Alongside Florence Nightingale, known as the “Lady with the Lamp,” was another woman who improved the desperate conditions of soldiers in the Crimean War—Mary Seacole. For this edition of Femnista, I hope to show the racial prejudices, personal, and financial struggles this remarkable woman faced in caring for her fellow human beings.
Born around 1805 in Jamaica, then a British colony, Mary Seacole’s father was a white Scottish officer and her mother a free Jamaican woman who ran her own boarding house. Mary was proud of her Scottish and African heritage. In her autobiography, published in 1857, she wrote that she had “good Scots blood coursing through my veins” and “I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related—and I am proud of the relationship—to those poor mortals whom you once held enslaved, and whose bodies America still owns.”
Her mother had an extensive knowledge of the healing properties of plants and taught Mary everything she knew. Mary pretended to nurse dolls before moving onto animals and then assisting her mother with patients. In her adolescence, she lived with an elderly woman who gave Mary a good education and treated her like family. It is unknown why Mary lived with this woman, but she loved her. Mary herself referred to her as a “kind patroness.”
At only 16, Mary traveled to London to visit relatives living there. After that, Mary traveled between London and Jamaica alone multiple times. Mary completed these journeys in a time before the abolishment of slavery. A young single black woman traveling freely was an unusual and brave thing to do. She returned to Jamaica in 1825 at age twenty and nursed her “patroness” through an illness. After her close friend died, she returned to work at her mother’s boarding house and married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole in 1836. Her autobiography summarized her relationship with Edwin in only nine sentences, but Edwin is an interesting figure—allegedly the illegitimate child of Lord Nelson, hero of the Napoleonic Wars and his long-term mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton.
1843 and 1844 proved devastating for Mary and her family. The boarding house caught fire and burnt to the ground. Soon after they completed a new and better building, Edwin and Mary’s mother died. The grief caused her to retreat into isolation for several days, but the ever resilient Mary pushed herself into work and took over management of the boarding house. Due to Mary’s perseverance, the business enjoyed great success, and Jamaican society respected her.
A cholera outbreak hit Jamaica in 1850, in which some 32,000 Jamaicans died. Mary tended many victims and the experience she gained in nursing the cholera victims became life-saving. Her brother Edward had established a hotel in Panama, and she went to visit him. Shortly after her arrival in 1851, there was a cholera outbreak. Mary cared for the local population; the rich paid, but she treated the poor for free. This was long before governments considered universal healthcare a necessity.
Soon after the epidemic passed, Mary opened her own restaurant in Panama, followed by a woman only hotel. Since independence from Spain, Panama had been under American influence, and their military had a large presence in the country. Mary remarked there was a lot of animosity between Panamanians and Americans due to the fact that many Panamanians had been former slaves in America.
Mary also experienced racial prejudice; when a white American soldier gave a toast to her, he mentioned if they could bleach her skin color, they would. Disgusted, Mary replied she did not “appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion” and further added “I should have been just as happy and just as useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value.” While returning to Jamaica in 1852, an American ship refused Mary passage on an American ship due to her skin color and forced her to wait for a British boat.
Soon after arriving home in Jamaica, she assisted in a yellow fever outbreak, before returning to Panama to settle her business affairs. In Panama, she heard about the escalating situation of the Crimean War and travelled to London in 1854 to volunteer as a nurse. An alliance of Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire fought Russia in the Crimean War. As expected, when bringing large amounts of soldiers from different countries, disease broke out. Supplies were minimal and medical provisions barely existed. The Crimean War was the first major conflict widely reported by the press, so it was also the first time civilians at home knew the true horror of war.
Mary applied to the official War Office, and to a charity supporting the wounded, offering her services as a nurse. Both rejected her so Mary decided to go there herself and open an establishment called “British Hotel” a place where sick and recovering soldiers could go for food and a safe place to relax. She bumped into an old friend—Thomas Day, and the two decided to go into business together. After assembling supplies, Mary and Thomas set out for Crimea on 27th January 1855.
Upon arrival in Crimea, Mary met another famous heroine of the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale. Their meeting was friendly, and Mary “saw much of Miss Nightingale” during her time in Crimea. While Mary and Florence never became close friends, they maintained an amicable relationship. After spending a month salvaging materials to build her business with, the British Hotel opened in March 1855. Despite the name of Hotel, it served mainly as a place for soldiers to get decent meals and buy products from London and Constantinople.
Mary also worked as a sutler, a person who ventures into camps to sell products to the soldiers. During these ventures, she cared for injured and sick soldiers in the field—the British Army often referred to her as “Mother Seacole.” She also gained the attentions of the press; William Howard Russell, foreign correspondent with The Times newspaper wrote that Mary was a “warm and successful physician, who doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battlefield to aid the wounded and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessing.”
The British Hotel was a successful and popular place but only in the next year, peace talks emerged and the nations signed a treaty in March 1856, with the armies evacuated by July. Mary was one of the last people to leave. She returned to London with little money and was soon bankrupt. As she had not expected the end of the war so soon, she had bought new supplies, and had to sell them for less money. Thomas May, Mary’s business partner, also had a gambling problem and contributed to Mary’s financial problems.
Mary did not go unacknowledged; when invited to an honorary dinner, two soldiers had to protect her from the over-zealous crowds. Once the public discovered her financial troubles, their large appeals soon saw Mary discharged from bankruptcy. But Mary still had little money. Organized by her many friends she had made in Crimea and supported by many prominent figures in the military, including the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, established a benefit for her, and she published her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.
By 1860, Mary returned Jamaica and became a prominent figure in the country, but within seven years again had money problems. Her friends organized a fund for Mary again with patrons including the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred, and her cousin George, Duke of Cambridge. With the money raised, she bought land in Jamaica where she built a small house for herself, and a property to rent out. By 1870, Mary was back in London, and affiliated with the Royal Family. A nephew of Queen Victoria (who had met Mary in Crimea) had a marble bust of her made and exhibited. She also found employment as a personal masseuse to the Princess of Wales, who suffered from deep vein thrombosis and rheumatism.
Mary Seacole died in 1881 in London. The Times honored her with an obituary, but public recognition of her accomplishments disappeared. It wasn’t until a century after her death that historians acknowledged Mary, and made her more prominent in the new millennium. She was voted as the “Greatest Black Briton” in 2004 and in 2007 entered the National Curriculum. Now in British schools this independent Jamaican woman is taught alongside the “Lady with the Lamp.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.