Heroes of the Past: Mary Seacole
Mary Seacole (1854-1856) is an exceptional woman of the Victorian Era who was known as ‘Mother Seacole’ to the British soldiers of the Crimean war for her compassion and dedication to their care.
A woman of intelligence, fine business sense, and grit, she opened up a boarding house in Crimea from which she funded her private nursing efforts. We remember her today for her hard-won achievements and immense kindness.
Mary Seacole, originally Mary Jane Grant, was born in Kingston, Jamaica as the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a free Jamaican business woman. Her mother was also a ‘doctress’, a healer in the traditional African arts.
Her mother ran the Blundell Hall boarding house, a renowned hotel in Kingston. Growing up watching her mother administer medicine, she sought to mimic her and become like her. She imitated her mother’s art on her dolls, then pets, before finally her mother let her help.
Inheriting her mother’s compassion and business sense, and her father’s nationalism and wanderlust, she set off for London to meet relatives in 1821. After a series of private business ventures, and some traveling through Haiti, Cuba, and New Providence as an independent business woman, she returned home in 1825 with success.
She rejoined her mother at her hotel and began running it beside her, continuing her mother’s nursing arts. Tragedy struck in 1843, as a wildfire in Kingston consumed her mother’s hotel, with the death of her husband, Edwin Seacole, and mother following in 1844. After a small period of grief, Mary threw herself into her work and rebuilt her mother’s hotel, which became a popular hub for European military officials.
When Cholera broke out in 1850, she offered free care in her home and viciously fought the disease, though failing to cure it. Like John Snow, she too thought the disease had been carried through water, suspecting a ship from New Orleans.
When the Crimean War struck, Cholera followed and the army was in desperate need of medical aid. Mary, burning with nationalism, curiosity, and compassion, struck out to become an army nurse. She was denied by both the army and nurse organizations, likely out of racism.
Determined still, she used her private funds to establish her own boarding hall, the British Hall, in the town of Kadikoi. She described it as a place of refuge for the sick and tired soldiers, and immediately upon arrival she began conducting medical care before the hall was even built. She funded her medical care by selling luxury meals and goods to military officials, but gave free food to the lowly soldiers.
She went out of her way to visit the army medical camps with comfort food and medicine, and she even often rushed into battle with her ‘sons’, as she nicknamed them. They in turn called her ‘Mother Seacole’. She even provided aid to the nearby French and Ottoman soldiers fighting at the flanks of the region, even the enemy Russian soldiers that lay wounded nearby after battles.
After the war, Mary had to file for bankruptcy, and for a time lived in almost poverty in a run-down apartment in London. However, a newspaper picked up on her story. As testimonials from soldiers came in, a donation campaign to provide her funds was successfully made, and she managed to pay off her debts enough to return to Jamaica and her hotel.
She tried to redo her nursing efforts in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, but was once again rejected out of racism and was too old to fight now. In her last years, she continued to provide care to both poor and rich, serving as a personal attendant to the Princess of Wales even.
She died in 1881. For a long time, history forgot about her, looked down at her for her sex and her race, seeking to wipe out her accomplishments. She is an inspiration, a self-made woman of race who fought for everything she had and still went out of her way to provide care and compassion to all around her.
Today, we remember her.
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