Mary Seacole, maybe a name that you have not heard before, with her story being buried for a hundred years. Mary battled against prejudice on part of her race and sex, but despite this she continued to pursue her goal of practicing medicine and became one of the unsung heroes of the Crimean War.
Mary was born in 1805, in Kingston, Jamacia. Her mother, who was a healer, ran a successful lodging house (Blundell Hall) and ‘taught Mary many of her skills using traditional Jamaican medicine’. At the age of twelve Mary was assisting her mother in the running of the lodging house, aiding mainly wounded or sick soldiers. In her later autobiography Mary wrote about her mother, in that ‘“It was very natural that I should inherit her tastes; and so, I had from early youth a yearning for medical knowledge and practice never deserted me”’.
At age fifteen Mary travelled to London in 1823 and gained knowledge about ‘modern Europe medicine which supplemented her training in traditional Caribbean medicine’. She then travelled again to London in 1823, only to face racist and prejudice comments from the public.
On 10th November 1836, she married Edwin Horatio Hamilton. Edwin’s health soon started to decline; however, and thus Mary became his carer. Edwin then unfortunately died in 1844.
Mary played a crucial role in aiding the victims of the cholera outbreak in Kingston in 1850, she then travelled to Cruces, Panama, where she started up her own store, across the road from where her brother ran a hotel. Mary was then again needed to aid the people of Panama after another cholera outbreak broke out there.
‘In 1853, Mary returned to Kingston, caring for victims of a yellow fever epidemic’. Mary was asked to oversee the nursing services at Up-Park, which was the British Army Headquarters. Mary also ‘re-organized New Blundell Hall, her mother’s former lodging house’ and turned it into a functioning hospital.
Once the Crimean War started in 1853, Mary was keen to travel there in order to aid the wounded troops, after hearing about the inadequate medical facilities. The army, however, denied her the chance to go as an army nurse. The rejection to go to Crimea deeply affected Mary, in her autobiography she noted that ‘“The disappointment seemed a cruel one…Was it possible that American prejudices against color had some root here”’.
Despite the rejection, Mary decided to travel to Crimea on her own funds and was able to get to Crimea with the help of her relative Thomas Day. They both agreed to set up a firm named ‘Seacole and Day’ ‘which would be a general store and hotel near the British camp in the Crimea’. Mary, at first, worked as a sutler going into the battlefield providing provisions for the troops.
In 1855, Mary ‘opened her British Hotel’, which was not a hotel in the traditional sense, but a place where sick and wounded soldiers could recover. Mary was renowned among the troops and was ‘as well-known in Britain as Florence Nightingale’. Mary’s hotel was situated so close to the fighting that she herself became wounded, as she would physically enter the battlefield to help the wounded soldiers and even to comfort those who were dying.
Upon her return to Britain, however, Mary had very little money, as she and Day were left with stores that were unsalable. Despite her financial hardship there was a conscious effort from soldiers who wanted Mary’s role in Crimea to be acknowledged, as they wrote letters to newspapers outlining Mary’s work in the war. In 1857, Lord Roheby and Lord Paget, who were both commanders in Crimea, ‘organised a benefit festival at the Royal Surrey Gardens in Kennington to raise money for Mary’. The fund-raiser was a success and showed the support for Mary from her fellow soldiers.
Mary went on to publish her own autobiography in 1857 – ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands’. In the preface of the autobiography Sir William H. Russell wrote ‘“I trust that England will not forget one who 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”’.
Mary died in 1888 and for the next 100 years was forgotten in the history books, especially in Britain. She was awarded the order of Merit by the Jamaican Government in 1990. In Britain, however, it was only when a group of ‘nurses from the Caribbean visited her grave in North West London,’ the MP (Lord Clive Solely) ‘promised to raise money for a statue for Mary’ and in 2016 it was unveiled. Mary has also been voted the Greatest Black Briton.