Monday 11 May 2020

The Lady with the Ship: Florence Nightingale - sea voyager, chronicler.

The classic image: The Lady with the Lamp receiving the wounded at Scutari Barrack Hospital's west gate 1856. The wounded had sailed there on overcrowded ships, down the Black Sea and the Bosphorus from Sebastopol. Painting by Jerry Barrett, 1857, now at National Portrait Gallery.

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.
If we look beyond the myths, and through a maritime lens, at that complex person Florence Nightingale we'll find something very unexpected: one of the 19th century's best women writers about voyages and ships.
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 voyages

Florence 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.

Venice 1838 

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

As a young woman she also voyaged with her friends Selina and Charles Bracebridge: to Rome 1847-48, and from 1849-50  from Alexandria to Athens on a range of ships including the Austrian Lloyd ship Arciduca Lodovico.
While in the Mediterranean they enjoyed expat hospitality which included visiting British naval ships, which she viewed with an inspector's eyes.

On 29 April 1850, she told her sister, Parthe,
'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.'

Portrait of Florence by Parthe, just before 'the undertaking of her life, Crimea in 1854.

1854. Crimea

Fast forward five years. She's been to Germany, twice, to do some unusually scientific training for nursing. She had been the Lady-Superintendent in a Harley Street hospital for gentlewomen.
 Now it's the Crimea War: the 1853-56  conflict between an alliance including Britain, fighting against the Russian Empire.   
And unusually for a woman, this 34-year old is:

  • 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 Britain

She 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.'  
Populist writers who are not maritime historians have described the Vectis as an old, cockroach-infested 'mailboat' and not fit for purpose. This is puzzling. In fact it was new.
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.)
This vessel was not something she  would have felt to be alien or seedy. She had long been a  ship connoisseur. It would have interested her - if she had the ability to focus on anything other than her task - to try out a ship propelled by this novel form of power.  

Seasickness - and ship design

On 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.

1855 onwards. In Turkey 

After 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.
Overcrowding had troubled her several years earlier when looking at the military ships at Salamis – ships full of healthy soldiers.
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.

Page after page of tables in that official chronicle show what was becoming evident: bad conditions on ships are bad for people's lives.  On the Shooting Star a total 47 of the 130 patients died:  36 per cent.
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.
The death rates on overcrowded ships don't mean that her unease about overcrowding on ships at Salamis earlier in the decade was any kind of premonition.  
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 home

Some 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, please

On 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

‘Nearing Home - Some Of Our English Land Birds Settling on The Ship, Told Us We're Nearly Home,’ B&W engraving of painting by J. D. Luard, 1858. 

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. 
Military artist John Luard creates an image of a woman nursing her officer husband on deck on their homeward-bound ship.
Why does it matter? Because:

  • 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.'
I don't think so. Perhaps Sotheby's was infected by that virus, 'The Nightingale-ization of Everything To do with Female Nursing.'  
Actually there were thousands of under-trained women nursing and offering sutler-style support services at Crimea, as well as more experienced non-Nightingale nurses including Mary Seacole. And there were an astonishing numbers of tourist-wives of officers, such as Fanny Duberly.
So the Sotheby's re-interpretation unfortunately mis-sees the many women involved in shipboard nursing at any level in the Crimea War.
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.


 Here are six Trivial Pursuits- type questions you may like to tackle, about the sea-loving travelling  woman who became fixed as the Lady with the Lamp figure.

1. Who developed her love of seashells? Miss Finch, a friend’s governess, in October 1834 when FN was 14.  This amateur conchologist "told me a great deal about shells and showed me many and I copied out a great many names into by drawing book for my shelves at home which she told me."

2. Did she know how to cure seasickness? No. Her advice, which she gave in a letter to her cousin Frances Bonham Carter in 1852 was ‘keep your berth or your mattress on the deck. Sitting up is the devil ... A little arrowroot and sherry, which can be made in a minute, is a great comfort on board a ship, where you sometimes can eat nothing else. But my advice is, eat not at all.'

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.'

4. Why did was the best thing about being women for FN and her friend Selina Bracebridge  on the Arciduca Lodovico  (pictured) to Greece in 1850, at a time when seagoing women were segregated into a posh dormitory-style Ladies Cabin on ship?  ‘We have had the inestimable comfort of being the only ladies all the way … [so] we have had the Cabin all to ourselves and lain in all the berths in turn.’

5. What was her most sublime moment when looking at the sea rather than being on it? In June 1850  she went to the home of Henry  Ward,  Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands, in Corfu and ‘walked in that lovely little garden with the rose acacias and the Albanian lilies and the balustrade on the sea. ... In the evening sat on the balcony looking upon the sea, the moonlight shining in under the arch and throwing flickering shadows on the sea. Never spent so poetic a day.'

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. 


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