British war nurse Mary Seacole (1805–1881) cared for the wounded and maimed during the Crimean War of the 1850s, but her fame was eclipsed by that of fellow army nurse Florence Nightingale. A Jamaican by birth who was a staunch British patriot, Seacole enjoyed a rather adventurous and well-traveled life for a woman of part African heritage during that era. She operated several successful businesses in the Caribbean and Latin America, but was best known for her talents as an herbal medicine specialist. Her service during the Crimean conflict endeared her to hundreds of British soldiers she treated. "I do not pray to God that I may never see its like again, for I wish to be useful all my life," she wrote of the horrors of that war in her autobiography.
Seacole was born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1805. Her mother was creole, or a person of mixed race, and Seacole's father was white and a native of Scotland. He was an officer in the British Army and probably stationed there as part of a military contingent whose duty it was to secure the island against the Spanish, from whom Britain had seized it originally back in 1655. At the time of Seacole's birth, Jamaica was emerging as the world's leading exporter of sugar, which was shipped out of the bustling port city of Kingston to the rest of the vast British Empire and its assorted trading partners. Blacks were not native to Jamaica, but brought in by the British from Africa to serve as free labor on sugar plantations. In 1800, just five years before she was born, the island's 300,000 slaves outnumbered the white population 10 to 1.
Learned Craft from Her Mother
Seacole belonged to a small number of free blacks and creoles on the island, estimated at ten thousand or so. Her mother ran a boarding house that catered to both military personnel and civilians who fell ill in the tropical climate. Yellow fever, a vicious viral disease that was prevalent in the Caribbean at the time, was a leading killer, and Seacole's mother probably learned the herbal remedies she used to treat that and other sicknesses through slave women whose medical expertise had been passed on from their African ancestors. Seacole was eager to inherit the career, as she wrote in her 1857 bestselling autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. "I saw so much of her," she wrote of her mother, "and of her patients, that the ambition to become a doctress early took firm root in my mind."
In her autobiography, Seacole makes almost no mention of political events that shaped Jamaica, including numerous slave uprisings and the eventual abolition of slavery in 1834. Fiercely committed to the notion of Empire, and proud to be a British subject, she had longed to visit London since her girlhood, and finally made her first trip there around 1821. As a single woman, she had to have a male accompany her, and wrote in her autobiography that her companion's skin was darker than hers and they were sometimes taunted by children on the street, for blacks were still a rarity anywhere in Europe. She made another trip to London about a year later, this time bringing with her a large cache of West Indian spices and her own homemade jams to sell, and stayed until around 1825. In her autobiography, Seacole was vague about many details of her life and exact whereabouts, and therefore how she may have earned a living at times has been the subject of conjecture. She did visit the Bahamas, Haiti, and Cuba, probably selling her jams and spices, and helped her mother at the boarding house back in Kingston.
Moved to Panama
In 1836 Seacole married Edwin Horatio Seacole, a man described in various historical sources as English, a merchant in Jamaica, and the godson of famed British naval hero Lord Nelson (1758–1805). He was in poor health, however, and died eight years later. It was one of a series of tragic events that befell Seacole around this time: her mother died, and in August of 1843 both her Kingston home and boarding house were destroyed in a fire that nearly killed her. She resurrected her mother's enterprise, called Blundell Hall, and returned it to profitability within a few years.
In 1850 Seacole joined her half-brother in Panama, which was receiving a steady influx of travelers on their way to the California gold rush. On the Panamanian isthmus she had a provisions business that sold supplies to the travelers, but continued to run a boarding house and serve clients as a doctress, as female herbal medicinists were called at the time. Her reputation grew after she treated many cholera victims during one outbreak with a remedy that involved giving the patient large amounts of water in which cinnamon had been boiled. Cholera was a bacterial disease most commonly caused by drinking contaminated water, and cinnamon's essential oil has antimicrobial properties. She also became particularly adept at treating victims of violence in the rough-and-tumble Spanish garrison towns of the isthmus, where fights and knife wounds were common. By 1852 she had returned to Jamaica, where she established a makeshift military hospital for British soldiers sickened by another yellow fever epidemic on the island.
Seacole returned to Panama and set up another clinic near a mining camp. When she learned about Britain's involvement in a faraway conflict known as the Crimean War (1853–56), and the need for nurses to tend the wounded, she decided to volunteer her services. Most of the battles took place on the Crimean peninsula, which later became part of Ukraine. There, British troops had joined their French counterparts to help Turkey push back Russian forces for control of the area, and when reports reached England about how terribly the invalid soldiers had suffered during the first winter, a wealthy British woman who had already made nursing her career began a public awareness campaign to recruit and train women to serve as army nurses. That woman was Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), and her services during the Crimean War made her one of the most famous women in the world.
Earned Fame as War Nurse
Nightingale was already in Turkey by the time Seacole arrived in London to offer her services. The doctress, well-known in the Caribbean world, brought with her several letters of reference from British officers in Kingston attesting to her medical skills, compassion, and selflessness, but Nightingale's recruiter was the wife of a cabinet minister who informed her that all nursing positions had already been filled. "I read in her face the fact that had there been a vacancy I should not have been chosen to fill it," Seacole wrote, according to a Times of London report published on the centenary of the war in the same newspaper. She and her business partner, Thomas Day—the superintendent of the Panama mining camp—decided to go anyway, using their own funds. They arrived in Constantinople, Turkey's main city, where Seacole located Nightingale, who again turned down her request to join the official army nurses' corps.
Seacole and Day built their own establishment from salvaged materials in the port city of Balaclava. Called the "British Hotel," it served as a hospital and rest center for officers, but required payment for services, because the enterprise had been funded on a negligible budget. Seacole also ventured out to the battlefield when she could to tend to the wounded. Both there and back in Constantinople she encountered many British military personnel who knew her from their own stints in Jamaica, and were pleased to see her. She was even commended in dispatches sent by the Times of London war correspondent, William Howard Russell, who wrote that "a more tender and skilful hand about a wound or broken limb could not be found amongst our best surgeons," he wrote, according to the newspaper's commemorative article a century later. "I saw her at the fall of Sebastopol … laden not with plunder, good old soul, but with wine, bandages, and food for the wounded or prisoners."
It was the wine that earned Seacole a few notable enemies in her line of work, chief among them Nightingale. Serving alcohol to troops was contrary to conventions of the day, and the idea that a woman of color was providing it to soldiers prompted some moral outrage among prim-minded Victorians. Nevertheless, Seacole was greatly beloved by the troops, especially one Christmas when she found enough ingredients to make several plum puddings, the traditional English holiday dish, for the soldiers and officers. Many wrote lovingly of her care in letters back home, calling her "Aunty" or "Mother Seacole."
Rescued from Poverty by Officers
After the war ended, Seacole returned to London, where a business venture with Day seemed to have gone badly under Day's mismanagement, and she was forced to declare bankruptcy. Notice of the bankruptcy hearing appeared in the Times in November of 1856, and this elicited a groundswell of sympathy for her from the officers and soldiers she had tended. Her plight came to the attention of Lord Rokeby, a division commander from the war, who urged that a fund be set up to help her. The magazine Punch joined in, printing a poem titled "A Stir for Seacole" and providing an address for donations. The efforts culminated in the Grand Military Festival, held in Seacole's honor, at the Royal Surrey Gardens in July of 1857. The benefit was the work of Rokeby and another lord, George Paget (1818–1880), who had also been impressed by Seacole's dedication to his troops. The four-day event featured a thousand performers and some 80,000 attendees, but its finances were allegedly mismanaged, and Seacole received little from it. It did help publicize her recently printed autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, however, for which the Times's war correspondent had written the introduction.
Seacole's memoir, the first autobiography written by a black woman published in Britain, became a bestseller, but she returned to Jamaica in 1859, somewhat dejected for failing to have won an audience with Her Majesty, Queen Victoria (1819–1901). Race did not seem to be a factor, for the queen had been known to meet with and even financially assist subjects of the Empire who were of African or Asian heritage. Seacole's biographers speculate that Florence Nightingale—who became close to the monarch in the years following her Crimean War fame—had spread rumors that Seacole ran a brothel, and seemed to have known that Seacole had given birth to a daughter out of wedlock, whom she brought to Crimea but never mentioned in her autobiography.
Returning to London around 1870 as a new conflict, the Franco-Prussian War, raged in Europe, Seacole contacted a member of parliament who was heading British relief services for it—an agency that was the forerunner of the Red Cross—and offered her help, but the politician was Nightingale's brother-in-law, and once again her generosity was spurned. For a time she served as masseuse to Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, who suffered from painful rheumatism. On May 14, 1881, Seacole died at her home in Paddington, London, with the cause of death listed as apoplexy, or a stroke. Her uniquely adventurous and service-oriented life was largely forgotten for decades, until her name advanced to the top of the list in a 2004 national online poll for the Greatest Black Briton. In January of 2005, a previously unknown portrait of Seacole was permanently installed at the National Portrait Gallery of Britain.
The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, Bristol, England, 1857.
African American Review, Winter 1992.
Guardian (London, England), February 14, 2004; January 11, 2005.
History Today, February 2005.
New Statesman, January 17, 2005.
Times (London, England), November 7, 1856; November 29, 1856; December 24, 1954.
Women in Higher Education, February 2006.
Crimean war nurse, writer
Jamaican-born Mary Seacole served as a nurse in the Crimean War (1853-56), establishing the "British Hotel" for soldiers recovering from injuries and illness in the Crimean port city of Balaclava. Because of her color, Seacole was refused by the British war office when she asked to be sent to the Crimea (now Ukraine), but she raised the money to travel there herself and became a favorite with the troops, who called her "Mother Seacole." Seacole was highly regarded at the time for her bravery, skill, and the way she combined traditional medicine with modern ideas, but she drew strong disapproval from Florence Nightingale and her supporters, who considered Seacole disorganized and immoral. After the war she was saved from poverty and obscurity by a benefit festival supported by Crimean War commanders including Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget. She also wrote an autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), which sold well and made her wealthy. She was awarded the Crimean Medal and the French Legion of Honor, but her role as a pioneer of modern battlefield nursing has been overshadowed by the better-known story of Florence Nightingale.
Born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1805, Seacole learned her nursing and business skills from her mixed race mother, who ran a boarding house for sick and injured soldiers. Her father was a white Scottish soldier and thus Seacole did not consider herself black, but rather Creole and British. At a time when being black in Jamaica almost always meant being a slave, as a Creole Seacole enjoyed relative freedom, though Creoles could not join the professions, or hold public office, and had very few civil rights. Seacole spent the early part of her adult life travelling in the Caribbean and Central America, where she ran a series of taverns and boarding houses and continued to learn about medicine. She also visited London during this period. She married Edwin Seacole in 1836, but he died in 1844; his death was shortly followed by that of Seacole's mother.
Hearing about the shortage of nurses in the Crimea in 1854, Seacole made her second visit to London in an attempt to join the corps of nurses established by Florence Nightingale. She offered her services to Elizabeth Herbert, who was recruiting nurses on behalf of her husband, the secretary of state for war, but because of her ethnicity Seacole was refused even an interview. Instead she found her own way to Balaclava in 1855, where her offer to assist the Nightingale nurses was again refused. Seacole set up the "British Hotel" with her own money to provide accommodation, comfort, and food for injured, sick, and recovering officers; her lack of funds meant she could only afford to treat soldiers who could pay. The hotel was near the front line and offered short periods of respite to officers who would soon return to the fighting. She was also an active battlefield nurse and ran a small pharmacy, selling medicines and giving medical advice to soldiers who knew her affectionately as "Mother Seacole."
Before the war Seacole had been a successful businesswoman, but she had sold all her assets to travel to the Crimea and used up her funds on the venture. When the war ended in 1856, Seacole returned to England penniless and exhausted. Besides the color of her skin Seacole had also scandalized Victorian society by providing alcohol to the troops in her care; there were even rumors, started by Nightingale among others, that Seacole was running a brothel. While Nightingale, who had influential friends, was celebrated as "The Lady of the Lamp," Seacole was practically forgotten after her return. It was only when a letter was published in The Times calling for her efforts to be rewarded that a military festival was staged to support her. The event ran over four days and was supported by wartime commanders Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget, among others, as well as other dignitaries. Over 1,000 performers participated in the event, which was one of the biggest of its kind. Seacole was awarded the Crimean Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and a Turkish Medal.
In 1857 Seacole published an account of her travels and her experiences in the Crimean war entitled The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which became a bestseller of its time and ensured her public recognition and considerable wealth for the rest of her life. She spent her later years working and traveling between Jamaica and England. Seacole died leaving an estate worth £2,500 on May 14, 1881 and is buried at St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery in Harrow Road, London.
After her death, Seacole's story again fell into obscurity compared with Florence Nightingale, whose white middle-class background worked in her favor. Although Seacole's book was republished in 1984 it was not until the late 1990s that her contribution to the history of nursing became widely known outside the Caribbean. She was voted Greatest Black Briton in 2004 and a previously unknown portrait, showing Seacole wearing her medals, was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in London in January 2005.
The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, 1857. Republished in 1984 (UK) and 1988 (USA) by Oxford University Press.
At a Glance …
Born Mary Jane Grant in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica; died on May 14, 1881, in London, England; married Edwin Seacole in 1836 (died 1844). Religion: Catholic.
Ran taverns and small hotels around the Caribbean and Central America, where she cared for wounded soldiers and learned about medicine and nursing; opened "British Hotel" in Balaclava, Crimea, tending to sick and injured officers and pioneering front-line nursing care; wrote her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, 1857.
Crimean Medal; French Legion of Honor; Turkish Medal; voted Greatest Black Briton, 2004.
Signs, Summer 2001, p. 949.
The Guardian (London and Manchester, UK), January 11, 2005; January 15, 2005.
"Nurse Named Greatest Black Briton," BBC News Online (February 10, 2004), http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3475445.stm (August 9, 2005).
"Mary Seacole," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (July 22, 2005).
"Mary Seacole," Black Presence in Britain, www.blackpresence.co.uk/pages/citizens/seacole.htm (July 22, 2005).
May 14, 1881
Mary Grant Seacole's autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, was published in England in 1857. Although the book provides some details of her personal life, the text is primarily concerned with detailing Seacole's "roving inclination." Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to a free black Creole woman and a white Scotsman. As a young woman, she trained under her mother, an eminent "doctress," and she went on to minister to many members of Britain's military force stationed in Kingston, as well as to local people. In addition to her medical skills, which would continue to expand, she was also an entrepreneur, running a series of business ventures in Jamaica, Panama, England, and the Crimea. Although widowed after a brief marriage, she chose to pursue her goal "to be useful" rather than retire from life and society.
In 1850, Seacole's "roving inclination" persuaded her to follow her brother to Panama, where she planned to help him run his hotel and store. Her autobiography describes her unwavering refusal to let the difficulty of travel deter or dissuade her resolve. In 1854, this perseverance sustained her when she volunteered her services to the War Department in England at the outbreak of the Crime-an War. She was rebuffed at every turn, due to what she called the "infection of American racism" upon officials at War Department, British aid agencies, and Florence Nightingale's organization serving in the Crimea. Undeterred, Seacole decided to go to the Crimea anyway, with the intent of opening up a small hotel and hospital. When Seacole returned to England she was destitute. After the failure of a few business ventures, she eventually wrote her memoirs.
Seacole's autobiography is significant for a number of reasons. Her zest for life and adventure are evident through the narrative. Although successful in the womanly arts of nurturance, Seacole consistently portrays herself as a strong and capable woman, willing and able to assert her independence with fortitude and humor. The narrative is strewn with her shrewd observations of various peoples, classes, and nationalities, especially as they pertain to race. Although as a brown, or "yaller," woman, Seacole expresses the sharpest scorn for Americans and others who dislike blacks for no reason other than skin color, she also admonishes lazy blacks and Indians. She also asserts that, due to the enterprising blood of her Scotsman father, she is unlike the usual lazy Creoles. One of the most striking features of the narrative, in addition to the author's strong voice, is Seacole's decision to tell her story in the way she wanted. Unlike other travel narratives, and narratives of the Crimean War, Seacole does not adhere to a strict chronological or diary-style arrangement. Instead, Seacole's narrative is a glorious mélange of letters, narrative description, adventure tale, medical treatise, and social commentary.
See also Women Writers of the Caribbean
Baggett, Paul. "Caught between Homes: Mary Seacole and the Question of Cultural Identity." MaComère 3 (2000): 45–56.
Hawthorne, Evelyn J. "Self-Writing, Literary Traditions, and Post-Emancipation Identity: The Case of Mary Seacole." Biography 23, no. 2 (2000): 309–331.
Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. "Mrs. Seacole's Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands and the Consciousness of Transit." In Black Victorians/Black Victoriana, edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
Seacole, Mary. The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, edited by Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee. Bristol, UK: Falling Wall Press, 1984.
nicole n. aljoe (2005)