Mary Seacole

(1805 – 1881)

By Rebecca Tortello

A contemporary of Florence Nightingale, although the two famous nurses never worked together, Seacole is best known for her work treating Britain’s wounded during the Crimean War in the mid-1850s. 

Born Mary Grant in Jamaica in 1805, the daughter of a free black woman and a Scottish soldier, Seacole was primarily self-taught. Much of her childhood was spent helping her mother in her Kingston boarding house located close to where the National Library now stands on East St.

A well-known healer, Mary’s mother often treated soldiers stationed close by at Up Park Camp and Newcastle. In her 1857 autobiography, Seacole recalls watching her mother closely and practicing medical techniques on her doll. Whatever disease was prominent in Kingston at any time, young Mary’s doll was sure to have it. So voracious was Mary in her desire to improve her knowledge that she later began to practise on dogs and cats and even herself, trying numerous remedies, poultices and tonics. Next to medicine, Mary’s other passion was travel and during the course of her life she visited Haiti, Cuba, New Providence, the island on which Nassau is located, the Southern US, Panama,  England, and, of course, the Crimea.

In 1836, when she was in her early twenties, Mary met and married Edward Horatio Seacole, godson of naval hero Horatio Lord Nelson.  The couple moved to Black River where they opened a store. Unlike Mary, however, Mr. Seacole had a weak constitution and Mary spent a great deal of time trying to nurse him into good health.  Although she managed to keep him alive longer than many doctors felt possible, eventually Mr. Seacole succumbed leaving Mary became a widow at a very young age. She would never remarry. Soon afterwards, Mary suffered another great loss the death of her mother.  Mary assumed her mother’s duties in nursing and treating sick soldiers and others in need.

In 1850, cholera (a disease that affects the digestive and intestinal tracts) swept over the island and Mary worked closely with doctors who were treating those afflicted. She was fond of saying that the simplest remedies were perhaps the best. Mustard plasters and emetics, mercury applied externally where veins were nearest the surface, and boiled water with a touch of cinnamon to quench the thirst, were her best allies. She had no liking for opium saying it tended to incapacitate a person’s entire system. This knowledge of one of the most dreaded diseases of Mary’s time would prove invaluable later in her life.

TRAVELLING

Soon after that cholera outbreak subsided, Mary decided to visit her brother who had opened a hotel in Panama.  She remained in Central America for a few years. While there she came face to face with cholera again, tirelessly serving the community in which she lived by applying all her medical skills. Not long after treating more people than she could count, Mary came down with cholera and the people she had helped set about helping her. Upon her recovery Mary opened what she called a ‘ëtable d’hote’ across from her brother’s hotel. It was a place where weary travellers could find a decent meal. Later she opened a hotel to cater to the entertainment of female travellers in another location. Yet, ever restless, Mary soon grew tired of life on the Isthmus, turned her business over to her brother and returned to Kingston. The year was 1853.

Mary arrived home in time to encounter a full scale outbreak of yellow fever (a contagious disease that causes yellowing of the skin and a black vomit). She set to work immediately, trying to save and/or comfort as many as she could. Not long after, in 1854, England declared war on Russia, allying with France who was engaged in a territorial dispute with Russia over holy sites in Jerusalem and Nazareth. Mary learned that many of the officers she had treated over the years had been sent to the Crimean front to serve.

The Crimea is a peninsula that includes the extreme Southeastern Ukraine and is bounded on the south and west by the Black Sea. Mary’s greatest wish, she said, was to work where the sword of bullet had been busiest, and pestilence most strife. So at fifty years old she decided to go to England, committed to finding her way to the Crimea no matter what. 

Mary explains…

Now I am not going to blame the authorities who would not listen to the offer of a motherly yellow woman to go to the Crimea and nurse her ‘sons’ there, suffering from cholera, diarrhoea, and a host of lesser ills. In my country, people know our use, it would have been different; but here (in England) it was natural enough although I had references, and other voices spoke for me that they should laugh, good-naturedly enough at my offer.

Undaunted and proud of her Creole status, Mary tried all routes open to her, including the Crimean War Fund to try and secure her transport. She was turned down. Dismayed, but not discouraged, Mary determined to go to the Crimea on her own. She cashed in her assets and set out to the heat of the battle to build her own ‘hotel for invalids.’ “I made up my mind,” she stated, “that if the army wanted nurses, they would be glad of me, and with all the ardour of my nature, which has carried me where inclination prompted, I decided that I would go to the Crimea.”

Once there, Mary attempted to join Florence Nightingale’s crew of nurses the first such group allowed to go to a battlefront. Once again, she was refused. “Had they accepted me,” Seacole recalled, “I would have worked for the wounded, in return for bread and water.” But Nightingale had no room for this offer. Resolute and never one to give in to any form of racial prejudice, having noticed how crowded Nightingale’s treatment centre was, Mary decided that a similar one closer to the front was badly needed:

“One thought never left my mind as I walked through the fearful miles of suffering in that great hospital. If it is so here, what must it not be at the scene of war where the poor fellows are stricken down by pestilence or Russian bullets, days and nights of agony must be passed before a woman’s hand can dress their wounds. I felt happy in the conviction that I must be useful three or four days nearer to their pressing wants than this.”

Mary created what she called her ‘hotel for invalids’ in the winter of 1855, close to the Balaclava front. (Balaclava is a town in the Ukraine and it may be the inspiration for the Jamaican town of the same name). She called it The British Hotel and spent the next year dispensing medicine, meals, and entertainment.  She divided her time between the hotel and to hospital and visited with soldiers at their campsites.

She quickly became known as Mother Seacole. When her savings ran out, Mary began selling medicine and meals to soldiers but she could never deny any in need who were unable to pay. Since few of her clients’ were rich, in the end, this effort, although a tremendous humanitarian success, was a financial disaster. When the war ended in 1856 with Britain and its French allies victorious, Mary left the British Hotel behind never realising all the grand ideas she had for it. She decided to travel for a time before returning to England. Later that same year Mary arrived on England’s shores, destitute and in poor health.  William Howard Russell, an influential journalist and special correspondent for the London Times brought Mary’s situation to public attention:

“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”.

Letters began to pour in asking: While the benevolent deeds of Florence Nightingale are being handed down for posterity …are the humble actions of Mrs. Seacole to be entirely forgotten? Soon, supporters appeared, including influential Dukes and Lords who had been Commanders in the Crimea. A benefit in the Royal Surrey Gardens in Kensington was organised. It lasted for four days, and over 1000 artistes performed. Mary was hailed as a national heroine and received a commendation from Queen Victoria. She was also decorated by the governments of France and Turkey.

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