The Life of Mary Seacole
Seacole throughout her life was a businesswoman, mainly in the provision of food. She owned property (her own boarding house in Kingston and later her “hotel” in Panama) and owned stocks--in fact it was business regarding her gold speculations that took her to Britain in 1854 at the time the Crimean War started. Most of her businesses were successful, but two failed (the British Hotel in the Crimea and her store in Aldershot after the war). Her Panama ventures were profitable enough to finance her Crimea trip (and the gold investments).
In 1850 she joined her brother, who had established "a considerable store and hotel" in Panama, to cater to men setting out to the California gold rush. Before leaving she had clothing and foods made for sale: "My house was full for weeks of tailors, making up rough coats, trousers, etc., and sempstresses cutting out and making shirts....my kitchen was filled with busy people manufacturing preserves, guava jelly and other delicacies," and she invested "a considerable sum...in the purchase of preserved meats, vegetables and eggs" (WA 9).
In Cruces, Central America, Seacole first assisted her brother with his hotel, then opened her own “British Hotel,” which was, like that in the Crimea, a restaurant and store, not a hotel. Briefly she ran a hotel for women only there (described in Chapters 3 and 5).That Seacole was a businesswoman first and last is clear in the remarks of Alexis Soyer, the reform-minded chef when he met her at the British Hotel in May 1855, when she was still getting it set up. The two got along well--Seacole called him her “son".
No sooner had we entered than the old lady expressed her desire to consult me about what she should do to make money in her new speculation, in which she had embarked a large capital, pointing to two iron houses in course of construction on the other side of the road. She told me that her intention was to have beds there for visitors, which I persuaded her not to do, saying ”all the visitors--and they are few in number--sleep on board the vessels in the harbour, and the officers under canvass in the camp. Lay in a good stock of hams, wines, spirits, ale and porter, sauces, pickles and a few preserves and dry vegetables--in short anything which will not spoil by keeping.” (Alexis Soyer, A Culinary Campaign Southover Press 1995 143).
War correspondent W.H. Russell is often quoted by the Seacole Campaign for his strong support for Seacole. Russell was a customer and friend of Seacole during the Crimean War, and helped in the fund raising for her afterwards. He wrote a moving tribute to her, published in the Times 11 April 1857, and another one she used as a preface to Wonderful Adventures, which ends with:
I have witnesed her devotion and her courage; I have already borne testimony to her sevices to all who needed them. She is the first who has redeemed the name of “sutler” from the suspicion of worthlessness, mercenary baseness and plunder, and I trust that England will not forget one who 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.
Quotations from Russell, however, by current Seacole supporters, omit all mention of her occupation as “sutler” or caterer, to note only her services to soldiers. Russell’s support, he made clear, was to help his friend get started up in another business, (see the Times 11 April 1857), not as a recognition of her bravery.
The fundraising done for Seacole immediately after the war, in her bankruptcy, similarly makes her business interests central. Lord Rokeby’s offer of help was to enable her to re-establish herself by opening a store in Aldershot. As his letter to the Times stated in inviting contributions, it was “to enable her to recommence the business to which she is accustomed” (letter to the Editor, Times 25 November 1856:6f). This business, however, also failed.
In her Wonderful Adventures Seacole set out the various occupations she pursued over her lifetime. Her major occupation was running a boarding house, which she learned from assisting her mother at her boarding house in Kingston (which was not a home for invalids, as some sources state). Still young, Seacole spent two years (not specified) in England with a stock of West Indian preserves and pickles for sale. Back in Jamaica, after she married in 1836, she opened a store with her husband in Black River. When travelling in the Bahamas she obtained shells and shell work, which she sold back in Jamaica (all these are described in Chapter 1).
From March 1855 to roughly April 1856 she ran, with her business partner, Thomas Day, the British Hotel, near Balaclava, which was effectively a restaurant and store for officers, with limited access for “the soldiery” to a canteen (details of the British Hotel are in Chapter 12, plus “My Customers” in Chapter 14, and further in Chapters 18 and 19).
In London, after the war, Seacole was busy with bankruptcy proceedings (these are detailed in numerous short articles in the Times). With her business partner she opened a store in Aldershot, a major British Army base, but it failed (see Conclusion). She returned to Jamaica, but her occupation there is not known. At no time did she ever work in a hospital, or ever claim to have done so.
Seacole’s friends in England raised a significant sum of money for her to support her in her old age. She is listed in the Census of 1871 as "annuitant" and in1881 as being of “independent” means.