Taught in British curriculum for at least the last decade, Mary Seacole has remained more or less unknown on the other side of the pond. I recently listened to a podcast about her (The History Chicks—check them out), and wanted to write a little about her in hopes of spreading information about a woman who, it seems, was purposely overshadowed by Florence Nightingale both during her life and after her death.
There are many, many details available about her life, from historical record to her own autobiography (Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands), the first one written by a black woman, so I will stick to the basics here. Born in Kingston to a free Jamaican woman and a Scottish Lieutenant in the British Army, Seacole grew up learning about and using herbal remedies at her mother’s boarding house, something that she would use for the rest of her life.
After marrying, and then being widows, she went to Panama with her brother and opened her first British Hotel, which was actually a restaurant, and also traveled to Cuba, Haiti, and London before the Crimean War started. She also used her nursing skills during the cholera outbreaks, and was well established in Panama for her nursing skills as well as her business. When the Crimean War began, she tried to join a contingent of army nurses, but was denied. She consistently petitioned Florence Nightingale to let her join Nightingale’s group of nurses, but was roundly denied by her as well, probably because of her race.
She didn’t let this stop her, though. Using her own money and resources, she traveled to Crimea herself and built a mess hall there, christened the new British Hotel, which in addition to serving food, also dispensed medicine and helped take care of soldiers’ injuries, and came to be known as ‘Mother Seacole’.
After the war, she returned to London destitute and ill health, both of which would plague her until her death. Seacole published her memoir in 1857, and a benefit festival was held for her in order to raise funds for her to live off of. She died in 1881, and is remembered much better in Jamaica than she is in the UK, although current efforts are reviving her memory, including a statue at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, a commemorative plaque at her former residence in Soho Sqaure, and a number of other things.