Mary Seacole

Black History Month – Mary Seacole (Part 4)

This Black History Month, we’re sharing some of the figures that have inspired us. We’d like to celebrate their contributions and efforts, which have resulted in meaningful change being made. These are only a few of the figures who have inspired us, with many more continuing to pioneer progression in society. To read more on the importance of Black History Month, visit https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/  

Mary Seacole

Early Life

Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica at a time when slavery was rife. Given that her father was a white Scottish army officer, Mary was born a ‘free person’ and did not have to endure slave labour. Her mother ran a lodging house and taught Mary many of her skills using traditional Jamaican medicines. She began practicing on a doll, then on pets, and later helped her mother treat many of the injured soldiers who were guests there. In 1821 Mary visited London with relatives, giving her the opportunity to learn about European medicine.

Travelling Years

In 1836, Mary married Edwin Seacole, who unfortunately fell ill and died 8 years later. This was followed by the death of her mother, something which devastated her. Determined to continue helping those who were ill, Mary nursed victims of the cholera epidemic in Kingston, later travelling to Panama to help with an outbreak there.

Whilst on her travels, she faced some racial prejudice, in particular when travelling in America. At a leaving dinner held in her honour, she wrote that a white American saying that he wished he could bleach her skin to make her more acceptable to them. She declined the offer, instead raising a glass to ‘the general reformation of American manners.’ Mary also notes that she encountered difficulties when trying to board an American boat back to Jamaica, facing racial discrimination. She had to wait for a British boat in order to make her journey.

‘Was it possible that American prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?’

Crimean War

Hearing about the poor medical facilities for British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War, Mary travelled to Britain, asking to be posted there as a British Army Nurse. The Army refused, and undeterred, Mary funded her own trip to the Crimea to set up a station to help the soldiers. Here she opened a hotel for wounded soldiers to be treated, often travelling to the battlefields to provide soldiers with more immediate treatment.

Mary was praised by many soldiers whose lives she had saved, and in 1857 a fundraising gala was held on her behalf, where over 800,000 people were in attendance

Mary’s autobiography was published in 1857, the first autobiography to be written by a Black woman in Britain. She died in 1881 of apoplexy in her London home.

Legacy 

Although she was well known whilst she was alive, Mary’s memory faded from the minds of the British public. She has become a symbol of ‘hidden’ Black history, having done as much as Florence Nightingale in the Crimean war, without being given the same credit. In 2007, she was brought into the national curriculum, her life story to be taught alongside Florence Nightingale’s.

Mary’s statue stands outside St James’ Hospital, etched with words written by Sir William Howard Russell about her legacy.

“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.”

 

Stay tuned to our blog page for more stories about inspirational figures.

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