Mary Seacole believed that when someone wants to minister to the needs of others, she should be able to do so without interference. So when she was headed to Crimea during the war to help Florence Nightingale nurse sick and wounded soldiers, she was determined not to let racism deter her from her mission.
A native of Kingston, Jamaica, Mary Ann Grant’s father was a Scotch army officer. Her mother was a local healer who owned a boarding house and treated military officers and their families. That didn’t seem to be a place for a child, so Seacole lived with an older lady and her grandchildren. She often hung out with her mom, however, and played doctor with her dolls and the neighborhood pets.
When her nanny died in her arms, Seacole moved back in with her mother and learned her Creole medicine techniques. As her life unfolded, it’s evident that Seacole derived her greatest inspiration from that relationship.
Seacole remained single until she was 31 years old when she married Edwin Seacole, a Brit. They opened a store in Black River, Jamaica, but after eight years of marriage they had to move back to Kingston for Edwin’s health. He died one month after their return. To compound Seacole’s grief, her mom died, and she assumed responsibility for the hotel, using work to cope with her loneliness.
Seacole’s stubbornness was one of her best and worst qualities. In 1843 there was a devastating fire in Kingston which burned down Seacole’s house. Defending it almost cost her her life because she didn’t leave until it was in flames. She rebuilt and continued to live alone despite many potential suitors. A cholera outbreak in 1850 gave her the opportunity to practice the healing skills she had learned.
FOLLOWING IN HER MOTHER’S FOOTSTEPS Finally needing a change, Seacole went to Cruces, Panama to visit her brother. Her experience had prepared her well to deal with the cholera epidemic that hit shortly after she arrived. The only medically trained person who lived in the area was a dentist, so it was left to Seacole to diagnose and treat the afflicted. She did save many patients, but the number who died was still devastating. The most difficult death for her to deal with was an infant who died in her arms. Seacole snuck to the gravesite of the baby before it was buried and conducted her own autopsy in order to learn more about the disease.
Seacole opened a restaurant where the Americans loved to hang out and drink copious amounts of tea and coffee. She took her brother’s advice to add a spoonful of salt after the sixth cup to curtail their intake. After a while she got bored and decided to return to Kingston.
She bought a ticket on an American steamer, but because she was Creole she was told to get off the ship. This was the first time she personally experienced blatant racism. In order to keep the peace, the captain gave Seacole her money back, and she agreed to get disembark. Two days later she traveled home on an English ship.
DETOURS ON THE ROAD TO HER DREAMS When she was 49 years old Seacole’s restless, adventuresome spirit took her to England, and she landed in London in 1854. The Crimean War was young, and she wanted to contribute her talents. She applied to the War Office to be a hospital nurse. She was rejected and told to apply to the medical department. That was also a dead end, so she changed her tack. She craftily found out the address of the Secretary-at-War, went to his house and waited patiently to speak to him. When he did deign to see her, the Secretary said there were no nursing positions available. Finally, she applied to the managers of the Crimean Fund to do anything that would get her to the war zone. Even that didn’t work. The obvious racial prejudice with which she was treated made her even more determined.
Seacole had one more option. She and Thomas Day, a relative of her husband, created a partnership, Seacole and Day. They planned to open a store and hotel in the area near the military camps in Balaclava on the coast of the Crimea, a peninsula at the southern part of modern-day Ukraine.
FULFILLING HER DESTINY En route from England, Seacole’s ship had a layover in Scutari, Turkey for one night. She needed a place to sleep and wanted to be of service as well. Florence Nightingale worked at a hospital there. Seacole had a letter of introduction from a friend in Kingston to give to Nightingale. When she was finally ushered in to meet Nightingale, she was not exactly embraced as a colleague. Nightingale suggested that the only available bed was next to the washerwoman. Seacole and her roommate got along great and talked for hours. The bed itself was less accommodating as it turned out to be a flea infested couch, and Seacole was eaten alive during the night.
In Balaclava, Seacole and Day built the British Hotel which included an apartment for each of the partners, a general store and stables for the animals. A war zone is a dangerous place even for civilians. Thieves, led by the night watchman, stole 40 goats and seven sheep during one night, and dozens of horses, mules, pigs and chickens over time. The rats were huge and one attacked a cook while she was sleeping. But none of this deterred the proprietress from her purpose: to serve the British army.
“Mother Seacole” was not shy about going to the front lines if necessary to tend to wounded soldiers. The allied army planned to attack the Russians at Cathcart’s Hill. Seacole made sandwiches, packed up food, drink and medical supplies and on horseback led a caravan of two pack mules up the hill to the camp three and a half miles away. She cared for their physical needs in as many ways as possible. Since water was in short supply, she had to wash her hands in sherry. When bullets whizzed by overhead, Seacole hugged the ground until she got the “all clear.” Once when she was protecting herself, she dislocated her thumb, which she never bothered to set.
Seacole didn’t discriminate when it came to helping the needy. In addition to British soldiers, she helped French, Sardinians and even some Russians into ambulances so they could get proper medical treatment. One Russian thanked her by taking off his ring and giving it to her as he was being lifted into the vehicle.
LIFE AFTER WAR It was both a positive and negative thing when the Crimean War ended in February 1856. The area was evacuated so fast, that Seacole and Day lost all their business virtually overnight. Russians raided the British Hotel which made Seacole furious. In a desperate act, she smashed the crates of wine, wasting it instead of letting the enemy enjoy their booty.
Upon returning to England Seacole and Day were forced to declare bankruptcy, and the war finally took its toll on Seacole’s health. Several prominent people contributed to funds to help Seacole and her partner become solvent. She wrote her autobiography describing her adventures and raised enough money to get out of debt. During the final years of her life she worked in London as a masseuse and confidant to members of the royal family. Seacole died in 1881 with an estate of over £2,500.
QUESTION: Have you ever been discriminated against? How did you handle the situation?
©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved
Seacole, Mary. The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. http://www.gutenberg.org/ catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=588279