Mary Seacole was a famous Jamaican nurse who cared for British soldiers at the battlefront during the Crimean War, she was born in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica and died on the 14th of May 1881, after her death, she was forgotten for almost a century, but today is celebrated as a woman who successfully combated racial prejudice.
Seacole’s mother was a “doctress”, a healer who used traditional Caribbean and African herbal remedies. She ran Blundell Hall, a boarding house at 7 East Street, considered one of the best hotels in all Kingston.Here Seacole acquired her nursing skills.
In about 1821, Seacole visited London, stayed for a year, and visited relatives, the merchant Henriques family. Although London had a number of black people,she records that a companion, a West Indian with skin darker than her own “dusky” shades, was taunted by children.
Seacole herself was “only a little brown”,nearly white according to Ramdin. Her father was a Scottish army officer and her mother a free Jamaican mulatto. Her mother ran a boarding house and was according to Mary, a ‘proficient nurse’, highly regarded by soldiers who were from time to time stationed at Kingston.
At the age of 31 she married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole, the godson of Admiral Horatio Nelson and they moved to Black River where they set up a store. However, her husband had poor health and fell gravely ill, forcing them to return to Kingston to live at Mary’s mother’s house. He died within a month.
She had a determined and independent spirit that enabled her to overcome adversity, such as the death of her husband and mother and the loss of her home in the great fire of 1843 which decimated much of Kingston.
Mary thrived on her freedom and guarded it carefully. Mary‘s return to Kingston in 1853 coincided with a violent outbreak of yellow fever which was particularly devastating to the British who had no resistance to the tropical disease. She recreates the grim scene of a house full of sufferers including women and children. Mary was not unaffected by so much death and suffering, but possessed the strong presence of mind required to handle such stressful situations.
Seacole was in London in 1854 when reports of the lack of necessities and breakdown of nursing care for soldiers in the Crimean War began to be made public. Despite her experience, her offers to be sent to the front to help were refused, and she attributed her rejection to racial prejudice.
In 1855, with the help of a relative of her husband, she went to Crimea as a sutler, setting up the British Hotel to sell food, supplies, and medicines to the troops. She also visited the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded, and became known as ‘Mother Seacole’. Her reputation rivalled that of Florence Nightingale.
After the war she returned to England destitute and in ill health. The press highlighted her plight and in July 1857 a benefit festival was organised to raise money for her, attracting thousands of people.