Along with Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole was a pioneering nurse and a heroine of the Crimean War. Although her reputation at the time rivalled that of Nightingale, her great work in nursing was mostly forgotten for almost a century after her death.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805, Mary Jane Grant was the daughter of a Scottish soldier in the British Army and a Jamaican nurse and healer. At the time, Jamaica was a British Colony and along with other Caribbean colonies, became a focus of the slave trade for the ever-expanding British Empire.
'I had from early youth a yearning for medical knowledge and practice which never deserted me.'
Being of mixed-race, Mary was technically born 'free', however, her family enjoyed few civil rights. From an early age, she showed a great interest in medicine, learning her skills from her mother who ran a well-respected boarding house called Blundell Hall, which cared for injured soldiers. Her mother, nicknamed ‘The Doctress,’ was also a healer who used traditional Caribbean remedies to help cure the sick. Many of these skills were passed onto Mary who enjoyed refining her craft on her doll, which she writes about in her autobiography: ‘It was very natural that I should inherit her tastes; and so, I had from early youth a yearning for medical knowledge and practice which never deserted me…. And I was very young when I began to make use of the little knowledge I had acquired from watching my mother, upon great sufferer – my doll… and whatever disease was most prevalent in Kingston, be sure my poor doll soon contracted it.’
It wasn’t long before a young Mary was helping her mother run Blundell Hall and by the time she was a teenager she had discovered another great passion, travelling. After making two trips to London, where she spent a total of three years acquiring knowledge of modern European medicine, Mary ventured to the Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti. In 1826, she returned to Jamaica to nurse her patroness, an elderly woman who had given her financial support.
In 1836, she married Englishman Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole and the pair set up a provision store in southwest Jamaica, a venture that would ultimately fail to prosper. A series of disasters then befell Mary. In 1843, most of Blundell Hall burnt down in a fire and in 1844, Edwin passed away after becoming ill. Mary’s mother then died a short while later.
In response, Mary threw herself into her work, rebuilding her family’s boarding house and renaming it New Blundell Hall. In 1850, Jamaica relied on her skills as the country suffered a great cholera outbreak that saw some 32,000 lose their lives to the deadly disease.
A year later, Mary travelled to Panama to visit her brother Edward who lived in a town called Cruces. Shortly after arriving, the town suffered its own outbreak of cholera. Mary, in fact, treated the town's very first patient back to full health and subsequently garnered quite the reputation amongst the locals. As the disease spread, more flocked to Mary’s aid. She treated them with a mixture of mustard emetics, mustard plasters and the laxative calomel.
Mary would eventually succumb to the disease, forcing her to rest up for several weeks. In 1853, she arrived home in Jamaica, having been given a fond send-off by the Panamanian locals. Her skills were required almost immediately after stepping on home soil as the country was being ravaged by a yellow fever epidemic. Jamaican medical authorities asked her to help victims of the outbreak as well as supervising nursing services at Up-Park Camp, the headquarters of the British Army. The outbreak, however, was so severe that Mary found that she could do little to mitigate it.
However, it was during this outbreak that Mary formed strong bonds with the British soldiers she treated, so much so that when she heard that a war had broken out in Russia and that many of those same soldiers would soon be headed there, she knew she had to go too.
Shortly after the Crimean War began in October 1853, Mary made her way to London. The conflict saw Russian come to blows against an alliance of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia, with most of the fighting taking place on the Crimean Peninsula and Turkey.
Thousands of soldiers would die from disease and the unsanitary conditions of the hospitals there. The War Secretary Sidney Herbert quickly asked Florence Nightingale to gather a team of nurses together and head to the Crimea to help improve the situation for the sick and wounded.
Mary arrived in England after the nurses had left, but she applied to the War Office in the hope of going out in a second wave. They rejected her application, ignoring her extensive experience and excellent references. She again faced opposition towards her attempts to reach the Crimea after both the Crimean Fund and companions of Florence Nightingale refused to accept her help.
The soldiers fondly named her 'Mother Seacole'
‘The disappointment seemed a cruel one. I was so conscious of the unselfishness of the motives which induced me to leave England – so certain of the service I could render among the sick soldiery, and yet I found it so difficult to convince others of these facts, ‘ Mary wrote in her autobiography. ‘Was it possible that American prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?’
Mary had to overcome many prejudices in her life; the racist motivations of those holding her back only strengthened her resolve. Undeterred, Mary decided to fund her own way out to the Crimea.
En route, she stopped at the military hospital at Scutari where Florence Nightingale was based before moving on closer to the fighting. Forming a partnership with Thomas Day, a friend and relative of her late husband, the pair established the ‘British Hotel’ near Balaclava, the British bridgehead into Crimea. The establishment was opened in March 1855 and Mary described it as, ‘a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers.’
She often visited the troops to sell them provisions, deliver sick rations or attend to the wounded, the latter happening even under fire. The soldiers fondly named her 'Mother Seacole', her presence providing an indispensable boost to morale. Writing for The Times, war correspondent William Howard Russell wrote that Mary was a ‘warm and successful physician, who doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battlefield to aid the wounded and has earned many a poor fellow's blessing.’
After Sevastopol fell in September 1855, Mary found herself the first woman to step foot into the city. When peace on the Crimean peninsula finally came in 1856, Mary found herself in a tricky financial position. As the soldiers left for home, Mary struggled to shift her stores of provisions, eventually leaving for England with little to no money to her name.
It was the first autobiography ever written by a black woman in Britain
Although now penniless, Mary was as much a household name back in England as Nightingale was. Her financial plight was highlighted in the press and fundraising efforts were made to help Mary, including a four-day military festival held in her honour at the Royal Surrey Gardens in 1857. The event was said to have attracted between 40,000-80,000 people, including royalty.
That same year, Mary released her autobiography entitled ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.’ It was the first autobiography ever written by a black woman in Britain. William Howard Russell provided the preface, writing ‘I have witnessed her devotion and her courage ... and I trust that England will never forget one who has nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.’
Sadly, England did forget Mary. She passed away in 1881 and faded from British public memory. Almost a century passed before her feats were recognised once again and her legacy rightfully restored back into the public consciousness. In 2004, Mary was voted the greatest Black Briton in history by an online poll and in 2016 a statue of the Crimean War heroine was unveiled at the entrance of St Thomas' Hospital in London.