My history hero: Bernardine Evaristo chooses Mary Seacole (1805–1881)

Bernardine Evaristo, Booker Prize-winning novelist, chooses Mary Seacole (1805–1881)

Mary Seacole as seen in a contemporary photo. Although she became famous for her nursing work in the Crimean War, her story subsequently became largely forgotten. (Photo by Alamy)

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Mary Seacole was a Caribbean-born, Anglo-Jamaican businesswoman and pioneer nurse best known for the comfort that she provided for wounded British soldiers in the Crimean War. Her 1857 autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, is one of the earliest memoirs of a mixed-race woman. In 2004 she was voted the greatest black Briton, and in 2016 a statue of her was erected in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, London.

When did you first hear about Seacole?

I first heard about her when her autobiography was republished in the 1980s. She was celebrated in her day but then disappeared from history books, and it was an eye-opener to read about her extraordinary life.

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Seacole wasn’t just ambitious and positive-thinking – she was also someone with a lot of integrity and passion to do good for other people in the world

What kind of woman was she?

Seacole was the daughter of a free Jamaican woman and a lieutenant in the British Army. She was an individualistic, self-motivated person who travelled a long way from her roots in Kingston, Jamaica. But she wasn’t just ambitious and positive-thinking – she was also someone with a lot of integrity and a passion to do good for other people in the world.

What made Seacole a hero?

She was one of the first black British women to publish an autobiography. It’s a fascinating memoir because we don’t have much record of the black British presence in the 19th century, so it’s astonishing to read about her life in her own words. She also put her nursing skills to good use during the Crimean War, at a time when Britain and the Caribbean were still living with the legacy of slavery. Her ethnicity doesn’t seem to have got in the way of her leading her life.

What was Seacole’s finest hour?

It was probably her time as a nurse in the Crimea, when she set up the British Hotel to care for wounded servicemen. She was a healer and herbalist, and practised her own herbalism on the soldiers – apparently very successfully. She must have been a formidable person to travel on her own as a woman of colour to Britain and then on to Russia, to tend for British soldiers during the war.

Why was she forgotten about for so long?

I think there are two reasons: because she was black, and because she was a woman. Women’s history and black history tend to get lost, and she embodied both.

Can you see any parallels between Seacole’s life and your own?

We are both mixed-race women, and I think that, like her, I’m also strong-minded, ambitious and driven. I suppose I’ve made history myself by becoming the first black British woman to win the Booker.

What would you ask Seacole, if you could meet her?

I would ask her what it was inside her that made her lead such an exceptional, brave life – and what she thought were the most important factors in shaping her into the person that she became.

Bernardine Evaristo was talking to York Membery

Bernardine Evaristo was recently named Author of the Year at the 2020 British Book Awards. Her novel, Girl, Woman, Other, jointly won the 2019 Booker Prize, and is now available in paperback. bevaristo.com

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This article was first published in the September 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine