Mary Seacole was a little known woman who had quite an impact in the Crimean War. She would have done more, she’d been taught nursing, but was refused acceptance as a nurse. Seacole put it down to racial prejudice. Whether that is the case or not is hard to prove or disprove. The authorities said she didn’t have the necessary skills and experience, but I’m not sure who did in those days? It was hardly high-tech and there was no national standard the way there is nowadays.
Seacole was born Mary Grant in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805, the daughter of a free Jamaican woman and a Scottish lieutenant in the British army. Her mother was a healer who used traditional African and Caribbean medicines.
Seacole was proud to describe herself as a Creole and was proud of her Scottish heritage, although she must have been subject to prejudice because of her mixed heritage, if only by the authorities.
She married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole in Kingston in November 1836. (Edwin may have been an illegitimate son of Admiral Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton – there is a clue in the name. Mary refers to him as Nelson’s God son, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to corroborate this. I think I’m going with the illegitimate son theory.) Eight years after their marriage, Edwin died.
Mary declined offers of marriage and threw herself into her work, which was running a boarding house. She also treated victims of the cholera epidemic of 1850 which killed 32,000 Jamaicans. She travelled to Panama to visit her half-brother, when a cholera outbreak happened there, and again, she treated the victims. The first victim survived, which firmly established her reputation. She charged the rich and treated the poor for free. She had moderate success with her treatments – she used herbal remedies as opposed to opium – remember, at this stage, the cause wasn’t known, let alone antibiotics with which to treat it.
Mary travelled to England in 1854, although her visit was unrelated to the Crimean War. However, when she arrived here and found out about the war, she applied to join the nurses travelling out there. Her application was refused, so she funded her own journey.
Seacole opened the British Hotel, near Balaclava, which was intended to be a comfortable billet for sick and recuperating officers. Whilst on the [somewhat circuitous] journey over there, she met a doctor from the hospital where Florence Nightingale worked in Scutari. He wrote a letter of introduction for Seacole and she visited Nightingale at her hospital. By all accounts, she received a warm welcome from Nightingale, spent the night at the hospital and travelled on to Balaclava the following day.
Building materials were in short supply, so Seacole’s hotel was built from driftwood and the like. She ran the hotel successfully, and even provided catering to spectators of the battles!
However, when the war ended, in 1856, Seacole returned to London. She had no money and was in poor health. She was declared bankrupt. The press got hold of the story and a fund was set up which discharged her from bankruptcy.
Accounts of how much nursing Seacole actually did vary, although there appears to be some evidence that she treated troops on the battlefields. However, her nursing career is controversial, with some experts saying that she did little actual nursing.
She returned to Jamaica around 1860, stayed there for ten years, undergoing financial stress again, although, fortunately, the Seacole fund was resurrected and money was sent to her in Jamaica. She then returned to London, perhaps to provide assistance in the Franco-Prussian war.
It seems likely that she approached Sir Henry Verney, who was the member of parliament for Buckingham, and also the husband of Florence Nightingale’s sister. He also happened to be involved with the British Society for the Sick and Wounded, hence Seacole’s contacting him. Apparently, Nightingale wrote to Verney and said that Seacole kept a disorderly house in the Crimea. Interesting, when they seemed to get on so well in Scutari. In any event, Mary didn’t go out to the war.
She died in Paddington in 1881, leaving a reasonable amount of money. She was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Kensal Green.
© Susan Shirley 2017