This is how the story goes… Mary Seacole was born Mary Jane Grant in 1805, in Kingston, Jamaica to a Jamaican mother and a Scottish soldier: ‘I have good Scots blood coursing through my veins,’ as she wrote on page one of her memoir. Her mother, a freed black woman, kept a home, or a boarding house, for wounded soldiers (many of them British soldiers suffering from yellow fever) and installed in Mary a love of nursing and medicine.
In 1836, she married Edwin Horatio Seacole, a former guest at her mother’s boarding house. Edwin Seacole was believed, without substance, to have been either an illegitimate offspring of Lord Nelson and his mistress, Lady Hamilton, or Nelson’s godson. A sickly man, he died eight years later in 1844. Despite several offers, Mary never married again. As a couple, the Seacoles had maintained the boarding house established by Mary’s mother and, as a widow, Mary Seacole’s work intensified in 1850 when a cholera epidemic struck Jamaica, killing over 30,000 inhabitants.
In 1851, Mary Seacole journeyed to Panama to visit her half-brother and while there, witnessed another cholera outbreak. Again she went to work and took a leading role in treating the sick. Among her patients were 350 American soldiers commanded by the future Union general and US president, Ulysses S. Grant. The following year she returned to Jamaica but had to wait for a British ship to take her home as the American ship she’d planned to sail on refused to take her – Seacole believed it was on account of her race.
In October 1853, war had broken out on the Russian peninsula of the Crimea, between the British, French and Turkish on one side and the Russians on the other. In 1854, Seacole travelled to England where she asked various institutions, including the War Office, permission to work as a nurse in the Crimea. But her request was refused by all. Again, race may have played its part.
However, the resourceful Seacole raised the necessary funds for herself and made her way independently to the Crimea, where, near the front line, she set up the ‘British Hotel’, improvised with scrap wood and discarded building materials. Opening in 1855, the ‘hotel’ sold food, medicaments and supplies to soldiers (anything, to use Seacole’s words, ‘from a needle to an anchor’); and provided meals, warmth and somewhere to sleep. Florence Nightingale, although she later praised Mary Seacole’s work, initially thought the British Hotel as little more than a brothel.
Dressed in brightly-coloured outfits, Seacole became a familiar figure as she visited the military hospitals and the battle front, assisting the wounded and dying, including Russians, moving about with two mules, one carrying medical supplies, the other food and wine.
The Crimean War ended in 1856 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 30 March. Within four months the peninsula had been completely evacuated of Allied troops. Mary Seacole was left with a fully supplied hotel without customers and was forced into selling her stocks and provisions at artificially low prices to pay off her debts.
She returned to England in a poor state, both physically and financially. While being applauded and awarded, she was declared bankrupt. Living in London, she fell ill and became destitute. A press-led campaign organised a festival in Seacole’s benefit, the Seacole Fund Grand Military Festival, which attracted 40,000 people. The same month, July 1857, Seacole published her memoirs, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which sold well enough to help, along with the proceeds from the festival, to alleviate her financial woes.
Seacole returned to Jamaica in 1860 but came back to London a decade later where she kept the company of esteemed military men and members of the royal family.
Mary Seacole died 14 May 1881, of ‘apoplexy’, at her home, 3 Cambridge Street, Paddington, aged 76. An obituary, published in The Times a week later, wrote, ‘strange to say, she has bequeathed all her property to persons of title’.
A disgrace to the serious study of history?
Mary Seacole’s place in history had been largely forgotten until the last fifteen years. Now, all UK schoolchildren know her name and she has become lionized as a positive black role model. In 2004, she was voted the greatest Black Briton of all time. Seacole herself did not necessarily view herself as black but ‘only a little brown… a few shades duskier then the brunettes you all admire so much’.
St Thomas’ Hospital, near London’s Houses of Parliament, is planning an 8-foot (3 metre) bronze statue of Mary Seacole due to be unveiled this year, costing £500,000. The idea of the statue is, in the words of St Thomas’, to ‘reflect the scale, stature and achievements of Mary Seacole, encapsulating the sentiment of Mary as a Crimean War nursing heroine.’ (It was at St Thomas’ that in 1860, Florence Nightingale established her nursing school.) Seacole herself had no association with the hospital and indeed never stepped foot in the place.
Some historians are now beginning to question the legitimacy of Seacole’s recent status, especially when it directly mirrors the decline in the reputation of Nightingale. Guy Walters describes Seacole’s status as a role model ‘good politics, but … poor history.’ Walters, in his article for the Daily Mail, quotes a spokesman for the Crimean War Research Society who states, ’The hype that has built up surrounding this otherwise worthy woman (Seacole) is a disgrace to the serious study of history.’
Historian, Lynn McDonald, writing in History Today, states, ‘Keenness for a heroic black role model is understandable, but why the denigration of [Nightingale]?’ McDonald accuses St Thomas’ of perpetuating a ‘makeover myth [that does] not survive a reality check.’
In the images above (the only known photo of Seacole, taken around 1873, and Seacole’s comforting portrait painted in 1869 by Arthur Charles Challen), she can be seen wearing miniature versions of three medals, including, on the left, the Crimean Medal (pictured). Seacole never won the medal, nor, in her writings, did she ever claim to have done so, saying she was, by wearing the medals, merely displaying her solidarity with the veterans of the war.
Such is the concern over the misrepresentation of the Seacole story, that the Mary Seacole Information Website aims to redress the balance: ‘So much misinformation about Seacole is now available in print, on websites (including those of highly reputable organizations) and in the social media that a source using reliable, carefully documented, material is badly needed.’
They go on to say, ‘Mary Seacole, we believe, deserves recognition for her work. A fine bronze statue [at St Thomas'] is a laudable means. However the campaign for Seacole should not be based on misrepresentation of her life and work, or a vilification campaign against any other person, certainly not Florence Nightingale. Our complaint is not with Seacole, however, but with the supporters who misrepresent her, and, so often, in the course denigrate Nightingale.’
But despite these caveats, Mary Seacole deserves her place in our history books and certainly deserves to maintain her place within the curriculum but within the proper context. As Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, told The Independent, Seacole was one of the only black people in British history whose life was not talked about “through the prism of racism … It is fantastically important to have people such as Mary Seacole taught in our classes.”
Read more Black History in Black History: History In An Hour published by Harper Press.
Rupert Colley’s novel, This Time Tomorrow, set during the First World War, is now available.