Last year, Mary Seacole came first in an online poll to nominate 100 great black Britons and placed sixth in the New Nation's list of 100 black icons, between Muhammad Ali and Oprah Winfrey. This year, the determined Jamaican woman who nursed soldiers in the Crimean war will be celebrated in a programme of events marking the bicentenary of her birth. Right on cue comes Jane Robinson's Mary Seacole, the first full-length biography. Seacole was lauded during her lifetime, but unlike that other heroine of the Crimean war, Florence Nightingale, she was largely forgotten after her death - until, that is, the second half of the 20th century, when black pride and black history reclaimed her.
But was she black? Modern opinion says yes, but as Robinson's sympathetic biography makes clear, Seacole did not think so. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she called herself Creole, a term that emphasised her European rather than African descent. In her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (first published in 1857 and reprinted next month by Penguin), Seacole described her complexion as "yellow" and "only a little brown". Her mother, a hotel-keeper and "doctress", was what we would now call mixed-race. Her father was Scottish.
Robinson does a good job of unpicking the riddle of history, race and nationality thrown up by Seacole's story. She is particularly clear-sighted on 19th-century Jamaica's insane determination to classify everyone according to the number of black or white grandparents they had. She shows the contradictory ways in which this grading system - with its labels such as "octoroon" and "mustee" - affected Seacole. On the one hand, it denied her the respect given to white women. On the other, it left her free to travel widely and go into business, first buying and selling pickles and jams throughout the Caribbean, and then opening a hotel in Panama. Nursing was something Seacole did alongside hotel-keeping: she was in Panama during the cholera epidemic of the 1850s.
Robinson claims that, since her death, Seacole has been put into "narrow, politically correct boxes", and while she is willing to concede that Seacole is in part a "black heroine" and "an alternative Florence Nightingale", hers is essentially an apolitical biography. Her tone is affectionate and admiring, and she stresses her subject's uniqueness: "She advanced no cause but her own . . . [and] never saw herself as a representative." Seacole certainly did not see herself as a role model, but her autobiography contains passages that clearly attack slavery. So when Robinson suggests that, faced with a slave revolt, Seacole would have sided with the masters, one can sense another biographical box being created - that of the "true eccentric".
For source material, Robinson has relied heavily on Seacole's autobiography. The problem is, Seacole was coy about many of the things that matter to a biographer. For example, she did not reveal her date of birth and she wrote only briefly about her early life. She sums up her marriage to Edwin Horatio Hamilton in eight lines. Robinson has filled in these gaps through detailed research into the Kingston of Seacole's childhood. With the help of army lists and parish registers, she is able to identify Seacole's father and take an informed guess at her mother's name. All this is convincing. Less successful is her speculation about the young Seacole's emotional life. Robinson describes her, on a visit to London, watching the Household Cavalry and wandering through the street markets. Such passages are vivid, and feel authentic, but they are still make-believe.
Once Seacole sails away to offer her services to the British army, Robinson is on surer ground. The Crimean war was the great adventure of Seacole's life, and she gave it due prominence in her autobiography. She also had walk-on parts in the memoirs of people she met there: soldiers, visitors, hotel workers, journalists. Seacole went to the Crimea late, and unofficially. By the time she even applied, Florence Nightingale and her band of nurses had already left. Seacole pushed hard at the various war offices, but no one in authority was prepared to send her. The rejection hurt so much that she burst into tears in the street.
Ever resourceful, she soon cheered up and prepared to go out under her own steam. She printed some business cards announcing the opening of the British Hotel (how this daughter of colonialism loved the empire), promising the army and navy "a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers". To describe Seacole as a nurse is slightly misleading. The highly trained professional in a uniform had not yet been born, although she was being gestated by Florence Nightingale at Scutari. Practical and helpful, but also commercial, Seacole provided meals as well as medicine. Her kit for the battlefield contained cheese sandwiches as well as bandages.
Seacole met Nightingale only once. She wrote enthusiastically of "that Englishwoman whose name shall never die, but sound like music on the lips of British men until the hour of doom". The warmth was not reciprocated. Nightingale acknowledged Seacole's kindness, but also accused her of keeping something very like a "bad house" in the Crimea, holding her responsible for "much drunkenness and improper conduct".
Power, prejudice and arrogance on one side, eagerness and sycophancy on the other - the relationship between these two strong-willed women can be seen as a microcosm of the empire. Adjudicating over the disagreement, Robinson gives Seacole the benefit of the doubt, refuting the Victorian lady's hostility and priggishness with the equally Victorian virtue of modesty. "Mary has always struck me as a person of integrity," she writes firmly. She admits it is possible that the British Hotel was a place where officers got drunk and chased girls, but she seems unnecessarily worried that the reader might dislike Seacole as a result. Such misplaced defensiveness gives the book a slightly anachronistic flavour.
Yet there is something appealing about Robinson's affection for Seacole. In humanising her heroine, she demonstrates that there is an intelligent middle way between hagiography and debunking. Robinson does not pull Seacole off her pedestal or expose her feet of clay. Instead, she escorts us on Seacole's many adventures and lets us feel her warm and loving heart. Robinson does exactly what she sets out to do: "clean the glass . . . that separates our world from hers and look through".
Kathy Watson is the author of The Devil Kissed Her: the story of Mary Lamb (Bloomsbury)