Mary Seacole was a Jamaican born woman who became famous due to her contribution during the Crimean War where she opened a hotel to provide food and supplies to soldiers. She also nursed the wounded and ill. Her work was much appreciated by the service personnel who even raised a fund for her when she faced financial difficulties later on. Know more about the woman called the Black Florence Nightingale through these 10 interesting facts.
#1 Mary Seacole was a Creole
Mary Seacole was born Mary Jane Grant on 23 November 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica. Her father was white and a native of Scotland. He was a soldier in the British army who was stationed in Jamaica, a British colony at the time. Her mother was a Creole, or a person of mixed European and black descent. Mary was legally classified as a mulatto, a person who is born from one black parent and one white parent. Technically she was a quadroon, a person with one bi-racial parent and one white parent. Mary was proud of her black ancestry.
#2 She learned nursing skills from her mother
Mary’s mother ran Blundell Hall, one of the finest hotels in Kingston. Mary acquired her nursing skills from her mother and also from doctors stay at the boarding house. As she grew up, Mary worked alongside her mother and was called to assist at the British Army Hospital in Kingston at times. She also developed a strong desire to travel and took two trips to England as a teenager.
#3 She lost her husband and mother in 1844
On 10 November 1836, Mary married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole. Edwin remained in poor health through most of their marriage and died in 1844. The same year Mary’s mother also passed away. Seacole never remarried and instead turned her attention to managing her mother’s hotel and nursing. She treated victims in the cholera epidemic of 1850 during which around 32,000 Jamaicans lost their lives. Her experience during the epidemic proved very beneficial in later years.
#4 Seacole treated cholera patients during the 1852 epidemic in Panama
Seacole’s half-brother Edward operated a hotel in Cruces, Panama. In 1851, Mary travelled there to visit her brother. The following year Panama was struck by a massive cholera outbreak. Seacole treated a patient who survived which enhanced her reputation. An inexperienced doctor was the only other alternative and this led to many patients visiting her. Seacole’s treatment was moderately successful. She charged the rich but treated the poor for free. She herself sickened towards the end of the epidemic but survived.
#5 She applied for a nursing position in the Crimean War but was rejected
The Crimean War, between the Russian Empire and an alliance of the U.K., France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire, broke out in October 1853. In 1854 there were reports of a lack of necessities and nursing care for soldiers in the war. Seacole, who was in London at the time to attend to some business, applied to government offices offering to help but her plea was rejected despite her nursing experience. Seacole attributes the rejection to racial prejudice.
#6 Seacole is most famous for her work during the Crimean War
After her failure to gain a nursing position, Seacole decided to open a business instead. Seacole formed a partnership with a relative of her husband’s, Thomas Day. She went to Crimea and set up a hotel within a mile of the British headquarters naming it Spring Hill. Apart from selling food, supplies, and medicines to the troops, Seacole also assisted the wounded at the military hospitals. Her remedies for cholera and dysentery were particularly valued.
#7 She was called “The Creole with the Tea Mug”
Apart from her services at the hotel, Seacole also provided catering for spectators at the battles. On one occasion while attending wounded soldiers under fire, she dislocated her right thumb. A correspondent of The Times reported that Seacole was always in attendance near the battle-field to aid the wounded. Her work as a nurse was much celebrated. Like Florence Nightingale she too was hailed as “The Mother of the Army.” While Nightingale was “The Lady with the Lamp,” Mary Seacole was called “The Creole with the Tea Mug.”
#8 Her autobiography Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands was a success
When the peace treaty was signed on March 30, 1856, the troops began to leave. Seacole and her partner Day had already brought in expensive supplies. They were forced to auction them for lower than expected prices and hence she returned to England destitute. Service personnel organized a benefit to help pay her debts but it wasn’t enough. To raise more money, Seacole wrote her autobiography Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. The book became a bestseller. Also Queen Victoria helped with a second Seacole Fund, which generated enough money for Seacole to live the rest of her life comfortably.
#9 A statue of Seacole will be erected at St Thomas’ Hospital
Seacole died of a stroke on May 14, 1881. She was 76 years old. Her contribution in the Crimean War was largely forgotten after her death and was overshadowed by that of Florence Nightingale. In recent years there have been efforts to properly acknowledge her work. However the plan to erect a statue of Mary Seacole at St Thomas’ Hospital, London created controversy; and there has been a proposal to remove her from England’s National Curriculum. It has been argued that her achievements have been exaggerated for political reasons.
#10 She was voted the Greatest Black Briton
Mary Seacole did what few women did at her time. She was a traveller, ran a business and went to war risking her life to accomplish her aim. She is respected and considered an icon in the Caribbean. Several places have been named after her and in 1991 she was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit. In 2004, Seacole was voted into first place in an online poll of 100 Great Black Britons. Also her autobiography is relevant for being one of the earliest autobiographies of a mixed-race woman.