Mary Seacole was a businesswoman, world traveler, popular author, and heroine of the Crimean War. Why haven't you heard of her?
6 - 12+
Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, World History
Mary Seacole was a daring adventurer of the 19th century. A Jamaican woman of mixed race, she was awarded the Order of Merit posthumously by the government of Jamaica and celebrated as a “Black Briton” in the United Kingdom.
Seacole authored a book based on her travels in Panama—where she ran a store for men going overland to the California Gold Rush—and her experiences in the Crimean War, where she ran a store and catering service for officers. There, her compassion and dedication earned her the nickname “Mother Seacole.”
Mary Jane Grant was born in Kingston, Jamaica, sometime in 1805, although she kept her actual birth date a secret. (She gave the census an incorrect age twice, reporting herself five years younger than she actually was. Her year of birth is taken from her death certificate.)
“As a female, and a widow, I may be well excused giving the precise date of this important event,” she writes in her book, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. “But I do not mind confessing that the century and myself were both young together, and that we have grown side-by-side into age and consequence.”
Seacole’s father was a Scottish soldier stationed in Jamaica. (Jamaica was a British colony at the time.) Seacole called her Creole mother an “admirable doctress,” meaning a user of traditional herbal remedies. Seacole and her mother ran a boarding house for officers in Kingston, and looked after lodgers who were ill. She recalled learning much from her mother, as well as doctors staying at the Grants' boarding house.
Seacole also had a highly developed sense of wanderlust. “As I grew into womanhood, I began to indulge that longing which will never leave me while I have health and vigour,” she writes. “I was never weary of tracing upon an old map the route to England; and never followed with my gaze the stately ships homeward bound without longing to be in them, and see the blue hills of Jamaica fade into the distance.”
Seacole took two trips to England as a teenager, spending a total of three years in London before heading to the Bahamas, Haiti, and Cuba, where she bought goods to sell back home in Kingston. In 1836, she married Edwin Seacole, whom Mary describes in her will as a godson of Admiral Lord Nelson.
Edwin was in ill health throughout their brief marriage and died in 1844, the same year as Seacole’s mother. Seacole never remarried. Instead, she focused her energy on traveling and nursing. She treated victims of a cholera epidemic in Kingston in 1850, “receiving many hints as to its treatment which afterwards I found valuable.”
Seacole soon headed to Cruces, Panama. Her brother operated a hotel there, and Mary ran her own store across the street. Mary and her brother catered to prospectors heading for the gold fields of California in the United States.
Although the Panama Canal had not been constructed, the isthmus was still of strategic importance. “Between North America and the envied shores of California,” Seacole writes, “stretches a little neck of land, insignificant-looking enough on the map, dividing the Atlantic from the Pacific. By crossing this, the travelers from America avoided a long, weary, and dangerous sea voyage round Cape Horn, or an almost impossible journey by land.”
In June 1852, Panama suffered a massive cholera outbreak. The epidemic killed so many people that work on the Panama railroad—a precursor to the Panama Canal—stopped. Seacole suffered briefly from the illness before returning to health.
Seacole treated many cholera patients in Panama. The remedies she used—including mustard emetics (which induced vomiting), warm poultices, mustard plasters on the stomach and the back, and mercury chloride—were common among doctors of the time, but are now known to have been harmful. Seacole frankly acknowledged “blunders” in treating patients and that some remedies she used later made her “shudder.”
Seacole returned to Kingston in 1853. There, she read an article in a London newspaper that would change her life. The Times reported that Russia had invaded Crimea, a large peninsula on the northern coast of the Black Sea. At the time, Crimea was controlled by the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey). The Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia.
Crimea was strategically important to European and Asian powers. Whoever had control of the Crimean peninsula also had control of the overland routes to India. In March 1854 Britain and France, in support of the Ottoman Empire, declared war against Russia.
Although Seacole saw regiments she knew leave, she returned to Panama to wind up her business, and did some gold prospecting.
In the autumn of 1854 Seacole traveled to London to attend to her unprofitable gold investments in the stock market. Advertisements for hospital nurses needed in Crimea were published in local newspapers, but Seacole did not apply.
On the sinking of a supply ship in November, however, Seacole found herself increasingly inclined “to join my old friends of the 97th, 48th and other regiments,” so she “threw over the gold speculation altogether and devoted all my energies to my new scheme.” She describes visiting various government offices to seek a position, but was turned down.
Seacole’s race may have been a factor in her failure to secure a nursing position in Crimea, but this is not certain. Seacole herself never identified as a black. There were also other factors stacked against her: She never formally applied, had no hospital experience, and was past the normal age for nursing.
In any case, Seacole was hurt by the rejection. “The disappointment seemed a cruel one. I was so conscious of the unselfishness of the motives which induced me to leave England—so certain of the service I could render among the sick soldiery, and yet I found it so difficult to convince others of these facts. Doubts and suspicions arose in my heart. . . . Was it possible that American prejudices against color had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?”
Her plans for nursing frustrated, Seacole decided to open a business instead. Her business partner was a relative of her husband’s, Thomas Day, whom she knew from Panama and encountered again in London. She arrived in Turkey in March 1855, some months after the major battles had been fought.
Seacole set up her British Hotel between Sevastopol and Balaklava in Crimea, naming the spot Spring Hill. (Spring Hill is now part of Ukraine.) The British Hotel was not a “hotel” in the modern meaning of the word. While Seacole’s original intention had been to open “a mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers,” in fact she established a hut which served as an all-in-one store-restaurant for officers, with a “canteen” for ordinary soldiers.
While waiting for her “tumble-down hut” to be ready, Seacole stayed on board a ship in Sevastopol's harbor, and gave hot tea, cake, and lemonade to soldiers on the wharf waiting transport to the general hospitals. The weather was cold and the kindness much appreciated.
Part of Seacole’s business was to provide refreshments to battle spectators. She did this on three occasions, then ventured on to the battlefield after hostilities were over, to assist the wounded and, sometimes, to give comfort to the dying.
Seacole’s work as a nurse was nearly as celebrated as Florence Nightingale’s, and the newspapers wrote that each woman was “The Mother of the Army.” Florence Nightingale was called “The Lady with the Lamp,” while Mary Seacole was “The Creole with the Tea Mug.”
Seacole’s business thrived after the fall of Sevastopol. During this period, there were no more battles, but the peace treaty was still under negotiation.
“Pleasure was hunted keenly,” she writes, and was found in “cricket matches, picnics, dinner parties, races, theatricals . . . My restaurant was always full.” Her kitchen sold everything from soup to fish, curry to custards, pastries to poultry.
Seacole and Day brought in expensive supplies, expecting the negotiations to continue longer than they did. As soon as the peace treaty was signed, on March 30, 1856, the troops began to leave. Seacole and her partner could not sell their supplies. Seacole herself destroyed cases of red wine rather than let it fall into the hands of the Russians.
Back in England
After the war, Seacole salvaged what she could from her business and set up a shop in Aldershot, an army base in England. It, too, failed.
Seacole’s London friends, remembering her generous nature during the Crimean War, organized a benefit to help pay her debts. It wasn’t enough. To raise more money, Seacole wrote Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.
Published in July 1857, Wonderful Adventures was one of the first travel memoirs ever published by a black woman. Written for a popular audience hungry for tales of the Crimean War, the book was a success. It quickly went into a second printing.
Queen Victoria, the future King Edward VII, and his brother the Duke of Edinburgh helped with a second “Seacole Fund.” The second Seacole Fund provided her with a comfortable income for the rest of her life.
Seacole died of a stroke on May 14, 1881. She was 76 years old. A rich woman at the time of her death, she left much of her money to her sister in Jamaica.
Remembering Mary Seacole
Because Jamaica was part of the British Empire during her lifetime, Seacole always considered herself a British citizen. Nevertheless, it is the people of Jamaica who have kept Seacole’s memory alive.
In 1954, the 100-year anniversary of the Crimean War, the Jamaican General Trained Nurses’ Association (now the Jamaican Nurses’ Association) named their headquarters the Mary Seacole House. In the early 1970s, the group restored her gravestone in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green, London. There is a Mary Seacole Ward at Kingston General Hospital. In 1990, Jamaica awarded Seacole the Order of Merit, the country’s third-highest honor.
In the United Kingdom, too, organizations have recognized the value in Mary Seacole’s adventurous life story. In 1981, 100 years after her death, a service was held (and has been held every year since) at her gravesite in London. In 2003, a painting of Seacole was rescued from a rummage sale and now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Commemorative stamps have been issued in her honor, both by Jamaica and the U.K. Royal Mail. In them, she is portrayed wearing medals—which, however, were never awarded to her (medals were given only to the military).
In 2004, more than 10,000 people voted Mary Seacole the “Greatest Black Briton.”
A Womans Help
"I am not ashamed to confess for the gratification is, after all, a selfish one that I love to be of service to those who need a woman's help. And wherever the need arises on whatever distant shore I ask no greater or higher privilege than to minister to it."
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July 26, 2023
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