Who was Mary Seacole?
Mary Seacole was a Jamaican-born nurse who became a heroine of the Crimean War. She was a mixed-race nurse who cared for British soldiers at the battlefront during the Crimean War by setting up a “British Hotel” where she provided assistance and relief to servicemen wounded on the battlefield. Born as the daughter of a Scottish soldier in the British Army and a free Jamaican woman, Mary acquired knowledge of herbal medicines from her mother who was skilled in traditional medicines. She also inherited her mother’s compassion and started helping her in caring for invalids at their boarding house while she was still a young girl. She grew up to be an independent minded woman and travelled independently to several places, including London. On one of her travels she learned that there was a lack of proper nursing care for soldiers in the Crimean War. She applied to the War Office and asked to be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea but was refused. Deciding to take things into her own hands, she travelled on her own to the Crimea where she established the British Hotel to provide food, medicines and other necessities to the soldiers. She returned to England after the end of the war and was hailed as a heroine for her role in easing the sufferings of the wounded and ailing soldiers.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born as Mary Jane Grant on 23 November 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica. Her father was a Scottish soldier in the British Army while her mother was a free Jamaican woman. Mary was proud of her multiracial heritage.
Her mother was well-trained in traditional Caribbean and African herbal medicines and worked as a healer. She ran a boarding house which was counted amongst the best in their city. Mary was deeply influenced by her mother as a young girl and developed an early interest in medicine and helped her mother in treating her patients.
As a girl, she spent some years in the house of an elderly woman. Described as a “kind patroness” by Mary, the elderly lady treated her like a family member and ensured that she received a good education.
Mary grew up to be an intelligent and independent minded young woman. She travelled a lot as a youth and visited other parts of the Caribbean, including Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas.
She went to London in 1821 and stayed there for a year. There she acquired knowledge about modern European medicine which supplemented her training in traditional Caribbean medicine. She made several trips to Jamaica and back over the next few years before returning to Jamaica in 1825.
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Mary took care of her elderly patroness back home and nursed her till her death. Then she joined her mother in her work and occasionally assisted others at the British Army hospital at Up-Park Camp.
Her mother died during the mid-1840s and Mary was plunged into grief at the loss of her beloved mother. By this time she had also been married and widowed. With great courage she composed herself and took over the management of her mother’s hotel.
She became absorbed in her work and gained a reputation as a widely respected nurse over the next few years. A cholera epidemic struck Jamaica in 1850 in which thousands of people lost their lives. It marked a very stressful and hectic period in Mary Seacole’s life though she served her patients with undying commitment.
In 1851, she went to Cruces in Panama to visit her brother who lived there. Shortly after her arrival, the city was swept by an epidemic of cholera. The first patient Seacole treated survived which established her reputation as a knowledgeable medical professional. She received payment from the rich but chose to treat the poor for free.
She traveled back to Jamaica in late 1852. Jamaica was in the throes of a ravaging yellow fever and the medical authorities asked her to care for the victims. She tried her best but was unable to do much as the epidemic was so severe. Her own boarding house was full of patients, many of whom died before her eyes.
Mary Seacole was in Panama in 1854 when she learnt of the escalating Crimean War which had broken out in October 1853 between the Russian Empire and an alliance of the United Kingdom, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire. She decided to volunteer as a war nurse and travelled to England where she approached the War Office, asking to be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea. Her offer, however, was rejected in spite of her ample experiences.
Determined in her resolve to serve the soldiers of the war, she travelled to Crimea using her own resources and opened the British Hotel. Along with managing the hotel, she also assisted the wounded at the military hospitals. Her experiences of treating cholera patients proved to be extremely valuable during the war.
She also operated as a sutler and sold provisions near the British camp even as she attended to the causalities there. She became a much respected and beloved figure due to her services to the soldiers and was widely known to the British Army as "Mother Seacole".
She returned to England in 1856 after the end of the Crimean War as a destitute. The British press highlighted her case and a fund was set up to bail her out of her financial troubles. She went to Jamaica in 1860 but was back to England in 1870 and spent the rest of her life in London.
Mary Seacole is best remembered as the nurse who set up a “British Hotel” all by herself during the Crimean War to care for the sick and wounded soldiers. She provided food, medicines and other supplies to the injured and convalescent servicemen and served them selflessly. So dedicated was she in her service that she lost her own good health and much of her money by the end of the war.
Awards & Achievements
Mary Seacole was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991.
She was voted the greatest black Briton in 2004.
Personal Life & Legacy
She married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole in Kingston on 10 November 1836. Her husband died in 1844. She never remarried even though she received several marriage proposals as a widow.
Mary Seacole died on 14 May 1881 at her home in Paddington, London, and was buried in St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery.