Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole's reputation after the Crimean War (1853-1856) rivalled Florence Nightingale's. Unlike Nightingale, Seacole also had the challenge to have her skills put to proper use in spite of her being black. A born healer and a woman of driving energy, she overcame official indifference and prejudice.

She got herself out to the war by her own efforts and at her own expense; risked her life to bring comfort to the wounded and dying soldiers; and became the first black woman to make her mark on British public life. But while Florence Nightingale has gone down in history and become a legend, Mary Seacole was relegated to obscurity until recently.

Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish soldier, and her mother was a practitioner of traditional Jamaican medicine and had a boarding house where she cared for invalid soldiers and their wives. Mary learned about medicine from her mother, soon gaining her own reputation as a ‘skilful nurse and doctress’.

Mary travelled widely – there were two trips to Britain, and in 1851, she joined her brother Edward in Panama, where she opened a hotel. Soon she had saved her first cholera patient, and gained extensive knowledge of the pathology of this disease – which she herself contracted and recovered from. She was widely praised for her work in treating cholera, and returned to Jamaica in 1853, where there was a yellow fever epidemic.

 

The medical authorities came to her to provide nurses to care for the sick soldiers. She travelled again to London, where she heard about the Crimean war and how the nursing system there had collapsed. She mad applications to the War Office, the army medical department, and the secretary of war to be allowed to go to the Crimea and tend to the sick and wounded. She pointed out that she had extensive experience, excellent references and knew many of the soldiers and regiments, having nursed them while they were stationed in Jamaica.

But she was turned away by everybody, including one of Florence Nightingale’s assistants. Was it possible, she asked herself, ‘that American prejudices against colour had taken root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?’ in her disappointment, Mary cried in the street.

A distant relative of hers, called Day, was going to Balaclava on business, and they agreed to launch a firm called Seacole and Day, which would be a general store and hotel near the British camp in the Crimea. So, at the age of 50, with her large stock of medicines, Mary went to the battle zone as a sutler – a person who follows the army and sells provisions to the troops. The moment she arrived in Balaclava there were sick and wounded to attend to. She opened her British Hotel in the summer of 1855, near the besieged city of Sevastopol. Soon the entire British army knew of ‘Mother Seacole’s’. The soldiers were her sons and she was their mother.

Though some of the army doctors, despite her saving them a lot of work, regarded her as a ‘quack’, others were less bigoted. The assistant surgeon of the 90th Light Infantry watched with admiration as she, numb with cold would administer to the soldiers, giving them tea and food and words of comfort. She was often on the front line and frequently under fire.

It was W.H. Russell, the first modern war correspondent, who made Mary Seacole famous. He described her as ‘a warm and successful physician, who doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle field to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessings’.

She was, as she had promised herself, the first woman to enter Sevastopol when it fell. But the end of the war left Seacole and Day with expensive and unsaleable stores on their hands. They went bankrupt, and Mary returned to England a financially ruined woman. The Times demanded how could anyone forget the amazing things that Mary had done, and praise only Florence Nightingale?

Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget, both Crimean commanders organised a benefit festival at the Royal Surrey Gardens in Kennington to raise money for Mary. There were over 1,000 performers, and her name was ‘shouted by a thousand voices’. In 1857, Mary published her autobiography, an outstandingly vivid piece of writing called The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in many lands which was prefaced by WH Russell: ‘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’.

England, of course did forget Mary Seacole. She was awarded a Crimean medal, and a bust was made of her by Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, sculptor and nephew of Queen Victoria. The last 25 years of her life, however, were spent in obscurity. When she died on 14th May 1881.

Comments

Can you please tell me the words on the base of the Mary Seacole statue in front of St Thomas’s hospital. We visited yesterday, took a photo but cannot read the inscription. Thank you.


Wow What an Inspiration we need that Spirit Of Leadership, Passion and Drive today
Thank You for Sharing….


She is truly an amazing woman i’m writing about her for my homework as she is such an inspiration.


16/10/19
by Winnie Mbanefo What a Woman! So highly impressed of her determination and drive!


I will definitely search about her and introduce her to my children. My boy learned about Florence N. and none about Miss Seacole. Thank you for sharing.


What a great honor for a remarkable woman and nurse. Her legacy lives on for many nurses and others to follow. Thanks!


What an amazing Hero! Thank you for presenting and honoring such a remarkable woman. Her determination is an inspiration to anyone who gets to know her. Thank you for the job you do to keep up informed about our heritage.


Lest We Forget and Happy International Nursing Day to all nurses


mary seacole is an incredible inspiration


Perhaps it would be wonderful and fitting to have a Tribute statute to Mary Seacole replace the Bristol Colston statue now moved to the museum ?


Inscription on Mary Seacole’s memorial statue.

– Mary Seacole –
– Nurse of the Crimean War –
– 1805 – 1881 –
– Wherever the need arises –
– On whatever distant shore –
– I ask no higher or greater privilege –
– than to minister to it. –


Be very careful with the Seacole hysteria:

Mary Seacole was not a nurse, nor claimed to be so in her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857. She could hardly have treated innumerable wounded soldiers on the battlefields of the Crimea, for the simple reason that she missed the first three, major, battles of the war. Mrs Seacole was busy in London attending to her gold mining stocks when those bloody battles took place. It was not until late November 1854, according to her memoir, that Seacole decided to drop her business speculations to go to the war.

She did not arrive in the Crimea until March 1855, when conditions were getting better, thanks to the work of the Sanitary and Supply Commissions sent by the British government, which arrived at about the same time. She had tried to get a position as a nurse with the second group to be recruited, but even its plans were well along when she began. She never submitted the required written application (hundreds of them are available at the National Archives, Kew). She then formulated Plan B with a relative of her late husband, to set up a hotel, which turned out to be a combination of shop, restaurant, bar, takeaway and catering service instead. She arranged for the purchase and delivery of supplies. En-route to Balaclava, she dropped in at the Scutari Barrack Hospital, where she had, according to her memoir, a short chat with Florence Nightingale (who had herself arrived just in time to nurse the wounded of the third battle, Inkerman), an encounter that she described in entirely friendly terms. She did not then ask for a job as a nurse, but only for a bed for the night, as her passage was booked and her supplies on the way.

Mrs Seacole was unselfish, and she did many good deeds during the war, but seldom on the battlefield. Her memoir rather describes her taking two mule-loads of food and drink for spectators, venturing onto the field when things cooled down (the battles only lasted a few hours). The customers at her shop for remedies were all walk-ins, and what was in those remedies she did not say. According to memoirs from the time, men went to her mainly for “preventives” and for mild problems like stomach aches. The most serious cases went to Nightingale’s general hospitals; the less serious to the local regimental hospitals. Mrs Seacole sometimes treated sports injuries, for most of her time in the Crimea was after the fall of Sebastopol, and the effective end of the war. Business boomed that winter and spring of 1855–6. Dinner parties, horse races and excursions brought her customers.

There is the frequently repeated fiction that Seacole went to the Crimean War for the purpose of establishing a centre to treat the wounded. However, her own memoir makes clear that the purpose was a business to serve officers. There was also a canteen for soldiers, but the main action was in “Mrs Seacole’s hut”. A full three chapters of her memoir goes to describing the menus, takeaways (tinned lobster and salmon) and events she catered for.

Her bankruptcy was the result of a bad business decision by Seacole and her partner. Understandably, they expanded their stock when they were doing well. The expensive wines and cheeses they brought in could not be sold at a decent price when the peace treaty was finally signed, in March 1856, and troops and their officers went home.

Seacole has been turned into an influential nurse but with whhat medical skills, it is not clear. In fact, for cholera, the only disease for which Seacole gave specific ingredients, she was wrong, although no worse than many doctors of the time. That is, she/they used toxic substances such as lead acetate and mercury chloride, emetics and purgatives (numerous articles recommend all such in the Lancet and other medical journals and textbooks). Alas, the ingredients they used cause dehydration, while the now known effective treatment for cholera is oral rehydration therapy.

Seacole is said to have treated wounded soldiers from both sides under fire on the battlefield. In her memoir, however, she described one occasion only on which she assisted “several” Russians, one of whom bit her in dying, while the other gave her a ring for her kindness. She was indeed kind, and not only by her own account. But her memoir gives more attention to looting the bodies of dead Russians than helping wounded ones. She took home souvenirs, such as buttons she clipped off soldiers’ coats, and a Madonna stolen from a Sebastopol church.

How did it happen that a person who called herself a “doctress”, meaning a herbalist, not a nurse, and who identified herself as “brunette” or “yellow”, indicating a fair complexion, became a “black British nurse”? How did this woman, who wrote chapters about the meals and drinks she served officers, come to be credited with providing accommodation, food and nursing care for ordinary soldiers? How were her three excursions onto the battlefield after the fighting, to sell food and drink, and give first aid on the side, magnified into saving “innumerable” lives under bombardment?

First of all, enthusiasts with such an agenda have to get the misinformation into print and onto websites – to stake a claim, as it were. Next, there has to be some incentive to take them up on it. Long-standing guilt for past offences against ethnic minorities can account for that. White Britons have much to feel guilty about: promoting Mrs Seacole perhaps serves as atonement. The key to gaining wide acceptance of erroneous claims is endorsement by reputable individuals and institutions. The “black British nurse” designation first appeared almost thirty years ago in an editorial in the peer-reviewed Journal of Advanced Nursing by a respected editor, James P. Smith (September 1984). And while the Royal College of Nursing started neither the Seacole-adulation nor the Nightingale-bashing, it took both on. Its journal, the Nursing Standard, publishes pro-Seacole material frequently, and, by editorial policy, does not accept critical articles, or even send them out for peer review. It, and other magazines, use pictures of Seacole wearing medals she never earned, which tacitly makes the case that she did. One might expect that the National Portrait Gallery would exercise due diligence in planning its exhibits and website material. On Seacole, however, not so. It was appropriately pleased with its purchase of a fine, long-lost portrait of Seacole, by a little-known artist, Albert Challen. However, the portrait also shows Seacole wearing three medals, none of which she won, a fact omitted from all the material put out on her. Yet Seacole herself never claimed to have been given those medals, and her portrait on the cover of her memoir shows not one. She admitted a desire to be a war heroine, without ever claiming to have been one.

The Seacole portrait with medals soon made its way into plaques in public buildings. No fewer than six British universities have Mary Seacole buildings, four of them healthcare faculties (Wolverhampton, Greenwich, Brunel and Salford), one a library (Birmingham City) and one a research centre (De Montfort). At the opening of these buildings, and sometimes on plaques displayed in them, Seacole is called a pioneer nurse. But no university authority can say what she pioneered, any more than the Department of Health can.

There is remarkable agreement among the different political parties on the merits of Mary Seacole as nurse, pioneer and role model, on which all of them are wrong. When the first Mary Seacole nursing awards were announced, in 1994, the Secretary of State for health, the Conservative Brian Mawhinney, credited her with “considerable”, but as usual unspecified, “nursing skills”, and added another non-fact: that she had nursed “in and around London” after the Crimean War, at what hospitals he did not mention. None is known of. The promotion of Mary Seacole to “health care pioneer”, in 2012, was the work of another Conservative administration, with Jeremy Hunt as minister. The chair of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal is a former Labour MP and peer, Lord Soley. The primary sponsor of the Early Day Motion to keep Seacole in the National Curriculum was a Labour MP, Alan Meale, with co-sponsors Conservative, Democratic Unionist and Independent; sixty-three of the eighty-nine signatories were Labour MPs.

Not the least of the ill consequences of the inordinate focus on Seacole is the loss of attention to genuine black nursing pioneers. A fine example is Kofoworola Abeni Pratt (1910–93), who was probably the first black nurse in the NHS in 1948. Mrs Pratt was Nigerian born and raised, and proud of her African roots. She trained at the Nightingale School at St Thomas’ Hospital, did a midwifery certificate and worked in London hospitals before returning home. She experienced racial discrimination in both the UK and Nigeria, from a patient in the NHS who had never seen a black nurse before, and a white medical chief in Nigeria, who would not appoint her to the supervisory position for which he acknowledged she was qualified. She influenced the patient for the better, while the medical administrator was sent packing when Nigeria became independent in 1960 and Nigerians began to replace British nationals in senior posts. Mrs Pratt was the first Nigerian matron of University Hospital, Ibadan, then the first Nigerian chief nursing officer for her country. She was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing, and given an honorary doctorate in Nigeria. There is a full biography of her. Why no Kofoworola Pratt award?

Mary Seacole, although never the “black British nurse” she is claimed to have been, was a successful, mixed-race immigrant to Britain. She led an adventurous life, and her memoir of 1857 is still a lively read. She was kind and generous. She made friends of her customers, army and navy officers, who came to her rescue with a fund when she was declared bankrupt. While her cures have been vastly exaggerated, she doubtless did what she could to ease suffering, when no effective cures then existed. In epidemics pre-Crimea, she said a comforting word to the dying and closed the eyes of the dead. During the Crimean War, probably her greatest kindness was to serve hot tea and lemonade to cold, suffering soldiers awaiting transport to hospital on the wharf at Balaclava. She deserves much credit for rising to the occasion, but her tea and lemonade did not save lives, pioneer nursing or advance health care.


I became aware of Mary Seacole when reading a biography of Dr. James Miranda Barry. He met her in Jamaica and was medical officer at the hospital established in Corfu for the treatment of wounded from Crimea. Apparently, he had a high opinion of her and acknowledged the effectiveness of her traditional medicine. So perhaps we can just agree that she was black enough to face discrimination and nurse enough to care about, and for, a lot of soldiers.


Mary Seacole was employed in Jamaica in an army hospital making her one of, if not the first female to hold such a post and this before Ms Nightingale’s similar post.


Was Mary Seacole also Scottish? Or was she only Jamaican-British? Or was she only 1 of the three (Jamacan, British or Scottish)? I need to know for my child’s homework. Please email me at: harrimillima3@gmail.com
Thank You! 🙂


Was Seacole also Scottish? Or was she only Jamaican-British? Or was she only 1 of the 3 (Jamaican, Scottish or British)? Please email the answer to me at: harrimillima3@gmail.com
Also call me Harri.
Thank You 😉


this is great infurmashn


Post a comment