Who Was Mary Seacole?
Mary Jane Grant was born on 23 November,1805 in Kingston, Jamaica. She was of mixed-race, with a Creole, or mixed-race mother, and a Scottish, white, soldier father. While she is typically called “black,” she never used the word to describe herself: she was the “yellow doctress” or “yellow woman,” to denote her colour, three quarters white: “I am only a little brown— a few shades duskier than the brunettes whom you all admire so much” (Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 4). Like prosperous white Jamaicans, Seacole hired blacks. She travelled with a black maid, Mary, a black porter, Mac,” and had “two good-for-nothing black cooks” (41) working for her in the Crimea.
Mary Seacole’s own memoir, written post-Crimea to make money, is the main source used here on her life. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857, also has an Introduction by W.H. Russell, the Times war correspondent and a customer of her business. The book has since appeared in five editions, with introductions of varying amounts of information and misinformation. The title page gives an editor’s initials, W.J.S., identified by biographer Jane Robinson as W.J. Stewart. It is likely that the letters quoted in the book are not genuine. That is, researchers who have looked, have not been able to find any source for them.
Her Personal Life: Mary Jane Grant married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole on 10 November 1836, and was called “Mrs Seacole” for the rest of her life. The two ran a store together in Black River, Jamaica. Mr Seacole was sickly, however. A good wife, she looked after him until his death in 1844, when she returned to Kingston. Her mother also died that year.
Her Businesses: The young Mary Grant liked to travel, making her living in the process. She spent two years in England in the 1820s selling pickles and preserves. On her return to Kingston after her husband’s death, she took over the running of her mother’s boarding house, in effect, a small hotel. Their customers were mainly British officers and their wives.
In 1850 Mrs Seacole went to Panama, where her brother had established a considerable store. She established her own store to serve prospectors going overland to the California Gold Rush. There was no doctor in the town, so Mrs Seacole assisted those who were ill.
Mrs Seacole did well in Panama and made investments in gold with her profits. She earned enough money to live on her savings for several years, notably to start her business, with a relative of her late husband, in the Crimea. That she embarked on after a couple of months attempting to realize profits on her gold investments, to no avail, and her attempt to join the nurses already sent out.
Was Seacole Rejected as a Nurse? One of the most common errors in circulation about Mrs Seacole is that she was rejected for service as a nurse in the Crimean War. In her memoir, Chapter VIII she described dropping into various offices to seek a job, short of submitting the required application (they are available at the U.K. Public Archives, Kew). She did not say when she started, but that she was motivated to go to the Crimea when she learned of the terrible conditions there on the sinking of a major supply ship at Balaclava Harbour. That was the Prince, sunk on November 14, 1854, with winter gear—blankets, great coats, supplies News of the sinking first appeared in London on November 30, in a Times story.
The crucial point is that Mrs Seacole only began to look for a nurse’s post AFTER the nurses had left for the war! Nightingale and her team had left on October 21, 1854. The second group of nurses left on December 2, 1854. When Mrs Seacole visited the Herbert home in Belgrave Sq., where applicants were interviewed and they had their last briefing before departure, she was too late. They had gone. It makes no sense to claim rejection for a position if you only apply for it after all the successful applicants have left!
Her Crimean War Business: Mrs Seacole’s intention was to duplicate her business in Panama, the “British Hotel,” but on arrival she found out that overnight stays were not needed, so that, while she still called the business the “British Hotel,” it was a store, restaurant, bar and catering service, in several huts, including two as living quarters for Mrs Seacole and her business partner.
While Seacole is still commonly described as providing “sustenance” and nursing care to soldiers, her book makes it clear that she was running a for-profit business. Soldiers could not have afforded her prices, and officers and soldiers did not mix socially then, nor do they now.
There was no “clinic” or hospital ward upstairs—it was a temporary hut!! No overnight stays, and the business closed on Sundays—hardly what a hospital does.
Her Fame from the Crimean War: Seacole’s fame stems from her time in the Crimea, although she only arrived there in the spring of 1855, hence missing the brutal first winter, and notably the first three, major battles of the war: Alma, Balaclava and Inkermann, September-November 1854. She was present for three minor battles later, in 1855. She assisted on the battlefield after selling sandwiches and wine to spectators. Yes, spectators, such as officers’ wives and war correspondents, who could sit on a hill and watch. Battles then were short, only a few hours long. Spectators often went onto the battlefield to give assistance when the fighting was over.
Her voluntary Work in the Crimea: On her arrival at Balaclava, before her business opened, Mrs Seacole took hot tea and cakes (101) to soldiers on the dock waiting transport to the general hospitals in Turkey, hospitals where Nightingale and her nurses worked.
Later, when her business was in operation, Seacole took donated magazines to patients–railway workers– at the Land Transport Corps hospital near it, and undoubtedly cheered them up. A Punch Magazine cartoon shows her handing out magazines in award, a cartoon subsequently touched up to show her nursing a wounded soldier, not giving out magazines!
Her book records that she had vast numbers of Christmas puddings and mince pies made for sale, and also that, on New Year’s Day, 1856, she took plum puddings and mince pies to the Land Transport Corps Hospital.
The Nightingale Connection: Many authors like to compare Seacole and Nightingale’s life and work, as if they were similar. They only met for about 5 minutes, when Mrs Seacole was visiting the Scutari Barrack Hospital, en route to the Crimea to join her business partner and start their business. Mrs Seacole recorded the exchange, which took place after she asked to see Nightingale. Said Nightingale:
“Mrs Seacole–anything that we can do for you? If it lies in my power, I shall be very happy.” So I tell her of my dread of the night journey by caique, and the improbability of my finding the “Hollander” [the ship she came on] in the dark, and with some diffidence, threw myself upon the hospitality of Scutari, offering to nurse the sick for the night. Now unfortunately, for many reasons, room even for one in Scutari Hospital was at that time no easy matter to find, but at last a bed was discovered to be unoccupied at the hospital washerwomen’s quarters.” (Wonderful Adventures, 91).
Of course there was no room for a traveller: the Scutari Barrack Hospital was then the largest, and most over-crowded, hospital in the world!
The Bankruptcy: Seacole and her partner were forced into bankruptcy at the end of the war. The last battle took place in September 1855, but the peace treaty was not signed until March 1856. The troops and their officers stayed while the negotiations were going on. Officers took advantage of her restaurant and catering, held their own dinner parties and purchased hampers from her for picnics. “My restaurant was always full,” she recorded” (178).
The two business partners had purchased fresh supplies, at considerable cost, but when the peace treaty was signed the army left abruptly and they could not sell their newly received goods. Seacole recorded smashing bottles of red wine, rather than let them fall into the hands of the Russians when they left.
Neither Seacole nor her business partner ever complained—they had made a business decision that turned out badly. Times coverage of the bankruptcy proceedings was flattering.
The Seacole Fund: On her business going bankrupt, Mrs Seacole’s officer friends came to her rescue. They raised a fund for her, and, when that proved not to be adequate, they raised a larger one later, on which she was able to retire in comfort. She returned to Jamaica for a time, but spent most of her retirement years in England.
Connection with Nursing and Hospitals: Despite frequent statements to the contrary, the simple fact is that Mrs Seacole never worked a day in a hospital in any country at any time, and never claimed to. Three chapters of her book describe how her business operated, with the food and drink served.
Pre-Crimea, in Jamaica, she said in her memoir that she was asked to nurse during a yellow fever epidemic at the army’s Up-Park Camp, about a mile from Kingston. She visited it but concluded that there was little that she could do, and so she went back to her boarding house in the city–there were guests there who needed care and there were no hospitals.
Mrs Seacole as a “Doctress,” Herbalist
Seacole described learning traditional herbal preparations from her mother. She sold them—it was part of her various businesses. However, she also added toxic chemicals, “sugar of lead,” the common name for “acetate of lead” or plombis acetas, and calomel, a mercury compound. Both dehydrate the patient. Used for bowel patients, who need rehydration, both are mistakes. Calomel is a purgative, given for constipation; lead acetate is an emetic. Seacole frankly acknowledged “lamentable blunders” in her preparations (31), which would certainly apply to both lead and mercury—they would be counter-productive.
Did Seacole win any medals? No. Nor did she claim to in her book, nor did she wear any in the picture of her on the cover. She DID wear medals, borrowed or given to her perhaps, post-Crimea, back in London. Only the military were awarded medals, thus no women got them. She was painted and photographed wearing medals—but they were not hers.
The Crimea medal, the one she is most frequently said to have won, was a SERVICE medal, given to all the soldiers who were present at the battles in question; it was not, like the Victoria Cross, a medal for bravery. The Crimea Medal had four bars on it to represent Alma, Balaclava, Inkermann, and the siege of Sebastopol. The fundraising campaign for the Seacole statue showed that medal—as if she had won it—but Mrs Seacole was not even in the Crimea when the first three battles took place, and she missed half the siege.
It was not then illegal to wear another person’s medals, but it was made illegal many years later. Walking around in London with a British Crimea medal made her recognizable.
Honours: Mrs Seacole was honoured posthumously in 1990 in her home country with the Jamaican Order of Merit. In 2003, in a poll taken in the United Kingdom, she was voted the top “Black Briton.” In her lifetime, she was honoured by having a terra cotta bust made of her. An oil painting of her by Charles Challen is at the National Portrait Gallery.
Seacole’s Celebrity: Mrs Seacole was undoubtedly a celebrity on her return from the Crimean War. In August 1856, several gala evenings were held in her honour, in Surrey Gardens, London, attended by thousands. She was cheered. Newspapers continued to report on her comings and goings. She was spotted visiting Panama in 1863.On one trip, the story about called her “Lady Seacole.” Numerous examples of he celebrity are given in Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth, by Lynn McDonald, 2014.
In August 1866, a Times story noted that she donated 100 boxes of pills and 100 bottles, both of unspecified ingredients, to the Lord Mayor’s Cholera Fund.
Her Death: Mrs Seacole died in London in 1881. She had presumably converted to Roman Catholicism at some point, for she requested burial at a Catholic cemetery, and was buried at one, Kensal Rise, where her gravesite is well marked. Her will shows that she was prosperous at her death; there were numerous bequests of money, two houses in Jamaica, and numerous items, such as jewellery and china, but there was no mention of medals.