Black British History: Mary Seacole
When asked to think about heroic women of the Crimean War, many people will first think about Florence Nightingale and her tireless work as a nurse. However, there was another woman also doing incredible work looking after the troops: Mary Seacole (c.1805-1881). Aside from her work in the Crimean War, the Jamaican nurse was also a writer, hotelier, and entrepreneur. The below is an extract taken from The Oxford Companion to Black British History, explaining more about her amazing life.
She was born Mary Grant, but no official records of her birth or parentage exist; in her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), she stated her father to be a soldier of Scottish descent (possibly James Grant of the 60th Regiment of Foot) and her Creole mother to be the keeper of a Kingston hotel, Blundell Hall, and a well respected ‘doctress’, skilled in the traditional African use of herbal remedies. Her mother’s guests and patients included British army officers garrisoned in Kingston, and Grant enjoyed a close relationship with the Army all her life. She had one sister, Louisa Grant (c.1815–1905), and a half-brother, Edward Ambleton, who died during the 1850s. Grant was educated by an elderly woman described in the autobiography as ‘my kind patroness’, and by her mother in cookery and medicine. During her teens, succumbing to what she called an irresistible and unladylike ‘inclination to rove’, she twice travelled to London, and in her twenties sailed to the Bahamas, Cuba, and Haiti, trading homecooked pickles and preserves for shells and fancy goods, for which she found a ready sale in Kingston. In 1836 Grant wed an Englishman, Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole (1803–44), in Kingston. She believed her husband to be a godson of Lord Nelson, but this cannot be confirmed. Together the Seacoles moved to the port of Black River, on Jamaica’s south-west coast, to open a general store. Like Edwin’s health, however, this venture failed to thrive and by 1843 both were back in Kingston.
Blundell Hall was consumed by the great fire of 29 August 1843; Edwin died in October 1844, and Seacole lost her mother around the same time. Temporarily cowed by this triple blow, she settled in Kingston to rebuild her livelihood. But by 1851 she was off again, choosing Panama—then the Republic of New Granada—for her next destination. Her brother Edward had already set up a hotel at Cruces, en route across the isthmus to the newly discovered California goldfields; Seacole opened her own hotel right opposite Edward’s.
Seacole struggled to make the hotel pay. American clients, she complained, preferred not to patronize any establishment fronted by a black woman, and there were not enough British visitors—whom she favoured—to go round. An alternative income came from an outbreak of cholera during her stay: using her experience of treating yellow fever in Jamaica, she nursed all comers, gladly accepting payment from those with the money. She carried out a pioneering autopsy one night on an infant, the better to understand the disease and help her patients. Seacole was back in Jamaica when she heard of the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854. Her immediate response was to apply to British authorities as a nurse. She considered herself eminently qualified, being medically experienced, independent, strong, fiercely patriotic, and eager to do her duty. Expecting a grateful welcome, she sailed to London in the autumn of 1854. She applied to the War Office, the Quartermaster-General’s Department, the Crimean Fund, and to Florence Nightingale’s organization. Perhaps understandably, she was ubiquitously rejected. None had the courage to engage a stout ‘yellow’ woman (her word) dressed in vulgarly bright colours, at nearly 50 well past middle age, ‘unprotected’ (i.e. without male relations to take responsibility for her), loudly insistent, and obviously used to being in charge. Seacole was stunned: she had rarely met what she considered to be colour prejudice from the British before, and found it impossible to justify. But the setback only fuelled her desire to reach the Crimea for the sake of her ‘sons’, or British soldiers. Entering into a business partnership with Thomas Day, a relative of her late husband, she announced the imminent opening of a Crimean ‘British hotel’ and general stores, and sailed for Balaklava in February 1855.
The hotel, fondly known as Mother Seacole’s Hut, soon became a Crimean institution. It was built of scrap beside a stream on Spring Hill, between Balaklava and Sevastopol. Seacole is mentioned with affectionate admiration in first-hand accounts of the war, as famous for her fine roasted bustards or rice puddings as for tending the sick and wounded with warmth and good humour. But Florence Nightingale mistrusted her, and feared her nurses associating with this unorthodox exotic. Nightingale’s principal objection was that she served alcohol at her hotel, and prescribed it to her patients. Nightingale aimed to change the system; Seacole simply wanted to make her ‘sons’ feel better.
A hasty evacuation of troops followed the war’s end in April 1856, leaving Seacole with unsettled bills and unsaleable stock. On her return to London that summer she was declared bankrupt. But a philanthropic succession of benefit festivals and subscription funds, patronized by Queen Victoria and other members of the royal family, ensured relative comfort for the rest of her life. In 1857 her autobiography—the first by an African- Caribbean woman in Britain—was published to great acclaim. The next quarter-century was punctuated by visits to Kingston, where she owned two properties; she unsuccessfully volunteered to nurse victims of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and the Franco-Prussian War in 1871; she enjoyed what appears to have been a remarkably close relationship with Princess Alexandra; and sometime between 1857 and 1860 she converted to Roman Catholicism.
Seacole died in London on 14 May 1881, and was buried at her own request in St Mary’s Catholic cemetery at Kensal Green. She was mourned as a British heroine, then promptly forgotten, surely in part because her colour and defiant self-possession forbade her from becoming a fashionable role model for Britain’s young ladies. Recently she has emerged again, thanks to a reprint of Wonderful Adventures edited by Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee in 1984, as a peerless model of self-belief, triumph over prejudice and preconception, and sheer strength of character.