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.
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.
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.
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."
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.