CBBC’s “Horrible Histories” Under Fire for Painting WWI Nurse Florence Nightingale as a Racist

The Children’s BBC’s Horrible Histories was criticized for inaccurately portraying Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale racially discriminating fellow nurse, Jamaican-born Mary Seacole, in one of its short clips.

An episode of Horrible Histories, a comedy program aimed at showing the shady, appalling and at times scatological side of history, showed Nightingale reject the application made by Mary Seacole for her nursing corps four times because she was from Jamaica and the unit was just “for British girls”.

The said sketch was originally part of the Vile Victorians series showed way back in 2010 and was then featured in BBC’s website, Learning Zone. The particular piece showed a fictional Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole visit a whimsical PR consultant to talk about their respective images.

The sketch further went on to show the two actresses discuss how Nightingale went down to history with all her achievements while the latter’s memory laid forgotten as she was nothing but a black woman without money to her name.

The PR man empathized with Seacole in the sketch voicing out that’s terrible after everything you did and promising her that she would eventually have her own statue, her own spot in history books and her shot to fame. The said sketch pictured the two nurses squabbling as they were entering the room with the actress portraying Seacole’s character lamenting that all the history books regarding the Crimean War only mentioned one nurse and that is Nightingale. She further pointed out that she tried to join Nightingale four times during the said war but the latter rejected her all those times. At this point, Nightingale quipped her own line saying that the nursing corps was just for British girls and Seacole was from Jamaica.

Viewers who saw the program voiced out their complaints that the show was debasing Florence Nightingale’s legacy and achievements to boost Mary Seacole’s reputation.

In lieu to the complaints, the BBC Trust ruled that the clip’s portrayal of Florence Nightingale “in relation to racial issues was inaccurate materially”. As a matter of fact, the trust says that there were never any solid evidence which pointed out to her rejecting Seacole’s application or acting with racial discrimination towards other nurses.

The trust went on to say that racism charges were quite serious and to make allegations such as this against the WWI nurse should be supported with sound evidence which the program makers clearly did not have.

The committee even pointed out that while Seacole did make attempts to join the nursing corps five times, Nightingale wasn’t involved personally in any of them. It further added that since the program was dealing with children and history, program makers should be clear about the facts they would be instilling in the former’s minds.

The original complaints about the short clip was made by Nightingale Society members. Two representatives of the society, Doctor Magnello and Professor McDonald, stated that it wasn’t fair to strengthen Mary Seacole’s reputation in history at the expense of Florence Nightingale on the grounds of political correctness.

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE