Mary Seacole

Why is Mary Seacole famous?

A Jamaican healer, Mary Seacole faced unfairness and discrimination as a black woman when she tried to volunteer as a nurse during the Crimean War (1854-56).

When the British turned down her offer of help, she decided to go to the Crimea independently. She set up a British Hotel near the frontline to provide comfort and supplies to the army. She rode nearly every day to the battle front to give out medicines and nurse the injured and dying.

She was very well known when she returned to England but was largely forgotten after her death. In 2004 she was voted number one in a poll of Great Black Britons.

Top 10 facts

  1. Mary was born in 1805. At this time most black people in Jamaica were slaves. Mary’s mother was a free born black woman and her father was a Scottish soldier. Mary was proud of her skin colour and wanted to be treated equally.
  2. Mary’s mother taught her traditional African and Caribbean remedies for illnesses including cholera, diarrhoea and fever.
  3. Mary’s treatment for cholera involved mustard plaster, emetics (which make you sick), calomel (mercury) and water boiled with cinnamon. She used pomegranate juice to treat diarrhoea.
  4. Mary’s attempts to volunteer to help nurse during the Crimean War were turned down so she decided to set up a hotel and provide nursing services to the troops at the frontline.
  5. Mary’s British Hotel operated as a general store, restaurant and hotel. She used profits from the hotel to cover the costs of the medicines she provided to poor soldiers.
  6. When the war ended Mary was bankrupt, she had spent all her money on goods for the hotel which she now could not sell.
  7. Mary’s love for the British army and her loyalty to Britain were inspired by her pride in her Scottish military father. A number of the soldiers fighting in the Crimea had previously been stationed in Jamaica so Mary knew some of them.
  8. Mary received four medals from a grateful British Government. In 1857 eighty thousand people turned up to honour Mary in a four-day gala held to raise money for her.
  9. Much of what we know about Mary comes from her memoir, The Wonderful Adventure of Mary Seacole in Many Lands.
  10. Mary is often compared to Florence Nightingale. Florence was a nursing pioneer and an excellent organiser who greatly improved the way hospitals were run. Mary’s approach was more personal. She was a healer and provided her patients with advice and support.

Timeline

  • 1805
    Mary Jane Grant born in Kingston, Jamaica

  • 1822
    Mary visits England

  • 1830
    ‘Free people of colour’ granted equal rights to white people in Jamaica

  • 1836
    Mary marries Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole

  • 1838
    Slavery abolished in Jamaica

  • 1844
    Mary’s mother dies; Edwin Seacole dies

  • 1851
    Mary travels to Panama and opens a hotel there

  • 1854
    Start of Crimean War; Mary sets sail for England hoping to volunteer

  • 1855
    Mary sets up her British Hotel only four miles from the frontline

  • 1856
    End of Crimean War; Mary returns to England

  • 1857
    A four day benefit held to raise money for Mary is attended by over 80,000 people; Mary’s memoir published

  • 1867
    A charitable fund is set up to provide Mary with a pension

  • 1881
    Mary dies in London

Did you know?

  • As a young girl Mary practised her medical skills on her doll before progressing to animals and testing remedies on herself.
  • Mary’s husband, Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole, was the godson of Admiral Horatio Nelson.
  • After she was widowed, Mary received many proposals of marriage which she turned down.
  • Mary was middle aged when the Crimean War started and was known to many as ‘Mother Seacole.’
  • Mary cut up and examined the body of a young boy who had died of cholera, gaining useful knowledge.
  • Mary Seacole’s British Hotel cost £800 to build.
  • When Mary returned to London after the Crimean War she was bankrupt. Queen Victoria donated £50 to a charitable collection on her behalf.
  • Mary visited Florence Nightingale at Scutari on her way to the Crimea. Florence Nightingale did not approve of Mary because her hotel sold alcohol and was very lively.
  • In later life Mary was employed to give massages to the Princess of Wales.
  • Mary was possibly the first free black woman in the British Empire to write her autobiography.
  • In 2004 Mary won first place in a poll of Great Black Britons.

Look through the gallery and see if you can spot the following:

  • Photograph of Mary Seacole
  • Portrait of Mary Seacole as an old woman wearing red creole scarf and medals
  • Drawing of Mary Seacole from before the Crimean war
  • A photograph of her as an old woman
  • 1857 Punch cartoon of Mary Seacole
  • Mary Seacole’s book cover

Gallery

About

Mary was born in 1805 in Kingston Jamaica to a Jamaican mother and a Scottish soldier father.

Mary’s mother ran one of the top hotels in Kingston and also worked as a healer. She used remedies from her African and Caribbean heritage and passed on her knowledge to her daughter.

Mary was born free, but most black people in Jamaica were slaves. In 1830 a law was passed giving free people like Mary equal rights to white people. Slavery was partially abolished in Jamaica in 1834 and fully abolished in 1838.

Mary married Edwin Seacole in 1836. He was sickly and she spent most of their marriage nursing him.

When Mary was 45 she opened a hotel in Panama. There was an outbreak of cholera and Mary’s remedies proved effective. There was a lot of racial prejudice in Panama and Mary was unhappy at not being treated as an equal.

In 1854 Britain went to war with Russia (the Crimean War). Many more soldiers died from tropical diseases than from injuries received in battle. Florence Nightingale and her nurses were based in Scutari in Turkey, a four-day journey from the battle front. Many injured soldiers could not travel that distance.

Mary arrived in London in 1854 keen to volunteer as a nurse. The British authorities and Florence Nightingale’s own representative turned her down. She decided to go to Crimea and set up a hotel providing comforts to the soldiers and a base for her nursing.

Mary’s British Hotel was only a few miles from where the fighting was taking place. It operated as a restaurant and general store. Mary used the profits she made from the hotel to provide medicines for the injured. She rode out to the battle field every day to help the wounded soldiers.

When the war ended Mary had little money left. She travelled back to England and lived in rented rooms. The soldiers she had helped were very grateful to her and held a gala to raise money for her. She was awarded four medals for her services.

Mary wrote about her experiences in her book The Wonderful Adventure of Mary Seacole in Many Lands.

Famous contemporaries

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) – a famous British nurse who was known as ‘the Lady of the Lamp’ due to her work during the Crimean War. A great administrator, Florence reorganised hospitals and wrote books about nursing. She is considered to be the founder of modern nursing.

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