Mary Seacole was a nurse and a businesswoman. She had the courage to travel and opened the British Hotel in Crimea for officers and soldiers. In 2004, Mary was voted the Greatest Black Briton. The demands of society and disability of colour did not hold her back or define who she was. Seacole would not accept society’s limitations on women.
Seacole was born in Kingston, on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Mary’s father was a soldier and her mother was a Jamaican nurse and healer. She helped her mother in a boarding house for officers. Many of the guests were sick or injured soldiers. Mary called her mother an ‘Admirable Doctress’.
Mary was an avid traveller and entrepreneur. On trips to the Bahamas, Haiti and Cuba, she purchased spices, pickles and jams to sell back in Jamaica.
In 1836, Mary married the Englishman, Edwin Seacole. Unfortunately, he was sick and died within a few years. It was the same year Mary’s mother died. Mary never remarried, preferring to focus her energy on traveling and nursing.
When there was a cholera outbreak in Kingston, Mary’s much needed medical skills were in demand.
Mary moved to Panama, where her brother operated a hotel, and opened a store across the street. They sold food and goods to miners travelling overland to the California Gold Rush. Mary treated people suffering from cholera and tropical diseases, such as yellow fever.
Mary Seacole’s British Hotel
Seacole heard of the conditions in the Crimean War and wanted to help. She asked the War Office in London if she could join Florence Nightingale and her team of nurses. Seacole was turned down, along with several others. She wondered if the colour of her skin was a factor in being rejected, though she had no formal nursing experience.
Mary Seacole didn’t take no for an answer. She set off for the Crimea with a friend, Thomas Day, and a ship stocked with medical supplies, arriving there in 1855.
Mary found the soldiers’ condition appalling. Cold, dirty, and hungry. There was no one caring for the sick and wounded.
Mary opened up the British Hotel near to the battlefield with her friend Thomas Day. The metal sheet, British Hotel, served as an all-in-one store-restaurant for officers, and a canteen for soldiers. Mary treated the sick and wounded with the income from the British House.
Mary cared for soldiers that came to the British Hotel, but she also rode on horseback into the battlefield, often under fire. She nursed wounded men from both sides of the war, and comforted those who were dying. This was a coloured woman who was the only help the men could get.
Florence Nightingale was known as ‘The Lady of the Lamp’, but Mary Seacole became known as ‘Mother Seacole’, or ‘The Creole with the Tea Mug’. Mary’s restaurant was always full.
Day and Seacole brought expensive supplies, expecting the peace negotiations to continue longer than they did. They could not sell their supplies. They destroyed cases of expensive red wine, so they wouldn’t fall into the hands of the Russians.
Seacole Post War
Mary returned to London when the Crimean War ended. She had little money and was in poor health. Mary set up a shop in Aldershot, an army base in England. It failed.
Many of the soldiers she had tended in the British Hotel wrote to newspapers. Eighty thousand people attended a gala to raise money for her. The money did not cover her debts.
Mary wrote Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. It was the first travel memoirs published by a black woman, and written for a public hungry for tales of the Crimean War. The book was so successful it went to a second print.
Mary Seacole Honoured
Queen Victoria, the future King Edward VII and his brother, the Duke of Edinburgh, helped create a second Seacole Fund. It provided May with a comfortable income for the rest of her life. Mary died from a stroke in 1881, at 76-years old.
In 1954, the Jamaican General Trained Nurses’ Association named their headquarters the ‘Mary Seacole House’. There is a Mary Seacole Ward in Kingston General Hospital. In 1990, she was awarded the Order of Merit posthumously by the Jamaican government. They hold an annual service at Mary’s restored gravestone in St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, in Kensal Green, London.
In 2004, over 10,000 people voted in a survey conducted by the black heritage website Every Generation. Seacole was voted the Greatest Black Briton. Jamaica and the United Kingdom Royal Mail issued commemorative stamps featuring Mary Seacole.
Mary was of mixed-race origin. Mary Seacole defied social expectations, broke social rules and prejudices. She travelled the world, ran businesses and helped those in need. Mary is not as well known as Florence Nightingale, but an important voice in her sphere of influence. These women stand among the women pioneers who changed the world.
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