From the depths of historical obscurity, Mary Seacole has risen to great prominence in recent years. With fame often comes controversy, and there have been several attempts to play down the influence of Mrs Seacole’s endeavours. Certainly her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, was the first to be published by a black woman in Britain, an achievement in itself. However, this is a woman of undoubted resilience and determination, unique at a time when women had few rights.
Today we would consider Mary to be mixed race. She called herself Creole and was proud of her Scottish heritage. She was born as Mary Grant in Kingston, Jamaica, her father a soldier and her mother the keeper of a boarding-house. Her mother practised Creole medicine – Mary calls her a ‘doctress’- and passed on her knowledge to her daughter once she was old enough. Mary travelled to London as a young woman (coyly, she refuses to give any dates in case they give away her age) and writes the following of her first trip:
Strangely enough, some of the most vivid of my recollections are the efforts of the London street-boys to poke fun at my and my companion’s complexion. I am only a little brown – a few shades duskier than the brunettes whom you all admire so much; but my companion was very dark, and a fair (if I can apply the term to her) subject for their rude wit.
That wasn’t enough to put Mary off and she spent a good amount of time in London, also visiting Haiti and Cuba on her travels. She married Edwin Seacole in 1836 and the pair set up a store together. Edwin suffered from poor health and Mary nursed him as best she could but he died in 1844. She describes this as her first great trouble and talks of the dull stupor of despair that came over her at this time.
In 1850, Mary’s brother moved to Cruces in Panama. When Mary visited him the following year she witnessed an outbreak of cholera and was on hand to help treat the victims, charging those who could afford her services but nursing the poor for free. There were medical professionals available and so Mary was their only option. The trust placed in her at this time likely gave her the confidence for her next pursuit.
The Crimean War began in late 1853 and Mary decided that she should volunteer as a nurse. Florence Nightingale had already been despatched with a detachment of nurses, and when Mary arrived in London and applied to the War Office she was turned away. Even today, the thought of embarking on such an endeavour as Mary’s would take some courage and determination. She used her own resources to establish the ‘British Hotel’ near Balaclava with a little help from her acquaintance Thomas Day. She did meet with Florence Nightingale at her hospital on her way to Balaclava and reports a friendly encounter. Her hotel opened in March 1855. She provided catering, supplies and accommodation there as well as attending casualties. She may not have advanced healthcare, true, but she gave comfort and support to those who needed it and left Crimea in 1856 with next to nothing, having given all that she had.
Back in London and now destitute, Mary’s plight was taken up by the British press and fund set up which helped her and Day free themselves from bankruptcy and she went back to Jamaica in 1860. Further fund-raising in 1867 (patrons included the sons of Queen Victoria) helped Mary to buy property in London and she returned to these shores permanently until her death in 1881.
On 30th June 2016 a statue honouring Mary was unveiled in the garden of St Thomas’ Hospital, London. Over a decade of fundraising in conjunction with a donation of £240,000 courtesy of the government. The statue has not been without controversy: supporters of Nightingale have claimed that she wasn’t a proper nurse and therefore should not be honoured as such. Less savoury complaints have focused on Mary’s identification as ‘Creole’ and stated that since she didn’t call herself black then she should not be held up as a black icon.
It really does not matter what people think of Mary’s statue. Just as she was in life, her likeness stands opposite the Houses of Parliament today, striding onwards.