The available sources on Mary Seacole are woefully defective, full of factual errors and gross exaggerations. For teachers who want to provide a fair and accurate picture of her life, herewith a brief backgrounder, based on her own excellent memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, 1857, and sources from the time.
Recent sources, both web and print, are suspect. Even the BBC, normally considered a reliable source, is notorious for its use of political propaganda, rather than objective fact. All of the available children’s books contain major misrepresentations–see the 3 covers which portray Seacole as a uniformed nurse.
Mary Jane Grant was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her Creole mother (WA pp. 1-2) ran a boarding house, or small hotel, largely for British army and navy officers and their wives. Mrs Grant called herself a “doctress” for her use of traditional herbal remedies, a sideline to her boarding house business.
Her father was a Scottish soldier (WA p. 1) but she tells us virtually nothing else about him.
She learned herbals from her mother, an “admirable doctress,” then used the term “doctress” for herself. She never called herself a “nurse,” a term she reserved for Florence Nightingale and her nurses. She did use “doctress, nurse and mother” (WA p. 124)
Mary Grant liked to took up travel. She made two trips to England when young, then visited Cuba, the Bahamas and Haiti (p. 5).
In 1836 she married an Englishman, Edwin Horatio Seacole, and briefly ran a store with him in Black River, Jamaica. He, however, was sickly and died in 1844. She kept in touch with his family in England. She did not remarry.
She lived for several years in Panama, initially helping her brother with his hotel business, then starting her own store and restaurant to outfit men going (overland) to the California Gold Rush.
There was a cholera epidemic in Panama when she was there, and no doctor or hospital. She did what she could to help, claiming some, but not many, successes (Chapter 4). She also admitted to making “lamentable blunders” in her remedies (p. 31). She was made to “shudder,” later, when she saw what she had used, which anyone should who used lead or mercury on any patient–they are toxic in any quantity. Further, her non-toxic ingredients were wrong–emetics and purgatives–for they dehydrate, when hydration is what is needed. The “oral rehydration therapy” now used, however, was only discovered in the 1960s.
Mrs Seacole also tried to help in a yellow fever epidemic in Kingston in 1853, but found that she could not–it was a particularly deadly epidemic and she could do little but speak kind words to the victims before they died (Chapter 7). She did not claim successes, as is frequently, incorrectly, claimed.
Mrs Seacole’s race requires some explanation. She described herself as “Creole,” (pp. 1-2) meaning mixed race. She was three quarters white, had a white husband, white business partner and an exclusively white clientele. She did not identify as a black or African. She used the terms “yellow” and “brunette” (pp. 4, 27, 34, 78-79) to indicate her fair complexion. As a prosperous mixed-race Jamaican, she hired blacks. She travelled with two black servants, Mac and Mary. Her references to blacks were not always nice, as in “my good-for-nothing black cooks” (p. 141).
While it is often said that Mrs Seacole went to London to volunteer for the Crimean War as soon as it broke out, in fact she went back to Panama in 1854 to wind up her business (p. 73). She also did some travelling and even gold prospecting while there. She invested in gold stocks (p. 74).
It was because of her unprofitable gold stocks that she made that trip to London in autumn 1854. She arrived just after the first battle of the Crimean War, the Alma, 20 September. She then spent roughly two months attending (unsuccessfully) to her gold stocks.
In her memoir, she was very specific–it was not until after the sinking of a major supply ship that she gave up on her gold investments and sought to go to the war as a nurse (p. 74). The storm was on November 14, 1854, but news of it did not come out in English newspapers until November 30 (“The Gale in the Black Sea,” Times 7A). Nightingale and her team had already left, as Seacole knew (p. 78). She hoped to join the second group, but failed to.
In fact, Mrs Seacole never submitted the required written application with references (they can be seen at the U.K. National Archives, Kew). Nor did she go to the office specified for applicants who lacked hospital experience: St John’s House, Queen’s Square. This was the address of the Anglican nursing order that organized (minimal) hospital experience for women who had not done such work before, as Seacole had not (Letter of Sidney Herbert, “Nurses for the Wounded,” Times 24 October 1854 9A).
Mrs Seacole instead dropped into a number of other offices that did not do the hiring (WA pp. 77-79). Thus it is not clear if she was the victim of racial discrimination, as she thought possible, for not being hired. She was also old for a nurse’s job.
The Crimean War
Mrs Seacole arrived in the Crimea in the spring of 1855, after making a quick stop at Scutari, where she met Florence Nightingale at her Barrack Hospital (pp. 89-91). Contrary to much misinformation in circulation, she never asked Nightingale for a job as a nurse, but merely for a bed for the night, as she was leaving the next day for the Crimea. Nightingale found one for her. Mrs Seacole described their brief encounter, probably no more than 5 minutes, in amicable terms: “What do you want, Mrs Seacole? Anything I can do for you? If it lies in my power, I shall be very happy” (p. 91). The BBC’s “Horrible Histories” says otherwise, that Nightingale turned her down four times. However, BBC Trustees rules that this “educational” video was “materially inaccurate.” Teachers, beware!
Mrs Seacole and her partner, Thomas Day, a relative of her late husband, had planned to set up a hotel in the Crimea, to be a “mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers” (p. 81), but instead confined its services to those of a restaurant, bar, store, takeaway and catering service for officers. Soldiers were restricted to a “canteen” (p. 114). Officers and soldiers mixed socially not at all in those days.
Three chapters in Wonderful Adventures (13-14 and 18) go to describing the fine meals, drinks, wines, pastries and delicacies available for officers to buy. There is a recipe for her favourite claret cup (p. 151).
Mrs Seacole missed the first three battles of the war, as she was en route to London for the first, then busy there on her gold stocks for the next two. She was present for three later battles, when she went out with wine and sandwiches to sell to spectators. Post-battle, she did gave first aid assistance on the battlefield, to officers or men as needed. She was greatly appreciated for her kindness and help. However, it is an exaggeration to call her a “battlefield nurse,” as these three occasions amounted to mere hours in each case, and most of her time was given to catering. She also described taking souvenir loot from the battlefield, and accepted “trophies” stolen by French soldiers from Russian churches (pp. 167 and 174).
In the night of 8-9 September 1855 the Russians walked out of Sebastopol and lit the town on fire–many buildings had already been destroyed by British and French bombardments. Mrs Seacole was early to visit the next day. Some French women, “vivandières” set up businesses in Sebastopol (p. 177), but Mrs Seacole did not. She continued to run her hut near Balaclava, which did a lucrative trade for the next months after the Russians left: “My restaurant was always full” (p. 178).
The peace treaty was signed on March 30, and the troops began to be sent home as soon as possible after that. The business of Seacole and Day was ruined–they had overstocked expecting the peace negotiations to last longer. Mrs Seacole told of taking a hammer to cases of wine, to prevent the Russians from getting them for free (p. 196). On return to England, Seacole and Day promptly sought bankruptcy protection, and got it.
Seacole published her famous book, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands in 1857 largely as a money-making venture. It sold well. Benefit events were held also in 1857 in her honour. These were well attended, but did not realize much profit. She returned to Jamaica for some years, 1859-65.
In the post-war period her portrait was painted (now at the National Portrait Gallery) and a bust sculpted of her by a relative of the queen, Count Gleichen, who had served in the Crimea as a naval officer. Both the portrait and bust show her wearing medals that were never awarded to her. A later photograph for a visitor’s card similarly shows her wearing medals not her own. It was not then illegal to wear another person’s medals (since the Army Act of 1955 it has been a criminal offence). It is noteworthy that Seacole never claimed in her memoir to have won any medals, nor does her portrait on the front cover show any.
The “medal-winning heroine” view of Mrs Seacole is much in evidence, but the medals are pure fiction. She was plucky, no doubt, but that she risked her life on the battlefield is an exaggeration.
In 1867, Mrs Seacole’s officer friends raised a substantial sum for her, which allowed her to live her remaining years in comfort. The press treated her as a minor celebrity. References to her routinely show both respect and affection. She died in 1881 in London.
The accurate story of Mary Seacole tells of a kind, generous, resourceful, well-liked woman. Her life deserves celebration. However, she is now credited with the work that Florence Nightingale did, in actually nursing ordinary soldiers, and working assiduously to improve conditions for them, especially to provide nutritious food and clean bedding and clothing. It was Nightingale who founded the first nurse training school in the world, after the Crimean War. Mrs Seacole was a kind and decent businesswoman, who did voluntary work when she saw it would be helpful. To call her a “nurse,” and even a “pioneer nurse,” is quite wrong. That was Nightingale’s work.
School children deserve to be given fair and accurate information on the people taught them, especially if they are treated as models to be emulated. Teachers who want to meet a decent standard must be careful of the resources they use. For further examples of misinformation, see www.maryseacole.info and Lynn McDonald, Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth, 2014 (Toronto: Iguana).
Appendix: Misleading images of Seacole