Seacole, Mary Jane (c. 1805–1881)

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Seacole, Mary Jane (c. 1805–1881)

Jamaican adventurer, autobiographer, and doctor whose exploits led her from a boarding house in Jamaica to the battlefields of the Crimean War. Name variations: Mrs. Seacole; Mother Seacole; Aunty Seacole. Born Mary Jane Grant sometime between 1805 and 1810 in Kingston, Jamaica; died, possibly in Jamaica, on May 14, 1881; buried in North West London in St. Mary's Catholic cemetery; daughter of a Scottish soldier father and a free black mother (a boardinghouse keeper and "doctress"); received no formal education; married Edwin Horatio Seacole (an English merchant), on November 10, 1836; no children.

Widowed (c. 1837); inherited lodging house from mother (1840s); began to rebuild lodging house after fire (1843); assisted doctor during a cholera outbreak (1850); lived and worked in Panama (early 1850s); returned to Jamaica (1853); nursed numerous patients in the yellow fever epidemic (1853); traveled to England after outbreak of the Crimean War (1854); set up her "British Hotel" in Balaclava (winter 1855); returned to England at war's end (1856); published Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (J. Blackwood, 1857); cultivated a friendship with the Princess of Wales (1870s).

Cholera thrived in filthy conditions and, in the 19th century, transportation and trade developments helped spread the disease. Mary Seacole's patients included American merchants and hotel keepers who paid handsomely for her services, and local boatmen and muleteers who could not afford to pay anything.

In her well-written autobiography, Seacole recalled an especially harrowing night during the cholera epidemic that swept through the Isthmus of Panama around 1850, when Seacole, known as "the yellow woman from Jamaica," was living in Cruces. Late one evening, the owner of the largest local mule team approached her to ask for her help at his kraal (ranch), where his drivers were succumbing to the epidemic. He promised Seacole good pay if she could save the head muleteer, who was his most valued worker. When she arrived, Seacole found:

[The hut's] roof scarcely sheltered its wretched inmates from the searching rain; its floor was damp, rank turf, trodden by the mules' hoofs and the muleteers' feet into thick mud. Around, in dirty hammocks, and on the damp floor, were the inmates of this wretched place, male and female, the strong and the sick together, breathing air that nearly choked me, accustomed as I had grown to live in impure atmosphere; for beneath the same roof the mules, more valuable to their master than his human servants, were stabled.

Eager to escape the sights and sounds in this hovel, where the terrible disease was clearly manifest in the symptoms of diarrhea, acute vomiting, and excruciating cramps, Seacole set about doctoring the sick. She lit a fire and opened all the windows and doors to provide ventilation in the enclosed space. Two patients were already beyond her help, on the verge of death. The screams and moans of others wore away at her as she nursed. Around midnight, she escaped the hut briefly for a little quiet, but the mule-owner soon summoned her back, where she found the conditions had worsened. One patient had had a relapse, some were sinking fast, and many of the sufferers were quaking in terror of death. She brought a semblance of order to the room by placing screens around the dying men, then sat by the fire, drawing her last patient in her lap, "a poor, little, brown-faced orphan infant, scarce a year old, dying in my arms," she wrote, "and I was powerless to save it."

Examining the corpse of this infant later, Seacole performed her first and last postmortem, and believed she found some answers to her questions about the disease which helped her in treating cholera sufferers later.

In her autobiography, Seacole declined to give the date of her birth, asserting her right as a woman not to reveal her age; her maiden name is also unknown. What is known is that her Jamaican mother kept a boarding house in Kingston, Jamaica, and doctored British officers and their wives who were stationed there. Seacole, who was placed in the household of an "old lady" at a young age and raised along with the woman's grandchildren, never lost touch with her birth mother. Her early introduction to the medical arts came through observing her mother's ministrations. Seacole made patients of her dolls, and later practiced her medical skills on pets, then conducted experiments on herself. Around age 12, she was spending considerable time at her mother's house, assisting her in the care of invalid British military officers.

Though little mention is given to the trip in her autobiography, Seacole went to England as a young woman, accompanying some of her relatives. Some of her most vivid memories of that trip involved the slurs of London street boys, who poked fun at her complexion, which she merely found strange, observing that she was "only a little brown." After about a year in London, Seacole returned to Kingston, then went back to London, this time with a large store of West Indian preserves and pickles to sell, in one of her earliest entrepreneurial efforts. This time she remained in England for two years.

Visits to New Providence, Haiti, and Cuba yielded merchandise Seacole could sell back in Kingston, and she was on her way to a successful career in trade when the old lady who had raised her in Kingston became ill. Seacole nursed her until the woman died, then moved into her mother's house, where she made herself useful, according to her autobiography, "in a variety of ways." Without more detail, she also establishes that it was around this time she married Edwin H. Seacole, an English merchant, and moved with him to Black River, where the couple established a store. But Edwin was sickly and kept alive only by the nursing and attention of his wife; finally, he grew so ill that they were forced to leave Black River for her mother's home. A month after they reached Kingston, Edwin died, and Mary was never to marry again, although in her autobiography she was quick to point out that her decision was not for lack of suitors.

Upon the death of her mother, Seacole inherited the boarding house. Now middle-aged, she endured a pattern that would remain with her the rest of her life: rich one day, poor the next. In 1843, the great Kingston fire destroyed the boarding house and left Seacole destitute. But she slowly began to rebuild, and her establishment took on the character of a convalescent home. When word spread of her nursing and medical skills, invalid military men flocked there, and she became more prosperous than ever.

In 1850, Seacole had her first experience with cholera when the disease swept through Jamaica with terrible force. She had drawn on her experience of watching military doctors treat patients when she traveled to Cruces, on the Isthmus of Panama, to be with her brother. When cholera struck the town, which had no doctor, people turned to Seacole for medical help. After the worst of the epidemic passed, Seacole's reputation had earned her a considerable medical practice.

Seacole's desire, at the time, however, was to open a hotel in Cruces. At first she operated a "restaurant" but took in no lodgers. When the rainy months came to an end, she moved on to Gorgona, where she opened a dining room "some thirty feet in length." The business was a success, but Seacole grew bored. She was thinking about leaving Gorgona when a fire in town ended her enthusiasm for life in Panama. Handing the business over to her brother, she returned to Kingston in 1853.

In Jamaica, she found a yellow fever epidemic raging, which engaged her nursing efforts for eight months. A period of restlessness ensued, in which she returned to Gorgona to wind up her business affairs, then accompanied her brother to the town of Panama. From there she crossed the isthmus to Navy Bay at Colon, where she ran a store for about three months, then sailed some 70 miles to Escribanos where, according to her autobiography, she spent the only period of her life "devoted to gold seeking," at one of the stations of the New Granada Gold-Mining Company.

Meanwhile news reached Seacole of the Crimean War. Great Britain, France, Turkey, and Sardinia were engaged against Russia over the domination of southeast Europe. The conflict would last until 1856, and many of the regiments Seacole had known in Jamaica were taking part in the action. Apart from their battle injuries, soldiers in the Crimea were afflicted with cholera, diarrhea, and dysentery, and Seacole knew that her experience could make her useful. In the autumn of 1854, she made her way to London to volunteer as a nurse.

Her first application was to the War Office, which showed no interest in her desire to volunteer. She then thought of approaching Florence Nightingale , the British nurse who championed the cause of the "professional" nurse and had already gained fame for her work in the Crimea. But Nightingale had departed for the distant battlefields, so Seacole applied to one of her associates. During the interview, she was told that the full complement of nurses had been secured and that they could not use her help. Seacole wanted to believe the woman, but "read in her face the fact, that had there been a vacancy, I should not have been chosen to fill it," and understood finally that it was because of the color of her skin.

She applied next to the managers of the Crimean Fund, and was rebuffed once more. No one seemed to accept her eagerness to serve the "sick soldiery." The repeated refusals of her offers to help only brought on more questions: "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?" But, writes the ebullient Seacole, "I decided that I would go to the Crimea; and go I did, as all the world knows," even when it meant paying her own way.

Still in England, she met a Mr. Day, who had a distant connection with her late husband. Day was bound for the Crimean port of Balaclava on shipping business, and Seacole had a plan to open a hotel there for military invalids, along the lines of the boarding house she had operated in Jamaica. The two reached a financial agreement to open a store and hotel near the British military camp, and Seacole set off for the Black Sea.

After landing at Scutari, Seacole obtained an interview with Florence Nightingale, to whom she presented a letter of introduction. Nightingale showed no reservations about putting the services of the Jamaican woman to good use. Sent to the battlefront, Seacole cared for the English, French, and Sardinian combatants, as well as for the Russians, often while under fire. She helped doctors "transfer the sick and wounded from the mules and ambulances into the transports that had to carry them to the hospitals at Scutari or Buyukere," and she lived on an ammunition ship while caring for the wounded on the sick wharf in Balaclava. To the battlefields, she carried "lint, bandages, needles, thread, and medicines," and food from her own stores. She spent much of her own limited capital on medicine for the wounded and often came to their aid without request, tending the wounded on a beach, for example, where they otherwise might suffer unattended for many hours.

Seacole's and Day's British Hotel included a store, a canteen for enlisted men, a kitchen and small mess hall for officers, as well as a medical dispensary and sick bay. The establishment provided relief from life on the front, and many soldiers went there daily for treatment as outpatients. Seacole's rules did not permit intoxicants, cards, or dice on the premises, and the fame of her medical and nurturing skills led to her being known as "Mother Seacole" among the wounded.

In 1856, following the sacking of Sebastopol, the war was suddenly ended. Seacole and Day were forced to sell their hotel and inventory at a great loss, leaving Seacole deeply in debt. She returned to England "shaken in health … wounded, as many others did … [and] found myself poor—beggared." But word of her good works had preceded her, and she soon discovered that she was held by many in high regard, and acclaimed by The Times, Punch, and the Illustrated London News. Subscriptions were raised to release her from bankruptcy, and the lively autobiography she wrote to raise money became a bestseller.

Dividing her time between Jamaica and London, Seacole now lived well, and even became intimately connected with the family of Queen Victoria ; in the 1870s, she was unofficial masseuse to the princess of Wales, Alexandra of Denmark . Seacole is said to have died in Jamaica in 1881, but she was buried in St. Mary's Catholic cemetery in North West London. According to her will, she owned two houses in Kingston, and her estate was valued at today's equivalent of tens of thousands of pounds sterling.

Born black and female in the 19th century, Seacole challenged the middle-class conventions of her day, living independently while she pursued her various careers. As a businesswoman, her savvy provided the financial support that allowed for the practice of the medical arts for which she became most well known, although her skills could not protect her entirely from prejudices against color in the late British Empire. Best remembered for her medical sojourn in the Crimea, she also wrote a highly readable autobiography which may be the only record of the life and character of a Jamaican woman in the 19th century.


Alexander, Ziggi, and Audrey Dewjee, eds. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Bristol, Eng.: Falling Wall Press, 1984.

Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Craig, Christine. "Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands: Autobiography as Literary Genre and a Window to Character," in Caribbean Quarterly [Jamaica]. Vol. 30, no. 2. 1984, pp. 33–47.

Josephs, Aleric. "Mary Seacole: Jamaican Nurse and Doctress, 1805/10–1881," in Jamaican Historical Review. Vol. 17, 1991, pp. 48–65.

Seacole, Mary. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Foreword by William L. Andrews. (The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers.) Reprint. NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Uglow, Jennifer, comp. and ed. The Continuum Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1989.

suggested reading:

Alexander, Ziggi. "Let it Lie Upon the Table: The Status of Black Women's Biography in the UK," in Gender and History. Vol. 2, no. 1, 1990, pp. 22–33.

Gayle Veronica Fischer , historian and author of several articles on dress reform movements in the United States