Mary Jane Seacole (1805 – 14 May 1881), was a Jamaican-born woman of Scottish and Creole descent who set up a ‘British Hotel’ behind the lines during the Crimean War, which she described as “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers,” and provided succour for wounded servicemen on the battlefield. She was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991. In 2004 she was voted the greatest black Briton.
She acquired knowledge of herbal medicine in the Caribbean. When the Crimean War broke out, she applied to the War Office to assist but was refused. She travelled independently and set up her hotel and assisted battlefield wounded. She became extremely popular among service personnel who raised money for her when she faced destitution after the war.
After her death, she was forgotten for almost a century, but today is celebrated as a woman who successfully combatted racial prejudice. Her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), is one of the earliest autobiographies of a mixed-race woman, although some aspects of its accuracy have been questioned. It has been claimed that Seacole’s achievements have been exaggerated for political reasons and a plan to erect a statue of her at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, describing her as a “pioneer nurse”, has generated controversy. Further controversy broke out in the United Kingdom late in 2012 over reports of a proposal to remove her from the country’s National Curriculum.
Early life, 1805–1825
Mary Seacole was born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica, the daughter of a Scottish soldier in the British Army and a free Jamaican woman. 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. Her autobiography says her early experiments in medicine were based on what she learned from her mother while ministering to a doll, then progressing to pets, before helping her mother treat humans.
Seacole was proud of her Scottish ancestry and called herself a Creole, a term that was commonly used in a racially neutral sense or to refer to the children of white settlers. In her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole, she records her bloodline thus: “I am a Creole, and have good Scots blood coursing through my veins. My father was a soldier of an old Scottish family.” Legally, she was classified as a mulatto, a multiracial person with limited political rights; Robinson speculates that she may technically have been a quadroon. Seacole emphasises her personal vigour in her autobiography, distancing herself from the contemporary stereotype of the “lazy Creole”, She was proud of her black ancestry, writing, “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.”
The West Indies were an outpost of the British Empire in the late 18th century, and in the 1790s one-third of Britain’s foreign trade was with the British West Indies. Britain’s economic interests were protected by a massive military presence, with 69 line infantry regiments serving there between 1793 to 1801, and another 24 between 1803 to 1815.
Seacole spent some years in the household of an elderly woman, whom she called her “kind patroness”, before returning to her mother. She was treated as a member of her patroness’s family and received a good education. As the educated daughter of a Scottish officer and a free black woman with a respectable business, Seacole would have held a high position in Jamaican society.
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. She returned to London approximately a year later, bringing a “large stock of West Indian pickles and preserves for sale”. Her later travels would be as an “unprotected” woman, without a chaperone or sponsor—an unusual practice. Seacole returned to Jamaica in 1825.
In the Caribbean, 1826–51
After returning to Jamaica, Seacole nursed her “old indulgent patroness” through an illness, finally returning to the family home at Blundell Hall after the death of her patroness a few years later. Seacole then worked alongside her mother, occasionally being called to assist at the British Army hospital at Up-Park Camp. Dure Caribbean, visiting the British colony of New Providence in The Bahamas, the Spanish colony of Cuba, and the new republic of Haiti. Seacole records these travels, but omits mention of significant current events, such as the Christmas Rebellion in Jamaica of 1831, the partial abolition of slavery in 1834, and the full abolition of slavery in 1838.
She married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole in Kingston on 10 November 1836. Her marriage, from betrothal to widowhood, is described in just nine lines at the conclusion of the first chapter of her autobiography. His middle names are intriguing: Robinson reports the legend in the Seacole family that Edwin was an illegitimate son of Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson and his mistress Emma, Lady Hamilton, who was adopted by Thomas, a local “surgeon, apothecary and man midwife” (Seacole’s will indicates that Horatio Seacole was Nelson’s godson: she left a diamond ring to her friend, Lord Rokeby, “given to my late husband by his godfather Viscount Nelson”, but there was no mention of this godson in Nelson’s own will or its codicils.) Edwin was a merchant and seems to have had a poor constitution. The newly married couple moved to Black River and opened a provisions store which failed to prosper. They returned to Blundell Hall in the early 1840s.
During 1843 and 1844, Seacole suffered a series of personal disasters. She and her family lost much of the boarding house in a fire in Kingston on 29 August 1843. Blundell Hall burned down, and was replaced by New Blundell Hall, which was described as “better than before”. Then her husband died in October 1844, followed by her mother. After a period of grief, in which Seacole says she did not stir for days, she composed herself, “turned a bold front to fortune”, and assumed the management of her mother’s hotel. She put her rapid 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 absorbed herself into work, declining many offers of marriage. She later became widely known and respected, particularly among the European military visitors to Jamaica who often stayed at Blundell Hall. She treated patients in the cholera epidemic of 1850, which killed some 32,000 Jamaicans. Seacole attributed the outbreak to infection brought on a steamer from New Orleans, Louisiana, demonstrating knowledge of contagion theory. This first-hand experience would benefit her during the next five years.
In Central America, 1851–54
In 1850, Seacole’s half-brother Edward moved to Cruces, Panama, which was then part of New Granada. There, approximately 45 miles (72 km) up the Chagres River from the coast, he followed the family trade by establishing the Independent Hotel to accommodate the many travellers between the eastern and western coasts of the United States (the number of travellers had increased enormously, as part of the 1849 California Gold Rush). Cruces was the limit of navigability of the Chagres River during the rainy season, which lasts from June to December. Travellers would ride on donkeys approximately 20 miles (32 km) along the Las Cruces trail from Panama City on the Pacific Ocean coast to Cruces, and then 45 miles (72 km) down-river to the Atlantic Ocean at Chagres (or vice versa). In the dry season, the river subsided, and travellers would switch from land to the river a few miles farther downstream, at Gorgona. Most of these settlements have now been submerged by Gatun Lake, formed as part of the Panama Canal.
In 1851, Seacole travelled to Cruces to visit her brother. Shortly after her arrival, the town was struck by cholera, a disease which had reached Panama in 1849. Seacole was on hand to treat the first victim, who survived, which established Seacole’s reputation and brought her a succession of patients as the infection spread. The rich paid, but she treated the poor for free. Many, both rich and poor, succumbed. She eschewed opium, preferring mustard rubs and poultices, the laxative calomel (mercuric chloride), sugars of lead (lead(II) acetate), and rehydration with water boiled with cinnamon. While her preparations had moderate success, she faced little competition, the only other treatments coming from a “timid little dentist”, who was an inexperienced doctor sent by the Panamanian government, and the Roman Catholic Church.
The epidemic raged through the population. Seacole later expressed exasperation at their feeble resistance, claiming they “bowed down before the plague in slavish despair”. She performed an autopsy on an orphan child for whom she had cared, which gave her “decidedly useful” new knowledge. Towards the end of the epidemic, Seacole herself sickened but survived. Cholera was to return again: Ulysses S. Grant passed through Cruces in July, 1852, on military duty; a hundred and twenty men, a third of his party, died of the disease there or shortly afterwards en route to Panama City.
Despite the problems of disease and climate, Panama remained the favoured route between the coasts of the United States. Seeing a business opportunity, Seacole opened the British Hotel, which was a restaurant rather than an hotel. She described it as a “tumble down hut,” with two rooms, the smaller one to be her bedroom, the larger one to serve up to 50 diners. She soon added the services of a barber.
As the wet season ended in early 1852, Seacole joined other traders in Cruces in packing up to move to Gorgona. She records a white American giving a speech at a leaving dinner in which he wished that “God bless the best yaller woman he ever made” and asked the listeners to join with him in rejoicing that “she’s so many shades removed from being entirely black”. He went on to say that “if we could bleach her by any means we would […] and thus make her acceptable in any company[,] as she deserves to be”. Seacole replied firmly that she did not “appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion. If it had been as dark as any nigger’s, I should have been just as happy and just as useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value.” She declined the offer of “bleaching” and drank “to you and the general reformation of American manners”. Salih notes the use of American pidgin, against Seacole’s clear English, as representational of a supposed white moral and intellectual superiority. Seacole also comments on the positions of responsibility taken on by escaped American slaves in Panama, as well as in the priesthood, the army, and public offices, commenting that “it is wonderful to see how freedom and equality elevate men”. She also records an antipathy between Panamanians and Americans, which she attributes in part to the fact that so many of the former had once been slaves of the latter.
In Gorgona, Seacole briefly ran a woman-only hotel. In late 1852, she travelled home to Jamaica. The journey was delayed and difficult when she encountered racial discrimination while trying to book passage on an American ship. She was forced to wait for a later British boat. In 1853, soon after arriving home, Seacole was asked by the Jamaican medical authorities to minister to victims of a severe outbreak of yellow fever. She found that she could do little, because the epidemic was so severe. Her memoirs state that her own boarding house was full of sufferers and she saw many of them die. Although she wrote, “I was sent for by the medical authorities to provide nurses for the sick at Up-Park Camp,” she did not claim to bring nurses with her when she went. She left her sister with some nurses at her house, went to the camp (about a mile, or 1.6 km, from Kingston), “and did my best, but it was little we could do to mitigate the severity of the epidemic.”
Seacole returned to Panama in early 1854 to finalise her business affairs, and three months later moved to the New Granada Mining Gold Company establishment at Fort Bowen Mine some 70 miles (110 km) away near Escribanos. The superintendent, Thomas Day, was related to her late husband. Seacole had read newspaper reports of the outbreak of war against Russia before she left Jamaica, and news of the escalating Crimean War reached her in Panama. She determined to travel to England to volunteer as a nurse, to experience the “pomp, pride and circumstance of glorious war” as she described it in Chapter I of her autobiography.
Crimean War, 1854–56
The Crimean War lasted from October 1853 until 1 April 1856 and was fought between the Russian Empire and an alliance of the United Kingdom, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire. The majority of the conflict took place on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea and Turkey.
Many thousands of troops from all the countries involved were drafted to the area, and disease broke out almost immediately. Hundreds perished, mostly from cholera. Hundreds more would die waiting to be shipped out, or on the voyage. Their prospects were little better when they arrived at the poorly staffed, unsanitary and overcrowded hospitals which were the only medical provision for the wounded. In Britain, a trenchant letter in The Times on 14 October triggered Sidney Herbert, Secretary of State for War, to approach Florence Nightingale to form a detachment of nurses to be sent to the hospital to save lives. Interviews were quickly held, suitable candidates selected, and Nightingale left for Turkey on 21 October.
Seacole travelled from Navy Bay in Panama to England, initially to deal with her investments in gold-mining businesses. She then attempted to join the second contingent of nurses to the Crimea. She applied to the War Office and other government offices, but arrangements for departure were already underway. In her memoir, she wrote that she brought “ample testimony” of her experience in nursing, but the only example officially cited was that of a former medical officer of the West Granada Gold-Mining Company. She also applied to the Crimean Fund, a fund raised by public subscription to support the wounded in Crimea, for sponsorship to travel there, but she again met with refusal.
Seacole finally resolved to travel to Crimea using her own resources and to open the British Hotel. Business cards were printed and sent ahead to announce her intention to open an establishment, to be called the “British Hotel”, near Balaclava, which would be “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”. Shortly afterwards, her Caribbean acquaintance, Thomas Day, arrived unexpectedly in London, and the two formed a partnership. They assembled a stock of supplies, and Seacole embarked on the Dutch screw-steamer Hollander on 27 January 1855 on its maiden voyage, to Constantinople. The ship called at Malta, where Seacole encountered a doctor who had recently left Scutari. He wrote her a letter of introduction to Nightingale.
Seacole visited Nightingale at the Barrack Hospital in Scutari, where she asked for a bed for the night, because she intended to travel to Balaclava the next day to join her business partner. In her memoirs, she reported that her meeting with Nightingale was friendly, with Nightingale asking “What do you want, Mrs. Seacole? Anything we can do for you? If it lies in my power, I shall be very happy.” Seacole told her of her “dread of the night journey by caique” and the improbability of being able to find the Hollander in the dark. A bed was then found for her and breakfast sent her in the morning, with a “kind message” from Mrs. Bracebridge, Nightingale’s helper. A footnote in the memoir states that Seacole subsequently “saw much of Miss Nightingale at Balaclava,” but no further meetings are recorded in the text.
After transferring most of her stores to the transport ship Albatross, with the remainder following on the Nonpareil, she set out on the four-day voyage to the British bridgehead into Crimea at Balaclava.
Lacking proper building materials, Seacole gathered abandoned metal and wood in her spare moments, with a view to using the debris to build her hotel. She found a site for the hotel at a place she christened Spring Hill, near Kadikoi, some 3½ miles (5.6 km) along the main British supply road from Balaclava to the British camp near Sevastopol, and within a mile of the British headquarters.
The hotel was built from the salvaged driftwood, packing cases, iron sheets, and salvaged architectural items such as glass-doors and window-frames, from the village of Kamara, using hired local labour. The new British Hotel opened in March 1855. An early visitor was Alexis Soyer, a noted French chef who had travelled to Crimea to help improve the diet of British soldiers. He records meeting Seacole in his 1857 work A Culinary Campaign and describes Seacole as “an old dame of a jovial appearance, but a few shades darker than the white lily”. Seacole requested Soyer’s advice on how to manage her business, and was advised to concentrate on food and beverage service, and not to have beds for visitors because the few either slept on board ships in the harbour or in tents in the camp.
The hotel was completed in July at a total cost of £800. It included a building made of iron, containing a main room with counters and shelves and storage above, an attached kitchen, two wooden sleeping huts, outhouses, and an enclosed stable-yard. The building was stocked with provisions shipped from London and Constantinople, as well as local purchases from the British camp near Kadikoi and the French camp at nearby Kamiesch. Seacole sold anything — “from a needle to an anchor”—to army officers and visiting sightseers. Meals were served at the Hotel, cooked by two black cooks, and the kitchen also provided outside catering.
Despite constant thefts, particularly of livestock, Seacole’s establishment prospered. Chapter XIV of Wonderful Adventures describes the meals and supplies provided to officers. They were closed at 8 pm daily and on Sundays. Seacole did some of the cooking herself: “Whenever I had a few leisure moments, I used to wash my hands, roll up my sleeves, and roll out pastry.” When called to “dispense medications,” she did so. Soyer was a frequent visitor, and praised Seacole’s offerings, noting that she offered him champagne on his first visit. 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.”
Florence Nightingale had mixed views of Seacole. She was concerned about her sale of liquor to the soldiers, who were already given a large amount in their rations. She did not, however, express her disapproval openly. To Soyer, near the time of departure, she acknowledged favourable views of Seacole, consistent with their one known meeting in Scutari. Soyer’s remarks—he knew both women—show pleasantness on both sides. Seacole told him of her encounter with Nightingale at the Barrack Hospital: “You must know, M Soyer, that Miss Nightingale is very fond of me. When I passed through Scutari, she very kindly gave me board and lodging.” When he related Seacole’s inquiries to Nightingale, she replied “with a smile: ‘I should like to see her before she leaves, as I hear she has done a deal of good for the poor soldiers.'” Nightingale, however, did not want her nurses associating with Seacole, as she wrote to her brother-in-law.
Seacole often went out to the troops as a sutler, selling her provisions near the British camp at Kadikoi, and attending to casualties brought out from the trenches around Sevastopol or from the Tchernaya valley. She was widely known to the British Army as “Mother Seacole”.
Apart from serving officers at the British Hotel, Seacole also provided catering for spectators at the battles, and spent time on Cathcart’s Hill, some 3½ miles (5.6 km) north of the British Hotel, as an observer. On one occasion, attending wounded troops under fire, she dislocated her right thumb, an injury which never healed entirely. In a dispatch written on 14 September 1855, William Howard Russell, special correspondent of The Times, wrote that she was a “warm and successful physician, who 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 blessing.” Russell also wrote that she “redeemed the name of sutler”, and another that she was “both a Miss Nightingale and a [chef]”. Seacole made a point of wearing brightly coloured, and highly conspicuous, clothing—often bright blue, or yellow, with ribbons in contrasting colours. While Lady Alicia Blackwood later recalled that Seacole had “… personally spared no pains and no exertion to visit the field of woe, and minister with her own hands such things as could comfort or alleviate the suffering of those around her; freely giving to such as could not pay …”.
In late August, Seacole was on the route to Cathcart’s Hill for the final assault on Sevastopol on 7 September 1855. French troops led the storming, but the British were beaten back. By dawn on Sunday 9 September, the city was burning out of control, and it was clear that it had fallen: the Russians retreated to fortifications to the north of the harbour. Later in the day, Seacole fulfilled a bet, and became the first British woman to enter Sevastopol after it fell. Having obtained a pass, she toured the broken town, bearing refreshments and visiting the crowded hospital by the docks, containing thousands of dead and dying Russians. Her foreign appearance led to her being stopped by French looters, but she was rescued by a passing officer. She looted some items from the city, including a church bell, an altar candle, and a three-metre (10 ft) long painting of the Madonna.
After the fall of Sevastopol, hostilities continued in a desultory fashion. The business of Seacole and Day prospered in the interim period, with the officers taking the opportunity to enjoy themselves in the quieter days. There were theatrical performances and horse-racing events for which Seacole provided catering.
Seacole was joined by a 14-year-old girl, Sarah, also known as Sally. Soyer described her as “the Egyptian beauty, Mrs Seacole’s daughter Sarah”, with blue eyes and dark hair. Nightingale alleged that Sarah was the illegitimate offspring of Seacole and Colonel Henry Bunbury. However, there is no evidence that Bunbury met Seacole, or even visited Jamaica, at a time when she would have been nursing her ailing husband. Ramdin speculates that Thomas Day could have been Sarah’s father, pointing to the unlikely coincidences of their meeting in Panama and then in England, and their unusual business partnership in Crimea.
Peace talks began in Paris in early 1856, and friendly relations opened between the Allies and the Russians, with a lively trade across the River Tchernaya. The Treaty of Paris was signed on 30 March 1856, after which the soldiers left Crimea. Seacole was in a difficult financial position, her business was full of unsalable provisions, new goods were arriving daily, and creditors were demanding payment. She attempted to sell as much as possible before the soldiers left, but she was forced to auction many expensive goods for lower-than-expected prices to the Russians who were returning to their homes. The evacuation of the Allied armies was formally completed at Balaclava on 9 July 1856, with Seacole “… conspicuous in the foreground … dressed in a plaid riding-habit …”. Seacole was one of the last to leave Crimea, returning to England “poorer than [she] left it”.
Her contribution to the welfare of the British troops in the Crimea is summed up by sociology professor Lynn McDonald:
“Mary Seacole, although never the ‘black British nurse’ she is claimed to have been, was a successful mixed-race immigrant to Britain. She led an adventurous life, and her memoir of 1857 is still a lively read. She was kind and generous. She made friends of her customers, army and navy officers, who came to her rescue with a fund when she was declared bankrupt. While her cures have been vastly exaggerated, she doubtless did what she could to ease suffering, when no effective cures existed. In epidemics pre-Crimea, she said a comforting word to the dying and closed the eyes of the dead. During the Crimean War, probably her greatest kindness was to serve hot tea and lemonade to cold, suffering soldiers awaiting transport to hospital on the wharf at Balaclava. She deserves much credit for rising to the occasion, but her tea and lemonade did not save lives, pioneer nursing or advance health care.”
Back in London, 1856–60
After the end of the war, Seacole returned to England destitute and in poor health. In the conclusion to her autobiography, she records that she “took the opportunity” to visit “yet other lands” on her return journey, although Robinson attributes this to her impecunious state requiring a roundabout trip. She arrived in August 1856, and considered setting up shop with Day in Aldershot, Hampshire, but nothing materialised. She attended a celebratory dinner for 2,000 soldiers at Royal Surrey Gardens in Kennington on 25 August 1856, at which Nightingale was chief guest of honour. Reports in The Times on 26 August and News of the World on 31 August indicate that Seacole was also fêted by the huge crowds, with two “burly” sergeants protecting her from the pressure of the crowd. However, creditors who had supplied her firm in Crimea were in pursuit. She was forced to move to 1, Tavistock Street, Covent Garden in increasingly dire financial straits. The Bankruptcy Court in Basinghall Street declared her bankrupt on 7 November 1856. Robinson speculates that Seacole’s business problems may have been caused in part by her partner, Day, who dabbled in horse trading and may have set up as an unofficial bank, cashing debts.
At about this time, Seacole began to wear military medals. These are mentioned in an account of her appearance in the bankruptcy court in November 1856. A bust by George Kelly, based on an original by Count Gleichen from around 1871, depicts her wearing four medals, three of which have been identified as the British Crimea Medal, the French Légion d’honneur and the Turkish Order of the Medjidie medal. Robinson says that one is “apparently” a Sardinian award (Sardinia having joined Britain and France in supporting Turkey against Russia in the war). The Jamaican Daily Gleaner stated in her obituary on 9 June 1881 that she had also received a Russian medal, but it has not been identified. However, no formal notice of her award exists in the London Gazette, and it seems unlikely that Seacole was formally rewarded for her actions in Crimea; rather, she may have bought miniature or “dress” medals to display her support and affection for her “sons” in the Army.
Seacole’s plight was highlighted in the British press. As a consequence a fund was set up, to which many prominent people donated money, and on 30 January 1857, she and Day were granted certificates discharging them from bankruptcy. Day left for the Antipodes to seek new opportunities, but Seacole’s funds remained low. She moved from Tavistock Street to cheaper lodgings at 14 Soho Square in early 1857, triggering a plea for subscriptions from Punch on 2 May.
Further fund-raising kept Seacole in the public eye. In May 1857 she wanted to travel to India, to minister to the wounded of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, but she was dissuaded by both the new Secretary of War, Lord Panmure, and her financial troubles. Fund-raising activities included the “Seacole Fund Grand Military Festival”, which was held at the Royal Surrey Gardens, from Monday 27 July to Thursday 30 July 1857. This successful event was supported by many military men, including Major General Lord Rokeby (who had commanded the 1st Division in Crimea) and Lord George Paget; over 1,000 artists performed, including 11 military bands and an orchestra conducted by Louis Antoine Jullien, which was attended by a crowd of circa 40,000. The one-shilling entrance charge was quintupled for the first night, and halved for the Tuesday performance. However, production costs had been high and the Royal Surrey Gardens Company was itself having financial problems. It became insolvent immediately after the festival, and as a result Seacole only received £57, one quarter of the profits from the event. When eventually the financial affairs of the ruined Company were resolved, in March 1858, the Indian Mutiny was over.
A 200-page autobiographical account of her travels was published in July 1857 by James Blackwood as Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, the first autobiography written by a black woman in Britain. Priced at one shilling and six pence (1/6) a copy, the cover bears a striking portrait of Seacole in red, yellow and black ink. Robinson speculates that she dictated the work to an editor, identified in the book only as W.J.S., who improved her grammar and orthography. In the work Seacole deals with the first 39 years of her life in one short chapter. She then expands six chapters on her few years in Panama, before using the following 12 chapters to detail her exploits in Crimea. She avoids mention of the names of her parents and precise date of birth. A short final “Conclusion” deals with her return to England, and lists supporters of her fund-raising effort, including Rokeby, Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar, the Duke of Wellington, the Duke of Newcastle, William Russell, and other prominent men in the military. The book was dedicated to Major-General Lord Rokeby, commander of the First Division; and William Howard Russell wrote as 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.”
Later life, 1860–81
Seacole had joined the Roman Catholic Church circa 1860, and returned to a Jamaica changed in her absence as Jamaica faced economic downturn. She became a prominent figure in the country. However, by 1867 she was again running short of money, and the Seacole fund was resurrected in London, with illustrious new patrons, including the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke of Cambridge, and many other senior military officers. The fund burgeoned, and Seacole was able to buy land on Duke Street in Kingston, near New Blundell Hall, where she built a bungalow as her new home, plus a larger property to rent out.
By 1870, Seacole was back in London, and Robinson speculates that she was drawn back by the prospect of rendering medical assistance in the Franco-Prussian War. It seems likely that she approached Sir Harry Verney (the husband of Florence Nightingale’s sister Parthenope) Member of Parliament for Buckingham who was closely involved in the British National Society for the Relief of the Sick and Wounded. It was at this time Nightingale wrote her letter to Verney insinuating that Seacole had kept a “bad house” in Crimea, and was responsible for “much drunkenness and improper conduct”.
In London, Seacole joined the periphery of the royal circle. Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg (a nephew of Queen Victoria; as a young Lieutenant he had been one of Seacole’s customers in Crimea) carved a marble bust of her in 1871 that was exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1872. Seacole also became personal masseuse to the Princess of Wales who suffered with white leg and rheumatism.
Seacole died in 1881 at her home in Paddington, London, the cause of death was noted as “apoplexy”. She left an estate valued at over £2,500. After some specific legacies, many of exactly 19 guineas, the main beneficiary of her will was her sister, Louisa. Lord Rokeby, Colonel Hussey Fane Keane, and Count Gleichen (three trustees of her Fund) were each left £50; Count Gleichen also received a diamond ring, said to have been given to Seacole’s late husband by Lord Nelson. A short obituary was published in The Times on 21 May 1881. She was buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, Harrow Road, Kensal Green, London.
While well-known at the end of her life, Seacole rapidly faded from public memory. Her work in Crimea was overshadowed by Florence Nightingale’s for many years. However, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in her and efforts to properly acknowledge her achievements. Seacole has become a symbol of racial attitudes and social injustices in Britain during that period. She was quoted as an example of “hidden” black history in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, like Olaudah Equiano: “See, here is Mary Seacole, who did as much in the Crimea as another magic-lamping lady, but, being dark, could scarce be seen for the flame of Florence’s candle.”
She has been better remembered in the Caribbean, where she was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991. The headquarters of the Jamaican General Trained Nurses’ Association was christened “Mary Seacole House” in 1954, followed quickly by the naming of a hall of residence of the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica. A ward at Kingston Public Hospital was also named in her memory. Her grave was rediscovered in 1973; a service of reconsecration was held on 20 November 1973, and her impressive gravestone was also restored by the British Commonwealth Nurses’ War Memorial Fund and the Lignum Vitae Club. The centenary of her death was celebrated with a memorial service on 14 May 1981. An English Heritage blue plaque was erected by the Greater London Council at her residence in 157 George Street, Westminster, on 9 March 1985, but it was removed in 1998 before the site was redeveloped. A “green plaque” was unveiled at 147 George Street, in Westminster, on 11 October 2005. However, another blue plaque has since been positioned at another residence, in 14 Soho Square, where she lived in 1857.
By the 21st century, Seacole was much more prominent. Several buildings and entities, mainly connected with health care, were named after her. In 2005, Boris Johnson (now Mayor of London, then editor of The Spectator) wrote of learning about Seacole from his daughter’s school pageant and speculated: “I find myself facing the grim possibility that it was my own education that was blinkered.” In 2007 Seacole was introduced into the National Curriculum, and her life story is taught at many primary schools in the UK alongside that of Florence Nightingale.
She was voted into first place in an online poll of 100 Great Black Britons in 2004. The portrait identified as Seacole in 2005 was used for one of ten first-class stamps showing important Britons, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the National Portrait Gallery.
British buildings and organisations now commemorate her by name. One of the first was the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice at Thames Valley University, which created the NHS Specialist Library for Ethnicity and Health, a web-based collection of research-based evidence and good practice information relating to the health needs of minority ethnic groups, and other resources relevant to multi-cultural health care. There is another Mary Seacole Research Centre, this one at De Montfort University in Leicester, and a problem-based learning room at St George’s, University of London is named after her. Brunel University in West London houses its School of Health Sciences and Social Care in the Mary Seacole Building. New buildings at the University of Salford and Birmingham City University bear her name, as does part of the new headquarters of the Home Office at 2 Marsham Street. There is a Mary Seacole ward in the Douglas Bader Centre in Roehampton.
An annual prize to recognise and develop leadership in nurses, midwives and health visitors in the National Health Service was named Seacole, to “acknowledge her achievements”. An exhibition to celebrate the bicentenary of her birth opened at the Florence Nightingale Museum in London in March 2005. Originally scheduled to last for a few months, the exhibition was so popular that it was extended to March 2007.
A campaign to erect a statue of Seacole in London was launched on 24 November 2003, chaired by Clive Soley, Baron Soley. The design of the sculpture, which is planned to be erected in the grounds of St. Thomas’ Hospital, was announced on 18 June 2009. There is significant opposition to the siting of the statue. There is a feature film being made of her life by Seacole Pictures. A short animation about Mary Seacole was adapted from a book entitled Mother Seacole, published in 2005 as part of the bicentenary celebrations. Seacole is featured in BBC/CBBC’s Horrible Histories, where she is portrayed by Dominique Moore.
Seacole’s recognition has provoked a reaction. It has been argued that she has been promoted at the expense of Florence Nightingale, and in an attempt to promote multiculturalism. Professor Lynn McDonald has written that “…support for Seacole has been used to attack Nightingale’s reputation as a pioneer in public health and nursing.” There is opposition to the proposed siting of a statue of Mary Seacole at St Thomas’ Hospital on the grounds that she had no connection with this institution, whereas Florence Nightingale did. Dr Sean Lang has stated that she “does not qualify as a mainstream figure in the history of nursing”.
Seacole’s name appears in an appendix to the Key Stage 2 National Curriculum, as an example of a significant Victorian historical figure. There is no requirement that teachers include Seacole in their lessons. At the end of 2012 it was reported that Mary Seacole was to be removed from the National Curriculum. Opposing this Greg Jenner, historical consultant to Horrible Histories, has stated that while her medical achievements have been exaggerated, removing Seacole from the curriculum would be a mistake. While Peter Hitchens has argued that Seacole’s accomplishments have been exaggerated because anybody who put a contrary view was afraid to be accused of racism, both Jenner and Hugh Muir have asserted that this is not the case. Susan Sheridan has argued that the leaked proposal to remove Seacole from the National Curriculum is part of “a concentration solely on large-scale political and military history and a fundamental shift away from social history.” In The Daily Telegraph, Cathy Newman argues that Michael Gove’s plans for the new history curriculum “could mean the only women children learn anything about will be queens”.
In January 2013 Operation Black Vote launched a petition to request Education Secretary Michael Gove to drop neither her nor Oloudah Equiano from the National Curriculum Rev. Jesse Jackson and others wrote a letter to The Times protesting against the mooted removal of Mary Seacole from the National Curriculum. This was declared successful on the 8th February, 2013, after approximately 35,000 signatures forced Michael Gove to concede.