her ‘life’s work’ for the ‘early development’ of nursing (Karen Sorenson, ‘Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Update’, July 20th, 2011).
The statue is to show Seacole with medals won for bravery, resolutely walking to the battlefield to treat the wounded, all points that feature in the makeover myth but do not survive a reality check. Seacole won no medals, nor ever claimed to have done so. She evidently wore three or four medals when back in London, including the Légion d’honneur. It was not at the time a crime in the UK to wear military medals other than one’s own – it has been since 1955.
Pictures speak louder than words. Many images of Seacole now depict her as a hospital nurse in a blue-and-white uniform. Black nurses today could well identify with this current portrayal of Seacole – she looks like an early version of a Jamaican NHS nurse. Yet she never wore any hospital uniform, for she never worked in a hospital. In the Crimea she dressed flamboyantly, as befitted the hostess of a restaurant.
White guilt is the likely explanation of this Seacole promotion and British whites have a lot to feel guilty about. Keenness for a heroic black role model is understandable, but why the denigration of another woman? Seacole herself had no grudge against Nightingale.

The vilification of Nightingale

The campaign promoting Seacole over Nightingale builds on 30 years of books, articles and films denigrating the latter. While she always had detractors, the serious assault on Nightingale’s reputation can be dated to 1982, with the publication of the Australian historian F.B. Smith’s Florence Nightingale: Reputation and Power (Croom Helm, 1982). The next major hit came in 1998 with Florence Nightingale: Avenging Angel (Constable, 1998) by a retired management consultant Hugh Small, which argues that Nightingale was actually responsible for the high death rates of the Crimean War and had a nervous breakdown as a result when she supposedly recognised this. Neither claim is supported by any serious documentation. Social media goes even further: see Facebook ‘Florence Nightingale was a Murdering Bitch’, later renamed ‘Florence Nightingale: The World’s Worst Nurse’, where she is described as a ‘deluded power hungry bitch’, who ‘looks like an uptight bitch’, so that ‘the day she died’ was ‘the best thing that ever happened to the field of nursing’.
The nursing profession was not responsible for either of the influential anti-Nightingale books, but neither did it defend her against them. It had been ignoring its founder for a long time; we look to the future, not to the past, nursing leaders said. Some jumped onto the bandwagon.
The Nursing Standard, a magazine owned by the Royal College of Nursing, which supports the Seacole statue campaign, has published more than 70 items on Seacole in the last ten years, many containing exaggerated or false claims. To quote just three examples:
‘Against all odds, [Seacole] had an unshakeable belief in the power of nursing to make a difference,’ and ‘changed the face of modern nursing’ (April 21st, 2004); Seacole: the ‘late, great nurse,’ through her ‘amazing acts of bravery and courage,’ was ‘a precursor to modern nursing’, who ‘saw beyond hospital wards and into the environment in which people live, and made links between psychological and physical illnesses’, (May 14th, 2008); Seacole was ‘a great pioneer and made a significant contribution to nursing’ (May 30th, 2012). But it was Nightingale who had faith in the power of nursing and changed the face of modern nursing. The Nursing Standard gives not a single example of a serious contribution to the profession by Seacole, who never claimed to be a nurse.

‘Real angel’ of the Crimea

Bashing white Victorian heroines is fair game these days, it seems, especially those of privileged background and the higher the status the more delightful the fall. The latest example, ‘Bringing Nightingale Down to Size’, by a doctor regurgitating F.B. Smith’s imaginative accusations was published in the British Medical Journal of March 2012.
Florence Nightingale in 1856. Library of Congress
Florence Nightingale in 1856. Library of Congress
Two BBC films Florence Nightingale: Iron Maiden (2001) and Florence Nightingale (2008) have taken the down-with-Nightingale message to wider audiences. ‘Nightingale’s nursing “helped kill soldiers”,’ repeated The Sunday Times in a review of July 8th, 2001, while the 2008 film turned her into ‘The Liability with the Lamp’, (The Sunday Times, June 1st, 2008). Other BBC broadcasts, Mary Seacole: The Real Angel of the Crimea (screened on BBC Knowledge in 2000 and Channel 4 in 2005) and Mary Seacole: a Hidden History (2008) uncritically sanctify Seacole. In the latter Seacole is called the ‘real angel’ of the Crimean War, who ‘saved thousands of lives’.

It is time to look at what these two women actually did and did not do in the Crimean War, against what is claimed for and against them. Since Seacole wrote a remarkable memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, first published in 1857, we can read what she did in her own words (page numbers below are from the 1988 Oxford edition, the same as in the original edition). Nightingale left copious material on the war, including numerous letters pointing out defects and recommending action. We also have the carefully researched analyses done on her return, notably her 853-page Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency and Hospital Administration of the British Army (1858) and her ‘Answers to Written Questions’ the same year, which was her evidence to the royal commission appointed to inquire into what went wrong in that war. These are reported extensively in Florence Nightingale and the Crimean War, volume 14 in the Collected Works of Florence Nightingale.

Seacole’s Crimean War

In her memoir Seacole traces her interest in war to her Scottish soldier father, which gave her sympathy with the ‘pomp, pride and circumstance of glorious war’ (p.1). She next admitted to a longing to ‘witness’ war, especially since regiments she knew in Jamaica were leaving for the ‘scene of action’ (p.73). When the war actually began in late September 1854 Seacole was in London to look after her gold-mining stocks (p.74). Newspaper advertisements invited applications for nursing posts, but Seacole never applied. Instead, after Nightingale and her 38 nurses had left, she set out to join a later contingent of nurses, one Nightingale knew nothing about. Seacole made the rounds of offices, beginning with that of the junior war minister, Sidney Herbert, but he neither interviewed nor hired nurses and declined to see her. She did not get an interview anywhere else she tried, but whether or not for reasons of race is not clear. She was old for hospital nursing, nearing 50, and had had no hospital experience, despite the frequent claim that she ran the nursing at an army hospital in Jamaica – not a claim she ever made herself.
Seacole then decided to go on her own. She would set up the ‘British Hotel’, which she advertised as a ‘mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’ (p.81). She had used the name earlier at an establishment in Panama, but neither it nor the Crimean establishment took overnight guests – both were restaurants with stores. The Crimean venue also had a ‘canteen for the soldiery’ (p.114), no further details given. Seacole had a business partner in her Crimean enterprise, Thomas Day, a relative of her late husband.
In May 1857 Punch mocked Seacole's worthiness for a fund in her name. 'Our Own Vivandière' shows her, misleadingly, with a wounded soldier in hospital.
In May 1857 Punch mocked Seacole's worthiness for a fund in her name. 'Our Own Vivandière' shows her, misleadingly, with a wounded soldier in hospital.
Seacole devotes chapters of her memoir to the British Hotel in the Crimea, to its high-ranking visitors, including a French prince, a duke and a viscount and the meals she served them. She also recounted the challenges of obtaining supplies, unreliable employees, rats and thieves. Clearly the British Hotel was her major occupation, but she also did voluntary work, such as taking tea and lemonade to soldiers waiting on the wharf for transport to the general hospitals in Turkey.
Officers could get a meal at Seacole’s, or send a servant to pick one up for them. Among the available items were tins of salmon, lobsters, oysters, game, wild fowl, vegetables, eggs, sardines, curry powder, coffee, currant jelly and non-food items such as saddles and boots:

I often used to roast a score or so of fowls daily, besides boiling hams and tongues. Either these or a slice from a joint of beef or mutton you would be pretty sure of finding at your service in the larder of the British Hotel. (p.138).
After the war was effectively over, but before the peace treaty was signed, she catered for excursions, cricket matches, picnics, theatricals, dinner parties and races, providing soup and fish, turkeys, saddle of mutton, fowls, ham, tongue, curry, pastry of many sorts, custards, jelly, blancmange and olives. For Christmas there were plum puddings (recipe provided) and mince pies. In hot weather she provided sangria, claret and cider cups. On the last excursion described in her memoir she brought a hamper of ‘a cold duck and other meats, a tart’ (p.190).
Seacole described ‘the officers, full of fun and high spirits,’ crowding into her kitchen and carrying off ‘the tarts hot from the oven, while the good-for-nothing black cooks ... would stand by and laugh with all their teeth’ (p.141). Her customers were officers and others of that class and the food and drink provided far beyond the means of ordinary soldiers. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in this, but there is in the claim that her mission was to save the lives of ordinary soldiers, which was in fact Nightingale’s mission.
One children’s book gives such fake details as that Seacole ran a hospital alongside the shop and restaurant, where she ‘nursed the soldiers from 5am until midday’ and then to go onto the battlefield (Emma Lynch, The Life of Mary Seacole, Heinemann, 2006). Another has her taking teams of nurses onto the battlefield with her, after she had been rejected from nursing ‘because of her race’ (Kay Barnham, Florence Nightingale: The Lady of the Lamp, White-Thomson 2002).
In fact Seacole was present at only three battles, the Redan assaults on June 18th and September 8th, 1855 and Tchernaya on August 16th. The three major battles took place in the autumn of 1854, before she left London: the Alma on September 20th,, Balaclava on October 25th and Inkermann on November 5th 1854. Even those battles were only a day long; the ones Seacole viewed were over in hours. Prior to Redan she had got a brief glimpse of action when, on horseback, she accompanied Omar Pasha and some Turks to a Russian outpost. She gave no further details as to what happened in the battle, but judged the experience ‘pleasant enough’ and even the source of ‘strange excitement’ (p.147).
Visitors and officers’ wives watched the (failed) assault on the Redan from nearby Cathcart’s Hill. Seacole described getting wind of the first assault the day before and preparing for it before daybreak: ‘We were all busily occupied in cutting bread and cheese and sandwiches, packing up fowls, tongues and ham, wine and spirits.’ These were loaded on two mules, ‘in charge of my steadiest lad’. She herself led the way on horseback, with a bag of lint, bandages, needles, thread and medicines. The British soon retreated, so that freed-up officers became customers for her refreshments. She then made her way to the temporary hospital (set up by the army), where she assisted with the wounded waiting for admission. There, her memoir states, she bound up wounds and gave cooling drinks. The mules and the steady lad, meanwhile, had moved off. After she found them and whipped the negligent boy she saw some more wounded, ‘with whom I left refreshments’ (p.158).
All this shows Seacole to have been spunky, generous and worthy of praise. But it does not demonstrate that she worked as a nurse or that her actions saved thousands of lives. Neither does it confirm her acceptance as a professional colleague by doctors, as some have claimed. Her earlier ‘tea and lemonade’ gifts, she herself noted, were ‘all the doctors would allow me to give to the wounded’ (p.101).
In the Crimea, Seacole ran a business, as she had throughout her life. Like her Jamaican mother, she owned and operated a boarding house in Kingston, mainly for army and navy officers and their wives. Neither ran an invalid hospital nor nursing station, as is often stated. After she married Edwin Horatio Seacole in 1836 the two ran a store together. On an earlier visit to Britain she had earned her living by selling Jamaican preserves and pickles (p.3); while travelling in the Bahamas she acquired shells and shell work to sell back in Jamaica (p.5).

A doctress

In the Crimea, as in the Caribbean, she pursued her vocation as a ‘doctress’, or traditional Creole herbalist, alongside her business. She charged for her remedies, but gave them free to those unable to pay. In Panama, where she lived for over two years, she first helped her brother run his hotel, then opened her own shop. She faced a cholera epidemic in a small outpost where there was no doctor. She claimed some cures for her treatments, but also ‘lamentable blunders’ and admitted that she shuddered when she thought of some of those cures she had tried for cholera (p.31). She describes adding ‘sugar of lead,’ the toxic lead acetate, to a cholera remedy to make it work, a point that is not mentioned by her present-day supporters. In fact we know nothing of the precise ingredients of her cures, for she left no details. Claims such as those made in the film, Mary Seacole: A Hidden History, that Seacole functioned not only as a nurse, but as a ‘very good doctor’ and a ‘very intelligent pharmacist far in advance of British medicine’ are sheer speculation.
In the Crimean War Seacole’s ‘patients’ were all walk-ins. The army sent its most serious cases to the general hospitals, mostly under Nightingale, the less serious to regimental hospitals. Men with lesser ailments such as headaches and stomach complaints took themselves to the British Hotel. Seacole describes leaving her food preparations in the kitchen to serve ‘patients’ in the store (p.125). Unlike any hospital, the British Hotel closed nightly at 8pm and all day on Sunday (p.145).
Seacole’s business did well for a year but went bankrupt when a peace treaty was signed on March 30th, 1856 and the British Army began to depart. Seacole had laid in expensive provisions which could be sold for only a fraction of their outlay. She described taking a hammer to cases of red wine, rather than let them be taken by the Russians (p.196). After the war friends raised funds to enable her to start another business and she briefly opened a store in Aldershot. However it, too, failed. Later a trust fund was raised for her so that she could live at ease – she returned to Jamaica, before finally settling in England in 1865. Consistent with her census entry shortly before her death, showing that she lived on independent means, her will shows her to have died prosperous.
The Seacole campaign has not only changed her occupation, but her race. She was three-quarters white and proud of her ‘Scotch blood’ (p.1). She had nothing good to say about her African/Creole heritage, but made a point of distancing herself from the ‘lazy Creole’ image (p.2). Seacole refers to ‘Blacks’, ‘negroes’ and ‘niggers’, throughout her memoir, but she never uses any such word for herself. She employed a black maid and the above-mentioned ‘good for nothing black cooks’. In her own words: ‘I am only a little brown – a few shades duskier than the brunettes whom you all admire so much.’ (p.4)
Seacole supporters have Nightingale living a life of safety at her hospital in Turkey, far from the battlefield. True, she and her nurses were 300 miles away, across the Bosphorus from Istanbul (then Constantinople), at the hospitals to which the British Army sent them. But these were dangerous places and many doctors and nurses died of disease. Nightingale herself nearly succumbed to ‘Crimean fever’, probably brucellosis, a disease not identified until the 1880s.
Her barrack hospital at Scutari was then the largest in the world, but it was never intended to be a hospital and lacked such basic necessities as running water, functioning toilets, laundry and operating theatres. Its sewers and drains were grossly defective, faults reported by doctors months before Nightingale arrived. But renovations were not started until March 1855, with the arrival of a sanitary commission headed by Dr John Sutherland (1808-91) with Robert Rawlinson (1810-98), a leading civil engineer and water expert, and James Newlands (1813-71), the pioneering borough engineer of Liverpool, who supervised the clean up. Both Sutherland and Rawlinson subsequently became Nightingale’s close collaborators.
Nightingale’s hospital had a high death rate, but so did all the army general hospitals. Contrary to statements by Hugh Small, who did not use the full mortality statistics available in Avenging Angel, the highest death rate was at Kulali and reported as such by Dr Sutherland – a hospital not under Nightingale’s supervision but nursed by the Irish Sisters of Mercy. They, no more than Nightingale, should be held responsible for its death rates, for they, too, were working where they were sent and should hardly be blamed for the state of the sewers and drains. Nearly half the deaths from disease in those hospitals were due to bowel diseases.
Frequently unrecognised is the dirty work Nightingale took on as a result of those defective sanitary arrangements. Her own report notes the flowing faeces on the floor and the pertinent fact that the men generally had no shoes or slippers. Tubs were provided in the wards for those who could not walk to the toilet areas. Nightingale herself organised the orderlies in the morning to remove the excreta. But this ‘underside of history’ is simply ignored in both the book and film coverage of the war.
Nightingale’s work during the war included hands-on nursing, the management of nursing at several hospitals and writing to remonstrate with officials back in England on the desperate conditions. She set up new systems, established laundries and kitchens, reducing cross-infection and improving nutrition. She did much to make the life of the ordinary soldier better, including establishing coffee and reading rooms for those convalescing after treatment. She also wrote to families informing them of the deaths of loved ones. She did not save thousands of lives during the war but her research and recommendations after it saved many more. The honour of actually reducing death rates at the war hospitals must go primarily to the sanitary commission and also to the supply commission, headed by Sir John McNeill, another Nightingale ally, which made the crucial improvements in nutrition, clothing and shelter.

Making a difference

The sheer scale of the death rates of the Crimean War seems to have escaped the notice of many commentators: 22.7 per cent of the troops sent by the British Army died, 30.7 per cent of the French army. Firm data is lacking for the Russians (and the Turks) but the figure is probably higher. By comparison, the death rate in the US army during the Vietnam War was 2.3 per cent.
The French were the instigators of the Crimean War, sent more troops and were better prepared than the British. Their death rates were lower in the first year. But the British government learned from the commissions it sent out and made enormous changes. British death rates fell dramatically, from 23 per cent in the first winter to 2.5 per cent in the second – no greater than deaths among soldiers in peacetime barracks in London, as Nightingale proudly showed in a chart. In contrast, the French (lower) 11 per cent death rate in the first winter, rose to 20 per cent in the second winter. Since the French were late in publishing their statistics, neither Nightingale nor the royal commission could use them for comparison. However French doctors themselves credited the British reforms for their superior performance. Once they were properly cleansed and functioning Nightingale was proud of the Crimean hospitals. In her own charts she separated the two periods, before and after the sanitary and supply commissions, to emphasise the crucial role they played in reducing mortality.
Her analysis of what went wrong was widely accepted and led to major changes to health care in the British Army. The ‘Nightingale Fund’ raised in her honour for that work paid for the training school at St Thomas’, which led to raising nursing to the level of a profession throughout much of the world. Her experience of the war, and her reputation and research as a result of it, grounded all the social and public health work she did for the rest of her life. Her vision for health reform included bold statements, such as the belief that the poor should receive as good quality hospital care as private patients and warnings as to the dangers of hospital acquired infections. Nightingale, in short, is no mere historical figure. Her lamp should not be retired but shone brightly onto the hospital and health care problems of today.
Lynn McDonald is Emerita Professor of Sociology at the University of Guelph, Canada and author of The Early Origins of the Social Sciences (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press 1993)

Sunday, March 8, 2015

La Malinche - harlot or heroine?

"La Malinche." Slave, interpreter, secretary, mistress, mother of the first "Mexican." her very name still stirs up controversy.
Many Mexicans continue to revile the woman called Doña Marina by the Spaniards and La Malinche by the Aztecs, labeling her a traitor and harlot for her role as the alter-ego of Cortes as he conquered Mexico.
They ignore that she saved thousands of Indian lives by enabling Cortes to negotiate rather than slaughter. Her ability to communicate also enabled the Spaniards to introduce Christianity and attempt to end human sacrifice and cannibalism. Herself a convert, baptized Marina, she was an eloquent advocate for her new faith. As for the charges against her, they are in my opinion baseless. So let us visit this remarkable woman and examine the facts.
All historians agree that she was the daughter of a noble Aztec family. Upon the death of her father, a chief, her mother remarried and gave birth to a son. Deciding that he rather than Marina, should rule, she turned her young daughter over to some passing traders and thereafter pro- claimed her dead. Eventually, the girl wound up as a slave of the Cacique (the military chief) of Tabasco. By the time Cortes arrived, she had learned the Mayan dialects used in the Yucatan while still understanding Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and most Non-Mayan Indians.
"La Malinche" did not choose to join Cortes. She was offered to him as a slave by the Cacique of Tabasco, along with 19 other young women. She had no voice in the matter.
Up till then, Cortes had relied on a Spanish priest, Jeronimo de Aguilar, as his interpreter. Shipwrecked off Cozumel, Aguilar spoke the Mayan language as well as Spanish. But when the expedition left the Mayan-speaking area, Cortes discovered that he could not communicate with the Indians. That night he was advised that one of the women given to him in Tabasco spoke "Mexican."
Doña Marina now enters Mexican history. It was she who served as the interpreter at the first meetings between Cortes and the representatives of Moctezuma. At that time Marina spoke no Spanish. She translated what the Aztecs said into the Mayan dialect understood by de Aguilar and he relayed it to Cortes in Spanish. The process was then reversed, Spanish to Mayan and Mayan to Nahuatl.
Bernal Diaz, author of "The Conquest of New Spain" authenticated her pedigree. An eyewitness to the events, he did not describe her physically, but related that after the Conquest he attended a reunion of Doña Marina, her mother and the half- brother who had usurped her rightful place. Diaz marveled at her kindness in forgiving them for the injustice she had suffered. The author referred to her only as Marina or Doña Marina. So whence came the name "La Malinche?" Diaz said that because Marina was always with Cortes, he was called "Malinche"--which the author translated to mean "Marina's Captain." Prescott, in the "Conquest of Mexico," (perhaps the best known book on the subject) confirms that Cortes was always addressed as "Malinche" which he translated as Captain and defined "La Malinche" as "the captain's woman."
Both definitions confirm that the Indians saw Cortes and his spokesperson as a single unit. They recognized that what they heard were the words of "Malinche," not "La Malinche. " So much for the charge that she was a traitor, instigating the destruction of the Aztec Empire.
As for the charge of "harlotry," it is equally flawed. She was totally loyal to Cortes, a one-man woman, who loved her master. Cortes reciprocated her feelings. Time after time he was offered other women but always refused them. Bernal Diaz frequently commented on the nobility of her character and her concern for her fellow "Mexicans."
It is very possible that without her, Cortes would have failed. He himself, in a letter preserved in the Spanish archives, said that "After God we owe this conquest of New Spain to Doña Marina. "
Doña Marina's progress from interpreter to secretary to mistress, as well as her quick mastery of Spanish, are remarkable--and all this amidst the turmoil of constant warfare, times when a woman less courageous and committed might well have fled.
The ability of Marina to help Cortes to communicate with the Indians shaped the entire campaign. From the very first meeting between Cortes and the emissaries of Moctezuma, an effort was made to establish friendly relations with the Aztec Emperor.
Later, during Cortes's encounter with the Caciques of Cempola, that same talent opened the door to the Conquest. Here, Cortes met the "Fat Cacique" and by arresting five tax collectors sent by the Aztecs, made his first Indian allies: Cempoalans were the first of the Indian warriors to join him.
Yet even then, he tried to persuade Moctezuma to invite him to Tenochtitlan, freeing the captives to carry a message to the Emperor that he had come in peace.
Without Marina, attempts to negotiate with the Aztecs would have been impossible.
These efforts did much to keep Moctezuma undecided about how to deal with the invaders. This hesitancy played a large part in the outcome of the Conquest.
Perhaps the most important negotiations Marina made possible were those with the Tlascalans. After an initial armed clash, an alliance was forged that brought thousands of warriors to fight alongside the Spaniards.
As Cortes moved toward the Aztec capital, a pattern evolved.
First conflict, then meetings in which Doña Marina played a key role in avoiding more bloodshed. Hence, the picture of Marina that emerges is that of an intelligent, religious, loyal woman.
Her contribution to the success of the Conquest is immense, but she cannot be held responsible for it happening. To a very large degree, the Conquest came because of the brutality of the Aztecs: a rebellion by their oppressed neighbors, who would have rallied to anyone who promised them relief from the Aztecs' constant demands for tribute and sacrificial victims.
But from another standpoint, the fate of the Aztec Empire was sealed in the very first meetings of the emissaries of Moctezuma with Cortes, when they gave him gifts of gold and silver that Sernal Diaz valued at over 20,000 pesos de oro. Prescott, writing in 1947, valued each peso de oro at $11.67 U.S. Dollars. The Spanish appetite for gold was whetted, making the Conquest inevitable. But had Cortes failed, the next expedition, perhaps without an interpreter, would certainly have shed more Mexican blood.
Then too, had Cortes met with no success, the Smallpox epidemic that raged in the Aztec Capital might well have spread throughout the entire empire. By destroying the city, he perhaps saved the country. Bernal Diaz wrote: "When we entered the city every house was full of corpses. The dry land and stockades were piled high with the dead. We also found Mexicans lying in their own excrement, too sick to move."
After the Conquest, Cortes, with a wife in Spain, arranged to have Marina married to a Castilian knight, Don Juan Xamarillo.
Soon thereafter she disappeared from history.
But she had borne Cortes a son, Don Mahin Cortes. While many other Indian women were impregnated by Spaniards, we have no record of their fate. Hence, if modern-day Mexicans are a blend of Spanish and Indian blood, Doña Marina's son was the first "Mexican" whose career we can follow. He rose to high government position and was a "Comendador" of the Order of St. Jago. In 1548, accused of conspiring against the Viceroy, he was tortured and executed.
In more recent times, the term "Malinchista" has been used by some to describe those who dislike Mexicans. But Doña Marina deserves better. A fearless, loyal and determined woman, she was a heroine who helped save Mexico from its brutal, blood-thirsty rulers--and in doing so she played a major role in fashioning what is today one of the most dynamic societies in all of Latin America.
Published or Updated on: January 1, 1997 by Shep Lenchek © 2008 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Women Soldiers during the Civil War

Female Soldiers in the Civil War


The outbreak of the Civil War challenged traditional American notions of feminine submissiveness and domesticity with hundreds of examples of courage, diligence, and self-sacrifice in battle.  The war was a formative moment in the early feminist movement.
Frances Clayton disguised herself as "Frances Clalin" to fight in the Civil War. (Library of Congress)
In July of 1863, a Union burial detail at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania made a startling discovery near Cemetery Ridge.  Among the bodies covering the ground--the wreckage of the Confederate attacks during the battle--the Union men found a dead woman wearing the uniform of a Confederate private.  
The burial detail had stumbled upon one of the most intriguing stories of the Civil War: the multitudes of women who fought in the front line. 
Although the inherently clandestine nature of the activity makes an accurate count impossible, conservative estimates of female soldiers in the Civil War puts the number somewhere between 400 and 750.  Long viewed by historians as anomalies, recent scholarship argues that the women who fought in the Civil War shared the same motivations as their male companions. 
Some women went to war in order to share in the trials of their loved ones.  Others were stirred by a thirst for adventure, the promise of reliable wages, or ardent patriotism.  In the words of Sarah Edmonds Seelye, also known as Franklin Flint Thompson of the 2nd Michigan Infantry: "I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep."   Seelye holds the honor of being the only woman to receive a veteran's pension after the war. 



Jennie Hodgers, also known as Albert Cashier of the 95th Illinois Infantry, participated in more than forty engagements.  Frances Clayton served with the 4th Missouri Artillery and was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and again at the Battle of Stones River.  Loreta Janeta Velazquez served the Confederacy as fighter and spy "Lieutenant Harry Buford." 
Women stood a smaller chance of being discovered than one might think.  Most of the people who fought in the war were "citizen soldiers" with no prior military training--men and women alike learned the ways of soldiering at the same pace.  Prevailing Victorian sentiments compelled most soldiers to sleep clothed, bathe separately, and avoid public latrines.  Heavy, ill-fitting clothing concealed body shape.  The inability to grow a beard would usually be attributed to youth. 
Some women in uniform were still discovered, often after being wounded in battle and sent to a field hospital.  Clara Barton, who went on to found the Red Cross, discovered Mary Galloway's true identity while treating a chest wound Galloway had suffered at the Battle of Antietam.  Finding a woman in the ranks would generally bring a welcome dose of rumor and wonderment to camp life. 
The discovered woman herself would usually be sent home without punishment, although an unlucky few faced imprisonment or institutionalization. 
Clara Barton claimed that the four-year war advanced the social position of women by fifty years.  The 1881 manifesto History of Woman Suffrage, written by luminaries Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Gave, argued vigorously that female front-line service proved that women should be accorded the same rights as male defenders of the republic.  The Civil War changed the nation's perception of its citizens' capabilities and catalyzed a new push for equality not only between races, but between genders as well. 


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Even though I am from Kansas, I enjoy venturing into other worlds from around the globe which is why my writing focuses on diversity. With fluid accessibility to modern media and traveling opportunities, my Midwestern world can expand and explore beyond my own backyard. In addition to studying cultures, I take pleasure in studying history. Submitting to a moment in time allows us to remember, or to muse even, over our society’s past. Although writing can educate as well as entertain, yet what makes art incredibly amazing, to that of paintings, photographs, and music, it transposes emotion into another form of humanity, and therefore, it is our humanity which keeps all of us striving for an improved future.

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