[Cross posted on white noise]

Mary Seacole was born in 1805, in Jamaica, the daughter of a white Scottish man, and army officer, and a black African woman, a freed slave.

The family were by no means poor, although they had few civil rights as black people in a slave society. Mary’s mother was a healer, and made her living running a boarding house for invalid soldiers – using her traditional knowledge of healing and medicinal plants and passing it on to her daughter. Mary also learned to care for and about soldiers. She worked with her mother and later travelled and worked within and around the Caribbean, most notably in Panama and Cuba where she was widely recognised for her skill in treating, among other illnesses and injuries, cholera. She had advanced ideas about cleanliness, nourishment and contagion that made many of the European-trained doctors she encountered uncomfortable.

Mary also travelled to Britain twice, spending three years here in total.

Then, in 1854, when she heard of the Crimean war and the many soldiers who were dying of cholera, she went back to London asked to be sent to Crimea as an army nurse, offering her credentials and expertise: she was very experienced, as well qualified as anyone, and more so than most. She was turned down – at least four times. Of her rejection, she later wrote:

In my country, where people know our use, it would have been different; but here (England) it was natural enough that they should laugh, good-naturedly enough, at my offer… Once again I tried, and had an interview this time with one of Miss Nightingale’s companions. She gave me the same reply, and I read in her face the fact, that had there been a vacancy, I should not have been chosen to fill it… Was it possible that American* prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs? (*She was much dismayed by American racism which she had encountered in Panama.)

Mary Seacole was not the only black nurse applying to serve in the Crimea as army nurse. No other black nurses were accepted either.

Well, she went anyway, paying her own way and arriving in 1855 when she was 50 years old. There, she set up the British Hotel, a canteen hut and store, planning to finance her nursing effort through selling essentials like food, soap and boots to the soldiers. Florence Nightingale’s hospitals were a good safe distance from the battlefield, while Mary Seacole stationed herself just 2 miles from the action, took her medical supplies onto the battlefield and worked even in the midst of fighting. She fed, nursed and mothered injured soldiers, and concentrated her efforts on working with the enlisted men, the ordinary soldiers who feared the hospital (rightly, given the state of hygiene there!), and she earned a reputation as a skilled and effective medical professional, as well as a kind and indefatigable woman.

On her return, she was celebrated and given medals. She was at least as well known as Florence Nightingale, if less well-recognised in official terms. She was received cordially at Court and even tended the Prince of Wales in his illness, the eldest son of Queen Victoria. She was praised by soldiers, newspapers and the general public for her bravery and her medical skill. Since her war effort had bankrupted her (the war ended earlier than expected so that much of the money she had spent on supplies for her British Hotel shop were left unused and unsold), a Diana-style four-day benefit festival was held in her honour, attended by 40,000 people – unfortunately popularity did not translate into profit and she only benefited to the tune of £233. She wrote a book about her experiences which was very successful, which may at least in part be a result of her efforts to stress her “good Scottish blood” and to play down the part that slavery and racism played in her own life – not to mention, her mother’s.

William Russell wrote in The Times:

In the hour of their illness, these men have found a kind and successful physician, a Mrs Seacole. She is from Kingston (Jamaica) and she 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 blessing.

… and he wrote in the preface to her book:

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.

And then, of course she laped into obscurity. She wanted to nurse in India but could not raise the funds. In 1881, aged 76, she died and was forgotten almost altogether: she did not fit the image of respectable heroine, and even her considerable achievements were not enough to secure her any enduring popular affection, not in the face of “the competition”, dear white Florence Nightingale. It was only a hundred years later, in the late twentieth century – thanks to efforts made by African and West Indian nurses – that our memory of her even began to be adequately revived.


Some sources / further reading:

BBC – Historic figures
100 Great Black Britons

I also recommend Tell me about Mary Seacole, by John Malam for children, which is also a great way to introduce the history of slavery and racism to young people (my girl is three and has just about enough understanding, with discussion/explanation, for this book although I think it is really aimed at somewhat older children).