“I am not ashamed to confess that I love to be of service to those who need a woman’s help. And wherever the need arises—on whatever distant shore—I ask no greater or higher privilege than to minister to it.”
Mary Jane Seacole (1805 – 1881) was a British-Jamaican businesswoman and nurse most famous for her nursing initiatives during the Crimean War when she established a “Hotel” for wounded British soldiers behind the battlefield. She acquired knowledge of herbal remedies from the Caribbean, and used these to nurse soldiers back to health. In 1871, she was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit, and was voted ‘greatest black Briton’ in 2004.
She was born in Jamaica as Mary Grant (my family name so I kinda hope she’s a distant relative) to a black mother and a white father. She applied to the British War Office to be sent to the front, but was refused. Not to be deterred, she travelled independently and set up her own rescue for the soldiers. She was extremely popular with the servicemen (who called her “Mother Seacole”), who raised money to support her when she was left destitute after the war. In 1857 a Fundraising Gala took place in honour of Mary Seacole, on the banks of River Thames over four days. Crowds of around 80,000 people attended, which included veterans and their families, as well as British royals. Her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), is one of the earliest autobiographies of a mixed-race woman.
Ever part of Mary’s story attests to her bravery, compassion, intelligence, resourcefulness, pride, and perseverance. As well as practical medical assistance, Mary knew the value of kindness and comfort in harrowing situations, and never allowed anyone to shame her for her race, sex, or poverty.
“I don’t appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion. If it had been as dark as a n****r’s, I should have been just as happy and useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value: and as to his offer of bleaching me, I should, even if it were practicable, decline it without any thanks.”
Celebration of Mary Seacole in statues and in the national curriculum have been opposed by those who prefer Florence Nightingale as the “pioneering nurse” of the Crimean war. Mary Seacole was a successful mixed-race immigrant to Britain who led an eventful life. She was kind and generous who was popular with all those who knew her. While her cures may have been exaggerated, she doubtless did what she could to ease suffering, when no effective cures existed.
Seacole’s recognition has been controversial as it is seen as disrespectful to Florence Nightingale. A letter to The Times from the Florence Nightingale Society and signed by members including historians asserted that “Seacole’s battlefield excursions … took place post-battle, after selling wine and sandwiches to spectators. Mrs Seacole was a kind and generous businesswoman, but was not a frequenter of the battlefield “under fire” or a pioneer of nursing…She deserves much credit for rising to the occasion, but her tea and lemonade did not save lives, pioneer nursing or advance health care”.
However, other historians maintain that claims that Seacole only served “tea and lemonade” do a disservice to the tradition of Jamaican “doctresses” who used herbal remedies and hygienic practices in the late eighteenth century, long before Nightingale. Mark Bostridge points out that Seacole’s experience far outstripped Nightingale’s, and that the Jamaican’s work comprised preparing medicines, diagnosis, and minor surgery – not just serving tea! Many posit that race plays a part in the resistance to Seacole by some of Nightingale’s supporters, stating that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Seacole often had greater success than the European-trained doctors. It has also been suggested that Nightingale learned about the value of hygiene in nursing from Seacole.
At the end of 2012 it was reported that Mary Seacole was to be removed from the National Curriculum. A lot of commentators do not accept the view that Seacole’s accomplishments were exaggerated, suggesting that this idea is propositioned by the English elite that was determined to suppress and hide the black contribution to Britain. Helen Seaton observes that Nightingale fitted the English ideal of a Victorian heroine more than a dark-skinned Seacole, who battled racial prejudice who did not understand her ways. In 2013 Operation Black Vote succeeded in petitioning parliament to keep Mary on the curriculum.
In my opinion, both Seacole and Nightingale were amazing women who did all they could to aid British forces during the war. First hand sources attest that when the two women met they were amicable to and respectful of one another. While Nightingale later seems to have had reservations about Seacole, she never disputed her medical abilities. Thus, the need to compare them and place one above the other is to me symptomatic of the patriarchal tendency to force women to compete and see each other as threats rather than allies. Rather, both women should be hailed as important examples of female contribution to British history and to military campaigns, and to the intelligence and resourcefulness of women in this period.
However, it cannot be denied that opposition to celebration of Mary is highly likely to have a racist undertone. While her race shouldn’t come into it at all, if anything it makes her achievements even more remarkable in that she lacked any support from the government and that she still persevered at great personal cost to serve a country by which she had been repeatedly rejected. Her pride in her ethnicity, her resolve not to let prejudice limit her accomplishments, and her blending of western and traditional medicines are a beautiful example of how one’s skin colour and birthplace do not define your nationality or worth to a nation. For me, Seacole is symbolic of the interconnection of the empire and the world, and the interlinked history that countries across the globe and their citizens share despite the nationalist rhetoric which would have you believe otherwise. It must also be noted that Seacole not only treated the allied British, French, and Italian troops, but also “enemy” Russians – showing that she valued human life over nationalist loyalty. Now seems like an important time to remove Mary from Florence Nightingale’s shadow given the current covid-19 situation which highlights the value of migrants to the NHS more than ever. Mary shows that Britain has long been dependent on the benevolence of and assistance from immigrants, and then and now the country would be nothing without them. Her respect from all classes of British society is a testament to her character and talent. Her story speaks of the interdependence of Britain of the world, and for me she is the very definition of a “global citizen”.
To learn more about Mary’s story, check out my blog post: https://herstoryrevisitededi.blogspot.com/2020/06/mary-seacole.html
*photo copyright: National Geographic