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Drawing of Mary Seacole

No portrait, sepia photograph or bust can convey Mary Seacole's charm, compassion, and courage.

Following her heart
from a hotel in the
Caribbean to the
Crimean War

Mary Grant Seacole defied labels and overcame difficulties that would have floored most of us, becoming a brave and resourceful innkeeper and nurse, two occupations she combined on the battlefields of the Crimea.

Born in Jamaica in 1805 to a Jamaican Creole mother and a Scottish father, her earliest experience of mathematics when she was a child was probably Jamaica's racial grading system. Mary was assigned the label of "quadroon", but in an island still gripped by slavery she was free. Equally important, she had a good education, though it included knowledge usually not visited on teenagers today.

At her mother's side, Mary learned to nurse yellow fever patients, and helped her to manage the family's boarding house for British officers. Their kindness remained with her, a gift she would repay.

Death, fire, business and cholera epidemics

Mary was daring from a young age. In her twenties she showed no interest in marriage, but with a freedom denied white women of the period, she travelled the Caribbean on her first business enterprise - buying and selling pickles and jams. In 1836, at the age of 31, she married Edwin Horatio Seacole, a merchant who was said to be a godson of Lord Nelson.

They had eight years of married life. Then, in 1843-44, Mary lost her mother, her husband and the boarding house, which burned down in a fire. She was devastated - for about a week.

To survive, she threw herself into work, and rebuilt the hotel. With her charisma, she attracted many friends in Jamaican society, whose slaves had been liberated when Britain abolished slavery, but she declined all offers of marriage. Her real gifts emerged in the cholera epidemic of 1850, which killed 32,000 Jamaicans.

Not one to turn away from need, Mary nursed hundreds of patients, and brought many of them back to health. In 1851, in Panama to visit her brother, she nursed patients through another epidemic (she charged rich patients and treated poor patients for free). She also opened the British Hotel. After meeting some Americans prejudiced against her on account of her skin colour, she daringly called for "the general reformation of American manners". Returning to Jamaica, she was asked to nurse yellow fever patients, and successfully nursed and provided medical support. She had found her calling.

Rumours of war

Ships carried news of the Crimean War to Jamaica, and Mary decided to travel to England to volunteer as a nurse. She had known many British soldiers in Jamaica, and she was attracted by the adventure and by wanting to help them. It was an extremely bold plan. Mary had decided to do what Florence Nightingale, in England, had realized must be done. She also set an example for those nurses who came from as far away as Australia to nurse wounded Allied soldiers in World War One. Her real difficulties only began when she reached London.

Despite letters of recommendations from doctors in Panama and Jamaica, the War Office, which had recently sent Nightingale and a detachment of nurses to the Crimea, refused to send her. Mary's first reaction at the refusal was to burst into tears; her second was to steam full speed ahead.

From London to Constantinople

She formed a partnership with Thomas Day, and did what any enterprising 21st century person would do - she printed up business cards, and set off for the Crimean War to open "a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers". Naturally she called her new establishment the British Hotel. First, however, she stopped at Scutari to offer her services to Florence Nightingale.

Mary later wrote enthusiastically of "that Englishwoman whose name shall never die, but sound like music on the lips of British men until the hour of doom". But Florence Nightingale had quite different feelings about Mary.

Disliking the commercial aspect of Seacole's enterprise, or sensing this was not a woman who would ever take orders, she declined her offer of help. Mary was left to do what she did best - move ahead under her own steam. She headed back to the active war zone, ghastly, of course, where British, French, and Ottoman Empire soldiers battled with Russian soldiers and died of wounds and disease. Not surprisingly there were no building supplies available for a "hotel".

A hotel in the battlefield

So Mary had it built out of salvaged driftwood, iron sheets and salvage, stocked it with provisions from London and Constantinople, served meals, and sold everything from whisky to needles and thread. Six days a weeks she served breakfast, tended to callers' medical complaints then travelled out to the battlefield to visit casualties, bringing them hampers full of bandages and cheese sandwiches. To the British Army she became known as "Mother Seacole", and her courage and tenderness became by-words. She wore brilliant clothing so they could see her, and nursed wounded troops under fire. She was the first to enter Sevastopol when it fell.

As the British forces were evacuated from Balaclava on 9 July 1856, wrote the London Illustrated News, Mary Seacole was "conspicuous in the foreground. . .dressed in a plaid riding-habit". Unfortunately many soldiers had never paid her, and she returned to London a bankrupt.

She found this almost more difficult than her battlefield experiences. However, Times correspondent William Howard Russell had written about her, military men adored her, and over the next two decades the grateful public contributed generously to several funds for her, and fêted her with military bands.

Mary wrote an autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. In the preface Russell wrote, "I have witnessed her devotion and her courage. . .and I trust that England will never forget one who has nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead".

Portrait of Mary Seacole in old age

England did not forget Mary while she was alive. She lived happily in London, and died in 1881.

Image: National Portrait Gallery

In subsequent years her memory faded, but recently a stamp has been issued in her honour; an English Heritage blue plaque was installed on a house in London where she lived; university halls and hospital centres have been named after her; and a statue will be raised in her honour.

Mary Seacole had followed her heart.

Blue historic plaque on Mary Seacole house

Image: English Heritage

 

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