Forget the Angel of Crimean War wards at Scutari, as we prepare to celebrate the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale's birth on 12 May 2020.
Step round the canonized figure we read about in Sunday-School prize hagiographies. Ignore, momentarily, the epidemiology-minded female statistician who’d have been analyzing our Covid-19 data with her BS detection kit.
Her ship-savvy accounts (in her collected writings) are of especial value as they are by a woman, and someone observant and analytical, almost an ethnographer.
And her reports of the shipping situation in the Crimean War have the same tone: aware of the bigger picture, usefully critical, full of telling descriptions, and with a sense of collective responsibility rather than individualized petty carping.
Early voyagesFlorence Nightingale was from such a travelling family that she was conceived and born in Florence (hence her first name).
In her girlhood she made many trips with her sister Parthenope: these young Victorian women had the mobility and motility of elite men. Fortunately they wrote to each other - and others - about their travels.
And fortunately Florence's later fame ensured that all she wrote became available in the public domain.
On her eighteenth birthday in 1838 she wrote home 'My dear grand-mamma, I daresay that you remembered the day that I was 18 … [3 days ago. This is the] first birthday that I have spent out of our own family. We are Venice now … 'We go about everywhere in a long pointed black boat, which they call gondola ... 'On Saturday there was a great storm and so there was no milk to be had in all the town because no boat would venture out to the mainland to get it.’
Round the Med 1847-50
While in the Mediterranean they enjoyed expat hospitality which included visiting British naval ships, which she viewed with an inspector's eyes.
'We spent that day on board the fleet, which looks in the Bay of Salamis like a whale in a rivulet; three great three-deckers, besides frigates four, and steamers ...‘I hate an English man-of-war; the three grand luxuries of life – solitude, space and water – are so unattainable there. 'What would be said of us if we stowed 1,000 persons in a workhouse, as they are stowed on board a man-of-war? The tree of freedom and the British oak...never excited my enthusiasm.'
Now it's the Crimea War: the 1853-56 conflict between an alliance including Britain, fighting against the Russian Empire.
- working away from her home country
- involved in military matters at an authoritative level
She was managing the British volunteer nurses at the army history in Scutari, the Constantinople suburb. They too were remarkably mobile for non-elite women of their period.
The voyage from BritainShe and her team of 37 nurses had sailed out from Britain, a 13-day trip, involving
- sailing from the UK to Calais on the night boat
- overland via Paris and Lyons
- ship up the Rhone to Avignon
- rail to Marseilles
- steam ship to Constantinople (Istanbul) at 13 knots (15 mph)
- ferry across Bosphorus to Scutari, arriving Nov 4 1854.
The final part of her voyage from Marseilles to Constantinople was on the new steam-powered P&O ship Vectis (900 grt).
Beyond Malta, where they stopped to coal, a storm was so bad that 'the Deck Cabins were washed away, & the vessel all but lost.'
The Vectis had just been built in the Isle of Wight, where Florence Nightingale had holidayed and enjoyed conchology as a girl. (See picture of the Vectis being built, initially as a paddle steamer.)
Seasickness - and ship designOn board she was said to have been so seasick that she didn’t venture on deck - a place where this avid tourist usually longed to be.
It's a good idea to recognize that the mal de mer was not necessarily due to her fragility. It may well have been a consequence of the unsettling style of motion:
- often passengers were more sick on steam ships than on sail ships
- the Vectis's engines were later found to be too powerful for the ship, and replaced. That is, the nurses were enduring teething problems.
The nurses' 2,080-mile voyage, from Marseilles to Scutari on the Vectis.
Map from Country Joe McDonald’s tribute website to Nightingale. https://www.countryjoe.com/nightingale/
1855 onwards. In TurkeyAfter her arrival at the 'polluted' army hospital in Scutari her team tried to deal with the deluge. It was a war in which 900,000 of the 1.6 million soldiers of all nations died in a fight that ended in a peace treaty.
There were 4.5 miles of beds, only a foot apart. The hospital could take 5,000 and was far more crowded than London's new Nightingale Hospital with its 500 beds and potential to deal with a further 4,000 Covid-19 cases in April 2020.
Now she was seeing overcrowding and military mismanagement of human beings again as 'unwholesome transports' with a capacity of 200 carried as many as 500 people from Sebastopol to Scutari. She wrote: 'In one instance the captain of a transport has asserted that seventy bodies were thrown overboard from his ship in one voyage, without their names...being entered into any report.' (vol 14, especially p 668).
The Medical and Surgical History of the British Army which served in Turkey and the Crimea during the War against Russia in the years 1854–1856 records appalling levels of loss on the packed and squalid troop transports making the 13-day transit from Sebastopol to Scutari across the Black Sea.
The 299-mile voyage from war zone to hospital.made by combatants, the wives who nursed them, and by Florence herself, ill, on an inspection tour in early summer 1855
Map from Country Joe McDonald’s tribute website to Nightingale. https://www.countryjoe.com/nightingale/
Mortality rates on transports later improved. But the problem was, she pointed out, that the wounded passengers then arrived at a Scutari where the mortality rates were worsening.
But they are a sign of her pre-existing concern that military practice of packing large quantities of human cargo into unsuitable spaces was an inhumane way to solve a logistical problems. And her research into hospitals, before the war, had enhanced her understandings about the transmission of disease in tight places.
War over. Nurses go homeSome nurses had already sailed away from Scutari, usually invalided home or sent away in disgrace, by the time war ended on 30 March 1856.
On 12 May, her birthday, FN was urging that her remaining staff should come home 'by degree'... I must come home last of all...I believe everyone expects me to arrive next week, via Marseilles, heading a triumphal procession of nurses en masse.' (vol 14, p402).
Instead she did finishing-up work including dispatching excess supplies onto other places such as Malta, dealing with allegations about a few nurses' bad behavior, and massing data to help her argue her case for reform.
Letters show she issued precise instructions about the conditions in which small parties of nurses should sail home. It may be a war-related voyage but she wanted them to be sail in a respectful situation. On 13 June 1856 FN planned that seven 'lady nurses' and eight 'non-commissioned' nurses, along with 60-odd soldiers' wives and children should be sent home on the 32-gun frigate HMS Thames.
These non-commissioned nurses 'should not be cast aside like old shoes when there services are no longer wanted.' If they couldn't be given officers' cabins then at least 'I must beg that a separate compartment be constructed for them from the soldiers' wives, as I cannot class them in the same category. And they must be at least second-class passengers.' (vol 14, p414).
She arranged the women's trip home with the same forethought that she had organised her own recreational travelling eight years earlier.
Grandly she tried to ensure Miss Tebbut, the Superintendent of the second Scutari hospital, should get her wish to see Constantinople. (She'd always been too busy to tour the other side of the Bosphorus.)
'I dare say Captain Keatley could delay his vessel for one day for her to do this.'
However, the passengers were very much still under matron-like surveillance on the ship: Miss Tebbut, or the elderly and frail Mrs Annabella MacLeod, should take charge of the party and 'report to me how they have behaved on their passage home.' (vol 14, p422).
Not a showy voyage, pleaseOn 27 June FN herself planned to go home from Balaklava on the Ottawa, stopping at Scutari for a day. On board were the Lady Matron Anne Ward Morton, and one of her kindest nurses, Elizabeth Logan. It was expected to be a good passage home.
Somehow FN didn't leave for another month, not least because she was involved in rows about her requisitions.
After the prolonged process of organizing evacuation and repatriation, on 22 July she told Admiral Edmund Lyons, the Commander of the Fleet (pictured), that she would not take up his kind offer of a berth on HMS Caradoc, a two-gunned, iron-paddle gun boat that had taken part in the war, 'because I conceive it would be quite the showiest method of getting myself home and I shall be glad to take the quietest.'
She was right. The Commander of the British Army in the East, General Sir William Codrington was part of the illustrious party on board, heading to Marseilles via Smyrna and Malta. En route he ceremoniously visited two other hospitals used by the British.
Instead, later than Caradoc party, an exhausted 'Miss Smith' left Constantinople on an un-named French steamer. And no record of this voyage remains. Was she too tired to write? (vol 14, p433).
1856. To London and acclaim
Fast forward again to 1858. The war's over. FN has become famous, and sentimentalized in patriotic climate. 'Ministering angel' starts to become a description used for the new professional nurses.
- it’s a rare picture of a woman at sea in that war.
- the deck is so empty; this officer is not going die of proximity, as did so many men on other military ships
- art auctioneers Sotheby's commented in 2008: 'It seems likely that the female nurse in Luard's painting, although thought by the Art Journal to represent the soldier's wife, is intended as a symbolic portrait of Nightingale or one of her nurses.'
The catalogue note certainly mistakes the role that FN, that elite manager, would actually have had on her homeward-bound ship in August 1856. 'Miss Smith' was returning privately, not as a militarized heroine still on duty.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE'S CONNECTIONS WITH THE SEA
3. What did she think was the big puzzle about being on ship, in the days before en suite freshwater showers? 'The real mystery of the sea voyage is the impossibility of washing, and that I don't know how to cure. I think the India rubber bath, which folds up into a bag, is a great comfort. It is so difficult to get tubs anywhere. But even that is difficult to get filled on board the vessel.'
6. Were ships were named after her? Yes, many. They included a cargo ship, an Elizabeth Cady Stanton-class US troop transport, a fishing vessel, a Mediterranean schooner – and a hospital ship.
- Florence Nightingale's European travels: collected works of Florence Nightingale, Vol 7, 2006, and Florence Nightingale,: The Crimean War, Vol 14, 2010, both edited by Lynn McDonald,Wilfred Laurier University Press, Ontario.
- Country Joe McDonald, Florence Nightingale, https://www.countryjoe.com/nightingale/
- Florence Nightingale Museum, London, https://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk/
- P&O fact sheet on Vectis, http://www.poheritage.com/Upload/Mimsy/Media/factsheet/94873VECTIS-1853pdf.pdf