Column: “Hail Mary” – Mary Seacole

Bust of Mary Seacole in London
©cc-by 2.0 David Holt

Columnist A. Miller-Draper on the life of creole nurse Mary Seacole.


Some things you have just got to learn to live with. There’s nothing you can do about them. There are two things that perch like dark clouds at the periphery of my vision, whichever way I look at life. One is the holocaust of the Jews by Nazi Germany, and the other is the transatlantic slave trade, when Europe was emerging into the so-called modern age.

I am reminded of the twentieth century philosopher Bertrand Russell’s reflections on the human condition. Towards the end of his life, he was asked if he had formed any clear ideas about our time on earth. An avowed atheist, he looked balefully at his questioner and replied that yes, after a lifetime of pondering our state, he had arrived at two conclusions. The first was Pity, an overwhelming pity for the human race; and the second was Kindness, the fundamental, urgent need for all human beings to treat each other with kindness.

Well, you get a little bit of both, pity and kindness, in the amazing story of Mary Jane Seacole. She was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805 to a black mother, a free woman though descended from African slaves, and a white father, a Scottish lieutenant with the British army. Her mother ran a boarding house in Kingston, Blundell Hall, considered one of the best hotels. She was also recognised as a “doctress”, a healer who used traditional Caribbean and African herbal remedies. She passed on both her medical and hospitality skills to her daughter.

Only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken c.1873 (adjusted)
Only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken c.1873 (adjusted)

Mary Jane was born at a time of great change for the African people living in the Americas. Two years after her birth, in 1807, the British parliament passed a law forbidding the trade in slaves anywhere in the world, by British ships and British citizens. Not until 1834 was a law finally passed banning slavery altogether throughout the British Empire. The main reason for all the delay had been the vexatious question of financial compensation for the slave owners, who felt it quite unfair that they should be rendered so considerably out of pocket. And, of course, it was another thirty years further on, not till 1865, that America followed suit and, after a terrible civil war, the American Congress passed into law the 13th Amendment to the United States constitution, which outlawed slavery throughout the USA.

Mary Jane seems to have taken great heart from her mixed ancestry, not dismayed at all by the horror of some of her antecedents’ circumstances. She was proud to be a “creole”, a term commonly used for the children of white settlers and indigenous women. In her autobiography, published towards the end of her life, she describes herself as

“a creole, and I have good Scots blood coursing through my veins. My father was a soldier of an old Scottish family.”

And of her black ancestry she wrote,

“I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related – and I am proud of the relationship – to those poor mortals, whom you once held enslaved, and whose bodies America still owns.”

She spent a few years in London in her late teens, staying with relatives, before returning to Jamaica to help her mother. Frequently they were called to assist at the British Army hospital at Up-Park Camp. She became adept at treating the various tropical diseases that occasionally ravaged the troops, particularly cholera and yellow fever. Though many of her patients subsequently died during these epidemics, she came through unscathed. She was known for her courage and compassion.

In 1834, she married, but her husband’s business ventures failed to thrive, and the couple returned to Kingston to assist her mother running the hotel. Then the hotel burned down and soon after, both her mother and husband died. After a period of grief when she did not stir for days, she composed herself, “turned a bold front to fortune:” – and rebuilt the hotel. She put her recovery down to her hot creole blood, “blunting the sharp edge of her grief sooner than Europeans” who she thought “nurse their woe secretly in their hearts.” She was a no-nonsense woman, and got on with life. She later became well known among the military, and visitors to Jamaica.

In the early 1850’s she set up a hotel in Panama and continued to dispense her herbal cures and medicines, and her reputation continued to grow. News of the escalating Crimean War reached her. She determined to travel to England to volunteer as a nurse. Conditions in the unsanitary, overcrowded makeshift hospitals in the Crimea were appalling. She did meet Florence Nightingale, but since Mary Seacole was black and unconventionally trained, her services were declined. Instead she used her own resources and travelled out by herself, setting up the “British Hotel” near Balaclava and distributing business cards to drum up trade. Soon her establishment, part hospitality, part convalescent facility became a byword among the officers. The Special Correspondent of The Times newspaper wrote approvingly of her work:

“Mrs Seacole doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle field to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessings.”

Sketch of Mary Seacole's "British Hotel" in the Crimea
Sketch of Mary Seacole’s “British Hotel” in the Crimea

She made a point of wearing brightly coloured, and highly conspicuous dresses. At the siege of Sebastopol she fulfilled a bet, becoming the first British woman to enter the citadel after it fell. She was clearly quite a character, and one imagines she had a considerable sense of humour. Certainly she became a great favourite, and her reputation spread far and wide. Unfortunately, when peace was declared she was left with a significant amount of unsold goods on her hands, and as a result had to declare bankruptcy. Returning to London, destitute and in poor health, she received many donations of charity from her admirers throughout the military. She volunteered to go to India, during the Indian Mutiny, but the Secretary for War, Lord Panmure, dissuaded her. She was widely feted and her contribution celebrated. That same year 1857, she published her autobiography – “The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands.” The book was dedicated to Major-General Lord Rokeby, commander of the First Division in the Crimea, and William Howard Russell, the correspondent for The Times, wrote a preface:

“I have witnessed her devotion and her courage…and I trust that England will never forget one who has nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”

She became a Catholic and returned to Jamaica but the island was no longer so prosperous and she was beginning to feel her years. In the end she went back to England to be closer, perhaps, to her charitable friends among the aristocracy. She died in Paddington in 1881. She enjoyed wearing medals of the Crimean War, but after her death her exploits were soon forgotten. Until many years later, and she is now celebrated in Britain and the Caribbean. In 1991 she was awarded, posthumously of course, the Jamaican Order of Merit. On June 30, this year 2016, a statue was erected in the grounds of St Thomas Hospital in London. Her life story is now part of the British National Curriculum.

It’s a good story; leaves you feeling good too, despite those dark clouds in the distance!

Featured image of the newly erected statue of Seacole ©cc-by 2.0 David Holt
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