Mary Seacole: Victorian celebrity, joyful hotelier and Crimean nurse

Mary Seacole has found lasting fame for her work during the Crimean War and is now considered one of the greatest black Britons in history, but in her lifetime her fame was even greater. Jane Robinson explains how Seacole became a Victorian celebrity, and why she and Florence Nightingale didn’t get on – even though they wanted the same thing

Mary Seacole is best known for her work during the Crimean War, where she cared for injured soldiers. But she was also well-known as a hotelier, traveller and author – a celebrity of the Victorian era. This is a contemporary painting of her

Mary Seacole? Wasn’t she the ‘Black Nightingale’? The Jamaican nurse who rivalled Florence during the Crimean War? She was forgotten about for a century, but now she’s a heroine again. Everyone knows about Mary.

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It’s true, many of us recognise her name, but few are aware of her remarkable life-story. As well as a medical pioneer (though never formally trained), she flourished as a traveller, businesswoman, hotelier, entrepreneur and author, becoming a Victorian celebrity. She was no ‘Black Nightingale’, but entirely her own person, and among history’s great adventurers.

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Mary Seacole: Facts about her life

Born: 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica (as Mary Jane Grant)

Died: 14 May 1881 in London, England

Also known as: Mother Seacole

What was Mary Seacole famous for?

She is best known for her work during the Crimean War, where she cared for injured soldiers. But she was also well-known as a hotelier, traveller and author – a celebrity of the Victorian era. Today she is lauded as a role model, and in 2004 was voted the greatest black Briton in an internet poll.

Was Mary Seacole a nurse?

She had no formal British medical training, but had knowledge of traditional Afro-Caribbean medicines taught to her by her mother, a ‘doctress’.

Did Mary Seacole work with Florence Nightingale?

Seacole and Nightingale were both tending to soldiers in the Crimea, but they didn’t work together. Nightingale’s hospital was based in Scutari, while Seacole’s establishment, the British Hotel, was closer to the frontlines.

Who was Mary Seacole?

Mary Jane Grant was born in 1805. She was always coy about her unmarried parents – and records are scarce – but her father is thought to have been James Grant, a Scottish infantry officer who may have died in 1815. Her Jamaican mother (whose name we don’t know) kept an hotel in Kingston which doubled as a convalescent home for British military personnel garrisoned nearby.

Her mother worked as a ‘doctress,’ fusing the holistic traditions of her African heritage with an understanding of the healing properties of Caribbean plants. She and Grant encouraged their daughter’s independence. From them Seacole learned about holistic medicine, hotel management, and the demands of army life. A friend of the family taught her to read and write. Thus armed with an unusual degree of self-confidence and education, Seacole felt ready for anything.

Always a lover of travel, she made several expeditions starting in the 1820s – to England, Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas – as a travelling saleswoman, trading pickles and preserves from the hotel’s kitchen for goods she could sell in Kingston market. In 1836 she married Edwin Seacole, an Englishman living in Jamaica (and a godson of Horatio Nelson); together they ran a general store in the coastal town of Black River until Edwin’s death in 1844, when Mary returned to Kingston. Soon afterwards, her mother also died, leaving Mary in charge of the hotel.

It felt too soon to settle down, however. Seacole’s feet were itching. In 1851 she travelled to Panama to open another hotel, along the route from the eastern seaboard of America to the new goldfields of California. Business was brisk until cholera struck. As the only medical practitioner for miles, she studied the pathogenesis [development] of the disease, courageously performing a secret autopsy on a victim, in order to better understand its nature. This level of clinical application was ahead of its time, as was her regime of replacing patients’ lost fluids with cinnamon-water, and keeping the sickroom clean and well-ventilated.

On a visit home to Jamaica in 1854, Seacole heard the news that was to change her life. War had broken out on the distant Crimean peninsula. Many of the British officers and men involved were known to her from Kingston days; fond of them for her father’s sake, and confident of her value as a nurse, Seacole was determined to help.

What did Mary Seacole do in the Crimean War?

Seacole arrived in London within weeks. She had heard that Florence Nightingale was recruiting ‘ladies’ to nurse the British forces, and applied to join them. However, after a perfunctory interview with one of Nightingale’s assistants, she was told she was too late. Seacole was unconvinced, reading in her interviewer’s face that had there been a vacancy, she should not have been chosen to fill it.

She was right to be sceptical. Recruiting was continuing. But to the organisers Seacole was no ‘lady’; she was a large black woman wearing parrot-coloured clothes, with a loud laugh and a defiant air. Certainly, she was used to being her own boss, and was unlikely to submit to orders without question. She was mature, opinionated, impulsive, and deeply compassionate, far more likely to follow her own instincts than some lady with a lamp and a letter from the government. Nevertheless, the rejection stung Seacole sorely.

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Ever determined, she somehow unearthed some financial backing from a relative of her husband and left for Balaklava, with the unlikely ambition to open yet another establishment, the ‘British Hotel,’ just behind the front lines. Cheerful ‘Mother Seacole’ and her business – at turns a hotel, clinic, restaurant and takeaway ­– became famous. And she was always ready to dash to the battlefield, day or night, lugging a hold-all crammed with medicines, dressings, food and drink, and a bottle of sherry to use as antiseptic.

Seacole met Florence Nightingale more than once, and claimed to like her. Yet after the conflict, Nightingale accused Seacole of ‘bad character,’ drunkenness, and keeping a soldiers’ brothel. Why was she so eager to think the worst of Seacole? Perhaps because they approached nursing so differently.

Nightingale tended towards intolerance and defensiveness, while Seacole was more relaxed and self-assured. Nightingale was worshipped for her ministrations on the wards, while Seacole was clapped on the back for her readiness to help anyone she could – even if that did mean giving them the odd swig of claret and a hug. Nightingale was stringently clinical in her fight against the system, and burned with cold fury at the unnecessary suffering her patients faced due to administrative incompetence. Seacole met the victims of that suffering with a homely instinct to make things better – feel better – and to cheer them up enough to meet life, or imminent death, in good spirit. In fact their methods were entirely complementary, if only Nightingale had realised it, but she neither understood nor trusted Mother Seacole.

When peace in the Crimea was declared in 1856, the British troops were evacuated so swiftly that many did not settle their accounts with Seacole. A rescue fund was established by high-ranking war veterans when she returned to London, bankrupt. This, with the publication of her autobiography Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands in 1857, kept the wolf from the door. In recognition of her celebrity, a massive launch party for the book was organised at a London music hall, running for an astonishing four nights, with Mary enthroned on stage and cheered to the rafters. “Never did woman seem happier,” wrote one Times journalist, “and never was hearty and kindly greeting bestowed upon a worthier object.”

Seacole was surprising to the last. In her sixties she lobbied (unsuccessfully) to be sent to nurse soldiers in India and during the Franco-Prussian War. She was appointed private masseuse to her friend Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, spouse to the future Edward VII. She continued travelling, visiting Jamaica when she could, and sat for several portraits, looking regal and self-assured.

What is Mary Seacole’s legacy?

When Mary Seacole died in 1881, her celebrity died with her. But now she’s back, with a statue standing proudly outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London, and she’s regained the charisma of her Crimean heyday. Naturally, she’s a role model for nurses who recognise the holistic power of skill, compassion and good humour. She’s a deserving heroine of the British BAME community.

Seacole’s attitude to race was complicated. She considered herself thoroughly British, and used the pejorative terminology of the time to describe other races (she wasn’t black, she said, but ‘yellow’). Yet she was quick to identify with oppressed slaves. She abhorred racism in that it was personally unjust and unkind, not as a political cause – although it’s true, she had no time for Americans, considering them particularly prejudiced.

She never claimed to stand for any cause or to represent anyone but herself. She was no activist. In many ways, that’s why she was such a pioneer: she demanded to be judged entirely on her own terms. I think she’d be somewhat nonplussed by her appointment as a BAME figurehead, and a feminist – but proud. And she should inspire us all. She relished life and did her best to ensure others enjoyed the adventure too.

Jane Robinson is the author of Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea (Little, Brown, 2006)

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This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2021