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Mary Seacole

Crimean War Nurse

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Painting of Mary Seacole by Albert Challen, 1869

Painting of Mary Seacole by Albert Challen, 1869

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Mary Seacole Facts

Known for: nursing British soldiers in the Crimean War; establishing the "British Hotel" in Balaclava; first British autobiography written by a black woman
Occupation: nurse, boardinghouse operator, "doctress" (female provider of herbal medicines and medical advice)
Dates: 1805 - May 14, 1881
Also known as: Mary Jane Grant, Mary Jane Seacole, Mother Seacole, Aunty

Mary Seacole Biography

Mary Seacole was born to a free mixed-race Jamaican mother and a Scottish father. She considered herself not black but Creole, and considered herself British. Creoles in Jamaica enjoyed more freedom than black Jamaicans did -- black Jamaicans at the time were often still in slavery. But Creoles still had far fewer rights and opportunities than those of pure European descent.

Mary Seacole's mother ran a boardinghouse in Kingston for invalid British army and navy officers, and Mary Seacole learned nursing and herbal medicine from her mother. She was educated by a "kind patroness" with whom she lived for a few years.

Mary Seacole traveled widely in the Caribbean and Central America in her early adulthood, even making a trip to London in 1821, visiting some of her father's relatives, and another the next year. She ran boardinghouses and taverns, and studied the local approaches to medicine in the places she visited and lived.

Marriage and Widowhood

On November 10, 1836, Mary Seacole married an Englishman, Edwin Horatio Seacole, said to be a godson of Admiral Horatio Hamilton Nelson and rumored to be Nelson's illegitimate son. They moved to Black River, Jamaica, and opened a store. They also traveled, and Mary took the opportunity to study medical techniques in the places they visited.

When Edwin died in 1844, and her mother died shortly after, Mary Seacole ran her mother's boardinghouse for a few years. In the 1850 cholera epidemic in Jamaica, her nursing skills were put to use.

Nursing in Panama and Jamaica

In 1850, Mary Seacole went to Panama, then known as New Grenada. Her half-brother Edward was already established there, and Seacole ran a boardinghouse, sold supplies to travelers -- many of whom were traveling through Panama to get California's gold fields -- and she also sold herbal medicines. She served as a nurse as needed, including in a cholera epidemic that hit shortly after she arrived, and another in 1852. There were many needs for such help, including treating wounds inflicted by knives in the many fights among the travelers and residents.

In 1852, she was back in Jamaica, helping to treat British soldiers during an 1853 yellow fever epidemic. She then returned to Panama, providing medical services for a mining camp managed by a relative of her husband's, Thomas Day.

Volunteering for the Crimean War

In Panama, Mary Seacole heard news of Britain's involvement in the Crimean War, and the need for nurses to treat the wounded and sick. In wartime, often far more soldiers died of illness and poor sanitary conditions than were killed in combat or died of wounds inflicted in combat. Nursing services were an important part of a war effort.

She traveled to London to volunteer, where she joined efforts with Thomas Day, with whom she'd worked in her last job in Panama. Elizabeth Herbert, wife of the secretary of war, was interviewing nurses for the British War Office. Mary Seacole applied, but Mrs. Herbert refused to even see her.

Day and Mary Seacole then traveled to the Crimea. On arrival in Constantinopole in 1855, Mary Seacole volunteered to serve as one of Florence Nightingale's nurses, but Nightingale refused her.

Mary Seacole in the Crimea: the "British Hotel"

Seacole and Day established the "British Hotel," a home for recuperating and injured officers, in Balaclava, using salvaged wood and metal to build their establishment. Because they were funding the operation out of their own and borrowed funds, rather than having any public support, they served only those who could pay for their room and board. She also sold medicines from her boardinghouse and gave medical advice.

They established their base near the front line, and Mary Seacole sometimes went out to the battlefield to nurse the injured. She was known to some of the British officers from her time in Jamaica, and given a welcome from them.

In 1856, journalist William Howard Russell wrote in the London Times of her "devotion and courage."

Rumors of Immorality

Florence Nightingale and her supporters were apparently the sources of rumors of Mary Seacole's immorality. Nightingale thought that Seacole's operation was disorganized and not well run. The very Victorian British ladies were aghast that Mary Seacole served and sold liquor at her British Hotel. They thought that a young relative of Mary Seacole, who was with her in Balaclava, was her out-of-wedlock daughter -- and she may have been, though she is not mentioned in Seacole's autobiography. Nightingale, in a letter, called Seacole a "woman of bad character" and described Seacole's British Hotel in terms usually used for brothels.

London

At the end of the war, Mary Seacole and Thomas Day returned to London. Mary Seacole had invested her own savings and gone into debt in the Crimean venture, and when a business Day and Seacole established in London failed, she was bankrupt.

Some of her friends and supporters tried raising funds for her. In July 1857 a Seacole Fund Grand Military Festival was held at Royal Surrey Gardens in her honor. The event was supported by several commanders from the war, and included more than a thousand performers. The festival raised funds, but Seacole saw little of the proceeds.

In 1857, Mary Seacole tried a new approach to earn funds: she published her autobiography, telling not only of her Crimean War efforts, but also her travels and other life experiences. The book, The Wonderful Adventure of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, was published in 1857. It was the first autobiography in Britain written by a black woman.

The success of her autobiography allowed Mary Seacole to live more comfortably, though she continued to work.

Last Years

In 1859, Mary Seacole returned to Jamaica. She converted to Roman Catholicism. She continued to work, plagued again by money problems, finally returning to London in 1870 perhaps to offer help to British relief efforts in the Franco-Prussian War. The person she likely approached was married to Florence Nightingale's sister, and Florence wrote a devastating letter to him about that time, criticizing her conduct in the Crimea.

Mary Seacole served for a time as a personal masseuse to Alexandra, Princess of Wales.

In 1881, still in London, Mary Seacole died of a stroke (apoplexy).

Posthumous Recognition of Mary Seacole

In her lifetime, Mary Seacole was awarded the Crimean Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and a Turkish medal.

Mary Seacole was largely forgotten, except in the Caribbean, for many decades. In the 1950s, a Jamaican nurses association named their building for her; in 1973, her grave, newly rediscovered, was reconsecrated. More general interest revived with the 1984 republication of her autobiography. Her story was added to Britain's National Curriculum. In 2004, she was voted Greatest Black Briton.

In 2005, a painting recently identified as being of Mary Seacole was given a place in the National Portrait Gallery.

More Mary Seacole Facts

Background, Family:

  • Mother: a free black Jamaican native, known as a healer
  • Father: a Scottish Army officer
  • Siblings: half-brother Edward, sister Louisa, perhaps others

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Edwin Horatio Seacole (married 1836, died 1844)
  • children:
    • possibly a daughter, Sarah, born about 1842, who joined Mary Seacole in the Crimea (she is not mentioned in Mary Seacole's autobiography, but Seacole's detractors implied that Sarah was an out-of-wedlock daughter)

Religion: Roman Catholic, at least after about 1860

Books About Mary Seacole:

  • Ron Ramdin. Mary Seacole. 2005.
  • Jane Robinson. Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse who Became a Heroine of the Crimea. 2004.
  • Mary Seacole. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.

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