Statue of Mary Seacole / Wikimedia Commons
Mary Seacole is hailed for her role in caring for sick and wounded British servicemen during the Crimean War. On hearing of the plight of soldiers in the Crimea, she made her way independently to help “nurse her sons suffering from cholera, diarrhoea and a host of lesser ills”, despite being refused passage by the Government at the time.
By Julia Nurse / 10.24.2016
Web Content Officer
The only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Yet she was largely forgotten in the last century. With no ‘official’ appointments to her name, little original material exists in the archives. She ‘re-emerged’ when she topped a survey for ‘the greatest Black Briton’, prompting a flurry of media interest in her story, including a documentary in 2005.
Much of what is known about her comes from her very popular autobiography ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands‘ was published in 1857. In the book, Seacole briefly skims the first 39 years of her life in the first short chapter, but the majority of the book is dedicated to her work in the Crimea. She describes herself as “a motherly yellow woman” and “one of the very women they most wanted, experienced and fond of the work”.
Seacole’s mother was from a class known as the ‘Free Coloureds’ in Jamaica – her marriage to a Scottish Lieutenant in the British army made Mary a ‘mulatto’ or ‘quadroon’ (of ¼ black descent)- both archaic terms long since confined to history. For Seacole, this background ensured her “relatively high status in the colonial social hierarchy” in Jamaica (Paravisini-Gibert, 2014).
Seacole’s mother was a “doctress”, a healer who used traditional Caribbean and African herbal remedies, in Kingston, Jamaica, and provided Seacole with traditional nursing skills that she put to good use occasionally assisting at the local British Army hospital. She looked to the natural environment for simple curative solutions to ailments she encountered as she described in her ‘Adventures’: “Simple remedies which are available for the terrible diseases by which foreigners are attacked (can be) found growing under the same circumstances which produce the ills they minister to. So true is it, that beside the nettle ever grows the cure for the sting”.
Mary Seacole by Albert Charles Challen, oil on panel, 1869 Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, London and Wikimedia Commons.
Simply making the patient comfortable and easing the symptoms of common war complaints with her traditional remedies appeared to be the essence of Seacole’s nursing methods. Poultices were prescribed to warm and stimulate (particularly in the heart area), mercury rubs to disinfect, emetics to purge and acetate, or ‘sugars of lead’, to irritate the stomach to life. As in modern day diarrhoea treatments, Seacole prescribed water boiled with cinnammon for thirsty patients or otherwise fortified with liquids.
Though opium – “God’s own medicine” – was a standard within medicine at the time, Seacole rarely used it, arguing that “its effect is to incapacitate the system from making any exertion, and it lulls the patient into a sleep which is often the sleep of death” (p.53 Mary Seacole, J. Robinson, 2005).
Mary concludes her autobiography with an account about the fundraising efforts to enable her return to England in 1857 after she was left penniless following the closure of her ‘hotel’ for the British wounded. The press of the day acknowledged her achievements, as this extract from a poem published about Seacole shows:
“She gave her aid to all in need
To hungry, sick and cold
Open hand and heart, ready to give
Kind words, and acts, and gold
And now the good soul is “in a hole”
What soldier in all -the land
To set her on her feet again
Won’t give a helping hand?”
‘Punch Magazine’ 6 December 1856
The fact that her portrait was painted in 1869 and she was photographed for a carte de visit in 1877 offers further proof of her celebrity. Indeed, articles about her actions in the Crimean War were published in the ‘London Times’ and the ‘Illustrated London News’ around the same time. Her death in 1881 prompted tributes from the ‘Times’ and the ‘Manchester Guardian’, praising her personal courage and contribution to the Crimean campaign. Yet, as those who had known her work passed away, the memory of Seacole faded.
Seacole has been compared to her contemporary, Florence Nightingale though the two had quite different experiences as nurses. Nightingale was dispatched to the Crimea with full government support and worked from a hospital miles from the front line. Seacole on the other hand was refused safe passage when she volunteered her services and operated from a store at Zebra vicarage, an iron storehouse with wooden sheds and outlying tributaries, close to the railway and battlefield.
Sketches of Zebra Vicarage featuring “Mrs Seacole’s hut” from ‘A Narrative of Personal Experiences & Impressions During a Residence on the Bosphorus Throughout the Crimean War‘ by Lady Alicia Blackwood.
From this abode, Seacole offered much-needed care and sustenance. Lady Alicia Blackwood, who visited Zebra vicarage during the war recalled that Mary Seacole “personally spared on pains and no exertion to visit the field of woe, and minister with her own hands such things as could comfort or alleviate the sufferings of those around her”.
According to testimonies in ‘Wonderful Adventures’ her bottled cure for jaundice proved a “a capital prescription”. She claimed “There was so great a demand for it, that I kept it mixed in a large pan, ready to ladle it out to the scores of applicants who came for it”. However, as Lynne Macdonald points out, “The medical treatment she gave to soldiers is easily exaggerated – her patients were all relatively healthy walk-ins. The most serious cases went to the general hospitals, the less serious to the regimental hospitals”.
Exaggerated cures or not, her achievements are extraordinary. As Professor Elizabeth Anionwu, who led a 12 year campaign for a statue of Seacole, stated: “People should know about Mary Seacole because she was a nurse even before we had nurses”. The 10ft bronze statue of Seacole outside St Thomas’s hospital in London opposite the Houses of Parliament came to fruition in 2016. It is thanks to such campaigns that Seacole’s reputation has been reclaimed. She has even entered digital history with a Google doodle of her to mark Black History Month this year, perhaps the ultimate 21st century mark of recognition.