Mary Seacole

Jul 27, 2021 | Aussie Nurse

Mary was a healer, traveller and had an entrepreneur side to her as well, she famously is known for setting up the ‘British Hotel’ during the Crimean War. Also an achievement she gained posthumously was an award of the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991 and in 2004 Mary was voted the Greatest Black Briton

 

Whilst researching about Mary Seacole and reading her autobiography- ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’, it seems she had a desire to help others with a character that was magnetic and adventurous.

Early Life – 

Mary Seacole was recorded to be in born in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica and her birth name was Mary Jane Grant. She was born during a time when Jamaica was a British colonially, there was a lot of tensions as slavery was present especially within the sugar production industry, Jamaica was emerging as the world’s leading exporter of sugar.

Mary’s father was James Grant, he was of Scottish descent and was a Scots Lieutenant with the British army,  Mary was a free Jamaican woman and she wrote with pride “I have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins”.

Mary’s mother was of Jamaican descent she was a doctress, a healer who used Caribbean and African herbal remedies to treat tropical diseases such dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever which were prevalent at the time. Mary did not have any formal training, she learnt the skills of healing from observing her mother work and care for others.

Using the traditions of Creole medicine she learnt how to use different herbal ingredients such as traditional medicines with importance placed on cleanliness, hydration, good nutrition and empathy.

 

 

 

Intrepid Travels As A Business Woman & A Healer – 

Mary led an adventurous life she was 15 years old when she first travelled for 8 weeks by sea to London, in all she took two trips to England and spent three years there altogether. Arriving in London Mary being female and not being white found racism was openly present, yet she did not seem fazed by it.

In 1836, Mary married Edwin Horatio Seacole he was of English descent and was a merchant in Jamaica. As he was of ill health Mary struggled to maintain their general store business while at the same time caring for her husband, Edwin passed away after their eighth year of marriage.

Mary then followed her step-brother to Panama as a gold-rush was occurring, they both ran a provisions business that sold supplies to the travellers and it was a boarding house too. Apparently, in her step brothers restaurant a man died and everyone thought it was from food poisoning, this effected their business. Later it was acknowledged that the man passed away not from food poisoning but from cholera.

There was a breakout of cholera occurring and it was a disease that didn’t exist before, Mary was the only healer present to help others as there was no doctors in the area. A baby with no parents past away in Mary’s arms and no one knew how cholera effected the body, Mary wanted to learn more and she performed an autopsy on the baby. 

Mary decisively noticed the cause from the disease and started to treat the sick for dehydration, she started to give boiled water with cinnamon as a replacement for salts and sugars, this method had some success.

For her services the rich paid, whilst she treated the poor for free, later Mary contracted cholera herself which forced her to rest for several weeks.

Mary was known to fund her travels by seeking opportunities with her entrepreneurship side, she made pickles of exotic tropical fruits, preserved jams, sold spices and sea shells. She was then able to travel by sea to many lands such as – London, the Bahama Islands, Haiti and Cuba. 

“And the grateful words and smile which reward me for binding up a wound or giving a cooling drink was a pleasure worth risking my life for at any time”

– Mary Seacole.

Travelling To Areas Of War – 

The Crimean War lasted between 1853 to 1856 during the war the loss of life of soldiers was extremely high. Only a small number of soldiers actually passed away from the wounds they sustained during conflict, as it was found that a large number of the soldiers deaths were due to diseases and illnesses.

The Crimea War is the same conflict that Florence Nightingale and her band of nurses were organising to travel to in Scutari. It was later found that the military hospitals conditions were unsanitary, over-crowded and there was lack of nutrition. The doctors were overwhelmed and with the wounded men sometimes laying, starving and untreated for weeks. 

Mary was back in Jamaica for only a short time when she heard news about the Crimea War, she saw what was happening from afar as a worthy cause and wanted to join Florence Nightingale and her band of nurses to care for the wounded soldiers. Aged 49 years old Mary travelled back to London to apply to volunteer with the War Office to be sent to the Crimea war, unfortunately she did not have any documentation of experience and Mary was rejected.

Rejected by British authorities to help the wounded soldiers she did not accept this, Mary organised with help from her friend Thomas Day to make her own passage by sea to the Crimea War in a ship stocked with medical supplies.

Arriving to Scutari in Turkey, Mary met Florence Nightingale and asked for a room for the night and Florence was accommodating and helped .

The next morning Mary left to Balaclava there was conditions of extreme filth, soldiers were cold, hungry and there was a need for someone to care for the wounded. Mary organised and built a new hotel from scrap materials, it was called the ‘New British Hotel’ which was also known as ‘Mrs Seacole’s Hotel’, it had a store for supplies and a restaurant too.

The hotel was a place of respite for the sick and recovering British soldiers, it was a great success as it supplied food and drinks to the British Military. She called the soldiers her ‘boys’ or ‘sons’, in return she was called “Mother Seacole” and if the soldiers could not afford to pay her, Mary used the money made in the hotel.

Mary was known for her homemade cures and she often went to the frontline under dangerous fire to the troops to provide medications for the casualties brought out from the trenches. Some of the army doctors were not supportive of the use of traditional herbs, poultices and therapeutic rubs.

In the restaurant Mary was happy to be involved with cooking food and when was required she would provide care – “When called to dispense medications, she did so with aplomb, as well as dispensing frequent glasses of champagne” (unknown source).

Once the war ended Mary was 51 years old, becoming bankrupt due to financial difficulties and being of ill health she returned back to England. She was celebrated for her courage and the pursuit to care for the soldiers, a charity gala was organised with the funds raised from donations given to Mary. Later she became close friends with some members of the British Royal family.

Mary Seacole died on 14 May 1881 in London, Kensal Green. The memory of Mary Seacole was nearly lost, it was in the 1970’s when Mary’s autobiography ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands’ resurfaced and started to be read again, Mary’s life and adventures came back to life.

Mary Seacole was determined even after so many rejections and obstacles to still be an adventurous force. She combined skills of healing and business which allowed her to travel to places of danger, war and disease. I’m not sure if she used some sort of filter for prejudices yet she triumphed when faced with discrimination- she was not a colour !! Mary was a much loved and a widely revered person who was especially renowned throughout her lifetime for having the essence for healing.

 

Achievements –

  • Mary is remembered in Jamaica, posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1871
  • Mary’s autobiography was the first written by a black woman in Britain- ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands’, published in 1857
  • Mary is named Greatest Black Briton in 2004
  • Mary Seacole has a statue in her honour at St Thomas’ Hospital London, United Kingdom
  • The Mary Seacole Trust website – https://www.maryseacoletrust.org.uk

Images –

– Portrait of Mary Seacole by artist Mary Evans (year unknown)

– Sculpture of Mary Seacole at St Thomas Hospital, London by sculpture artist Martin Jennings (2016)

(no copyright infringement is intended)

‘[She is] a warm and successful physician, who doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battlefield to aid the wounded and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessings’

– William Howard Russell on Mary Seacole, 1856

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