Many of us are familiar with the accounts of Florence Nightingale, the British nurse who worked tirelessly and in the most trying of circumstances during The Crimea War and who in many ways pushed forward and pioneered modern day healthcare and nursing. She is rightly remembered as one of the greatest figures in history and widely commemorated.
Last week a statue was unveiled of Mary Seacole in the grounds of St Thomas’ hospital opposite the Houses of Parliament. Her statue is said to be the first of a black lady in the country and has surprisingly caused a little controversy by a minority of supporters of Florence Nightingale who argue that in some way the achievements of the Lady With A Lamp are demeaned by the elevation of Mary Seacole.
Whilst it is true that Mary Seacole was not an actual nurse and did not risk her life to save others, her story is nonetheless an incredible one.
Born in 1805 in Jamaica of Scottish and African descent, Mary Jane Grant described herself as being Creole. She was both very proud of her Scottish ancestry and of her skin colour.
“I am a Creole, and have good Scots blood coursing through my veins. My father was a soldier of an old Scottish family. I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related – and I am proud of the relationship – to those poor mortals whom you once held enslaved, and whose bodies America still owns.”
The West Indies was an important and valued part of the British Empire, and Mary was able to gain herself a good education whilst working in the household of a kindly old lady, she soon had her own business and was no doubt towards the top end of society in Jamaica, an example of how people of different races could flourish to a certain degree given luck, hard work and opportunity.
It was in 1821 that Mary first visited London where she stayed for a year, noting that there were other black people around in London though she was undoubtedly lighter skinned than others due to her Scottish father. She soon returned to London with stock of Carribean foodstuffs and preserved which she started selling. It is notable that she travelled without a chaperone, perhaps an indication of her determination and vigourousness which she lived and which she hoped to distance herself from the stereotype of being a lazy Creole.
In 1825, her patron was ill and Mary took time out to return to Jamaica to nurse her until the elderly lady died. Mary then spent time working at one of the many British military hospitals in the area whilst also travelling to The Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti amongst other places.
On 10th November 1836, Mary married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole. As the name suggests, her husband was likely an illegitimate lovechild of the famed Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton though Mary herself used to state that he was in fact Nelsons Godson despite there being no evidence for this… perhaps a reflection of how badly it was thought to be born out of wedlock. It is interesting to note that her marriage only made 9 lines of text in her very lively autobiography which again illustrates what an independent woman she was.
Her life took a turn for the worse in 1843 when her mother died and then in 1844 so did her husband. Mary was understandably inconsolable and it took some time before she realised her best way forward was to throw herself into work rather than accept many of the marriage proposals that went her way. She took ownership of the hotel which her mother had run and became frequently visited by British and European figures who often remarked on her ability to have overcome her grief. Mary presumed it was due to her good Creole blood that meant that grief and pain didn’t fester in her heart and hidden away as happened to British people.
In 1850, Mary treated many patients in the large Cholera epidemic which killed 32,000 islanders that year. She surmised that the infection was spread by a passenger from a New Orleans steamer. Later that year, her half-brother moved to the city of Cruces in Panama and when Mary visited, she again became embroiled in a Cholera epidemic. She was well taught in the way of natural herbal remedies which though helpful in some lesser situations, could only really claim to be of moderate use in such a disastrous event. She was also of the opinion that the local people lacked a little in a fighting spirit and that they were too quick to give up and surrender life to Cholera.
Ulysses S. Grant came through Panama and a third of his force also died of Cholera but his visited was enough to convince Mary that Panama was a great place to invest and so she opened up a restaurant called the British Hotel which could serve 50 diners as well as an adjoining barbers shop. It was in Panama however that she came face to face with no doubt well-meaning but still abhorrent racism prevalent in much of America at the time when a white American diner exclaimed….
“God bless the best yaller woman he ever made” and asked the listeners to join with him in rejoicing that “she’s so many shades removed from being entirely black”. He went on to say that “if we could bleach her by any means we would […] and thus make her acceptable in any company[,] as she deserves to be”. Seacole replied firmly that she did not “appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion. If it had been as dark as any nigger’s, I should have been just as happy and just as useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value.” She declined the offer of “bleaching” and drank “to you and the general reformation of American manners”.
After opening a variety of other businesses in the region, the event that most defines Mary Seacole’s life took place, The Crimean War. The Crimean War ran from 1853 to 1856 and was primarily a war to thwart Russian expansionism by the British and French as the Ottoman Empire entered its final period of decline. Most of the action took place around the coasts of the Black Sea in Turkey, Romania and Crimea.
Soldiers from across Europe arrived on the scene and they soon began to get ill not just from the fighting but the bad conditions that they found themselves in. Thousands died, many of them waiting to ship back home but also in the poorly ran hospitals and soon a petition was created that urged Florence Nightingale to lead a medical team to ease their suffering which departed for Turkey on 21st October.
Mary Seacole had just arrived in Britain, ostensibly to deal with her gold investments but implored officials that she be allowed to travel with the second wave of nurses. Despite her ample experience, she was denied permission to join on accounts that arrangements were too far completed.
Mary vowed to go to the warzone herself and using her own finances and resources made her way to Balaclava on a Dutch steam ship with a large stock of supplies, provisions and even business cards. When she arrived, lacking any real building materials, she gathered driftwood, sheet metal and old windows and doors to create The British Hotel just a mile from British HQ near Sevastapol.
Seacole visited Nightingale at the Barrack Hospital in Scutari, where she asked for a bed for the night, because she intended to travel to Balaclava the next day to join her business partner. In her memoirs, she reported that her meeting with Nightingale was friendly, with Nightingale asking “What do you want, Mrs. Seacole? Anything we can do for you? If it lies in my power, I shall be very happy.”Seacole told her of her “dread of the night journey by caique” and the improbability of being able to find the Hollander in the dark. A bed was then found for her and breakfast sent her in the morning, with a “kind message” from Mrs. Bracebridge, Nightingale’s helper. A footnote in the memoir states that Seacole subsequently “saw much of Miss Nightingale at Balaclava,” but no further meetings are recorded in the tex
All in all her establishment cost £800 to create but rather than be an actual hospital, Mary herself saw her hotel as being “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”
Mary didn’t just run the hotel but through herself whole-heartedly into doing everything she could to help. She would dispense medical treatment, work in the kitchens and even deliver food to those outside the area of her hotel. She also went out and about, tending to injuries of soldiers fighting in the war and in her book is noted to have been on friendly terms with Florence Nightingale and indeed that Florence thought highly of her good work.
When at last Sevastapol fell, the conditions improved somewhat and whilst the soldiers tried to make the most of things, Mary Seacole was the first British woman to enter the city which was full of sick and injured Russian soldiers to which Mary brought in ample supplies and refreshments to the Russian soldiers and civilians alike.
In 1856 with the war won, the British and French armies returned to Europe. Mary had spent a fortune on the entire enterprise without even counting the constant thievery of her supplies. She was one of the very last people to leave Crimea, trying as she did to sell her belongings to wealthy Russians as they returned home after the fighting.
Sociology Professor Lynn McDonald puts the achiements of Mary into the following historical context.
“Mary Seacole, although never the ‘black British nurse’ she is claimed to have been, was a successful mixed-race immigrant to Britain. She led an adventurous life, and her memoir of 1857 is still a lively read. She was kind and generous. She made friends of her customers, army and navy officers, who came to her rescue with a fund when she was declared bankrupt. While her cures have been vastly exaggerated, she doubtless did what she could to ease suffering, when no effective cures existed. In epidemics pre-Crimea, she said a comforting word to the dying and closed the eyes of the dead. During the Crimean War, probably her greatest kindness was to serve hot tea and lemonade to cold, suffering soldiers awaiting transport to hospital on the wharf at Balaclava. She deserves much credit for rising to the occasion, but her tea and lemonade did not save lives, pioneer nursing or advance health care.”
Mary returned to London by a rather indirect route, she was now much poorer than she had ever been and relied on public donations and support for her welfare in being able to live in a life-style to which she was accustomed to, moving to the less well-to-do area of Soho in London for a few years before finally splitting her time between the U.K. and Jamaica.
Despite the insinuation from Florence Nightingale that her hotel in the Crimea had been a place of drunkenness and improper conduct, Mary became a masseuse to the Prince of Wales. She died in Paddington in 1881 leaving £2,500 in her will and was buried in Kensal Green.
Though very famous and respected during her life, Mary faded from public consciousness after her death as attention focused on the more medically pioneering Florence Nightingale. However in recent years Mary Seacole has returned to the public realm, being remembered with a medal in Jamaica and in Britain as being the focus of study for Victorian attitudes to race as well as her life itself. Many insitutions and awards now hold the name of Mary Seacole.
Wherever one stands on the debate between the merits of Florence and Mary, it can’t be denied that Mary Seacole was a remarkable woman.