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Mary Seacole Biography - Selected writings

war crimean nightingale london

1805-1881

Crimean war nurse, writer

Seacole, Mary, photograph. National Portrait Gallery/Getty Images.

Jamaican-born Mary Seacole served as a nurse in the Crimean War (1853-56), establishing the "British Hotel" for soldiers recovering from injuries and illness in the Crimean port city of Balaclava. Because of her color, Seacole was refused by the British war office when she asked to be sent to the Crimea (now Ukraine), but she raised the money to travel there herself and became a favorite with the troops, who called her "Mother Seacole." Seacole was highly regarded at the time for her bravery, skill, and the way she combined traditional medicine with modern ideas, but she drew strong disapproval from Florence Nightingale and her supporters, who considered Seacole disorganized and immoral. After the war she was saved from poverty and obscurity by a benefit festival supported by Crimean War commanders including Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget. She also wrote an autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), which sold well and made her wealthy. She was awarded the Crimean Medal and the French Legion of Honor, but her role as a pioneer of modern battlefield nursing has been overshadowed by the better-known story of Florence Nightingale.

Born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1805, Seacole learned her nursing and business skills from her mixed race mother, who ran a boarding house for sick and injured soldiers. Her father was a white Scottish soldier and thus Seacole did not consider herself black, but rather Creole and British. At a time when being black in Jamaica almost always meant being a slave, as a Creole Seacole enjoyed relative freedom, though Creoles could not join the professions, or hold public office, and had very few civil rights. Seacole spent the early part of her adult life travelling in the Caribbean and Central America, where she ran a series of taverns and boarding houses and continued to learn about medicine. She also visited London during this period. She married Edwin Seacole in 1836, but he died in 1844; his death was shortly followed by that of Seacole's mother.

Hearing about the shortage of nurses in the Crimea in 1854, Seacole made her second visit to London in an attempt to join the corps of nurses established by Florence Nightingale. She offered her services to Elizabeth Herbert, who was recruiting nurses on behalf of her husband, the secretary of state for war, but because of her ethnicity Seacole was refused even an interview. Instead she found her own way to Balaclava in 1855, where her offer to assist the Nightingale nurses was again refused. Seacole set up the "British Hotel" with her own money to provide accommodation, comfort, and food for injured, sick, and recovering officers; her lack of funds meant she could only afford to treat soldiers who could pay. The hotel was near the front line and offered short periods of respite to officers who would soon return to the fighting. She was also an active battlefield nurse and ran a small pharmacy, selling medicines and giving medical advice to soldiers who knew her affectionately as "Mother Seacole."

Before the war Seacole had been a successful businesswoman, but she had sold all her assets to travel to the Crimea and used up her funds on the venture. When the war ended in 1856, Seacole returned to England penniless and exhausted. Besides the color of her skin Seacole had also scandalized Victorian society by providing alcohol to the troops in her care; there were even rumors, started by Nightingale among others, that Seacole was running a brothel. While Nightingale, who had influential friends, was celebrated as "The Lady of the Lamp," Seacole was practically forgotten after her return. It was only when a letter was published in The Times calling for her efforts to be rewarded that a military festival was staged to support her. The event ran over four days and was supported by wartime commanders Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget, among others, as well as other dignitaries. Over 1,000 performers participated in the event, which was one of the biggest of its kind. Seacole was awarded the Crimean Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and a Turkish Medal.

In 1857 Seacole published an account of her travels and her experiences in the Crimean war entitled The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which became a bestseller of its time and ensured her public recognition and considerable wealth for the rest of her life. She spent her later years working and traveling between Jamaica and England. Seacole died leaving an estate worth £2,500 on May 14, 1881 and is buried at St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery in Harrow Road, London.

After her death, Seacole's story again fell into obscurity compared with Florence Nightingale, whose white middle-class background worked in her favor. Although Seacole's book was republished in 1984 it was not until the late 1990s that her contribution to the history of nursing became widely known outside the Caribbean. She was voted Greatest Black Briton in 2004 and a previously unknown portrait, showing Seacole wearing her medals, was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in London in January 2005.

Selected writings

Books

The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, 1857. Republished in 1984 (UK) and 1988 (USA) by Oxford University Press.

At a Glance …

Born Mary Jane Grant in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica; died on May 14, 1881, in London, England; married Edwin Seacole in 1836 (died 1844). Religion: Catholic.

Career:

Ran taverns and small hotels around the Caribbean and Central America, where she cared for wounded soldiers and learned about medicine and nursing; opened "British Hotel" in Balaclava, Crimea, tending to sick and injured officers and pioneering front-line nursing care; wrote her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, 1857.

Awards:

Crimean Medal; French Legion of Honor; Turkish Medal; voted Greatest Black Briton, 2004.

Sources

Periodicals

Signs, Summer 2001, p. 949.

The Guardian (London and Manchester, UK), January 11, 2005; January 15, 2005.

On-line

"Nurse Named Greatest Black Briton," BBC News Online (February 10, 2004), http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3475445.stm (August 9, 2005).

"Mary Seacole," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (July 22, 2005).

"Mary Seacole," Black Presence in Britain, www.blackpresence.co.uk/pages/citizens/seacole.htm (July 22, 2005).

—Chris Routledge

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