I am sure you have heard of Florence Nightingale, but have you heard of her contemporary Mary Seacole?
So, who was Mary Seacole, what were her contributions and how was she awarded?
Mary Jane (nee Grant) Seacole was born on 23 November 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica which at the time was part of the British Empire. Her white Scottish father was an officer in the British Army and her mother a free Black Jamaican doctress. It is worth noting that slavery in Jamaica was not formally abolished until 1807.
Jamaican Doctresses were skilled healers, being the ‘general practitioners’ of their time. They were masters of folk medicine and included hygiene and herbs in their practice. Mary’s mother ran the Blundell Hall lodging house in Kingston, using her skills as a doctress to provide convalescent care for ill or injured soldiers and sailors.
Mary, inspired by her mother, showed great interest in medicine, practicing on her dolls, dogs, cats and herself, copying and honing her healing skills. By the age of 12, Mary was helping with medical care for the residents as well as assist in the running of Blundell Hall.
In her teenage years Mary travelled to England with family members and spent about three years in London. During that time, she learned about modern European medicine and blended that knowledge with her doctress skills. Mary’s travels continued and include Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas.
At the age of 31, she married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole on 10th November 1836. They set up a store in the coastal town of Black River. Edwin became unwell and died in 1844, followed by the death of her mother that same year. These deaths devastated Mary and she would never remarry.
The next stop for Mary was Panama, where her brother ran a hotel. Always an entrepreneur, she opened a shop across the street. Cholera was rampant at the time and, of course, Mary treated many patients. In a farewell speech given when she left Panama, the speaker mentioned that she might have been more acceptable had her skin colour been white. Mary did not let anyone’s opinion of her skin colour hinder her work and she showed no prejudice to the people she treated.
In 1854, during the Crimean War, Mary found herself back in England where the government was advertising for nurses to serve in Crimea. She applied and, despite her skills, her application was denied. She even wrote to Florence Nightingale, but by all accounts, the letter did not reach her.
So, what did Mary do? She made her way to Crimea with a colleague and set up a new business, the ‘British Hotel’ which, similar to Blundell Hall, hosted sick and recovering soldiers. Being close to the battlefield, she was known to nurse soldiers where they lay, becoming known as ‘Mother Seacole’. By the end of the war, all her funds had been exhausted and she returned to England, bankrupt.
Reports of Mary’s skill and courage, along with her bankrupt status, reached the attention of Sir William Howard Russell a reporter who covered the Crimean War. In 1857, he wrote in The Times,
“I trust that England will not forget one who 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”.
This led to a fund-raising gala in her honour, reportedly attended by 80,000 people and held on the banks of the river Thames.
In the same year, Mary published a best-selling autobiography The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, which is still in print today.
Mary died in London in 1881. Her legacy, however, continues into the 21st century.
- 1990 Posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit;
- 2004 Voted the greatest black Briton in a survey conducted in 2003 by the black heritage website Every Generation;
- 2016 Statue of Mary Seacole placed on the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, London, notably the first statue in the United Kingdom to honour a black woman by name.
To learn more about this remarkable Jamaican, visit the Mary Seacole Trust website.