We should never forget the memory of our heroine, Mother Seacole
It is very interesting to see that the Biblical scripture in the King James Bible ‘and ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars’, is so pertinent now that we see that there are rumours of a major wars developing all over the world. However, very few people of Caribbean culture know about the legend our own Crimean heroine in the Crimean war (1853 – 1856).
Mary Jane Grant was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805 to a Scottish father and a Creole mother. Mary describes herself as ‘Creole and good Scotch blood coursing in my veins’. She traces her affection for camp-life to her father who was a soldier whilst her mastery of the Creole medicinal arts comes from her mother who she described as an ‘admirable doctress’ who kept a boarding house in Kingston for army officers. Mary said that ‘it was very natural that I should inherit her tastes (her mother’s); and so I had from early youth a yearning for medical knowledge and practice which has never deserted me’.
From the age of twelve Mary found herself assisting her mother at the boarding house attending to invalid soldiers or their wives who came from Up-Park camp in Kingston or the military station in Newcastle, Saint Andrew. Mary had always had aspirations to travel from a young age and as a young woman she remembers her first trip abroad to London. She describes her vivid recollections from the experience in London, she said that the ‘London street boys would poke fun at me and my companion’s complexion’.
Upon leaving London to return to Jamaica she also visited Haiti and Cuba, but when she arrived in Jamaica she continued to assist her mother in the boarding house. Thereafter, she married Mr Seacole and they left Kingston together to go to Black River, Saint Elizabeth to set up a shop. Mary Grant became Mary Seacole in 1836, not much is known about Mr Seacole but what we do know is that within a short time of their marriage he became very ill which caused them to return to Kingston to Mary’s mother’s house but upon their return within a month Mr Seacole died. Mary Seacole said that ‘this was my first great trouble, and I felt it bitterly’. Shortly after her husband’s death tragedy befell her again and her mother passed away too.
Despite grief and a period of bereavement Mary Seacole did not allow these tragedies to set her back. She said ‘although it was no easy thing for a widow to make ends meet, I never allowed myself to know what repining or depression was, and so succeeded in gaining not only my daily bread, but many comforts besides, from the beginning’.
Mary Seacole was definitely a model example of a strong, independent woman in the truest sense but what could be seen early on in her life was that she did not have tact for good financial management. This would mar her in later life, she described her life as being ‘one day rich and poor the next’. She never thought too much exclusively about money but found comfort from being happy.
More despair was not far from Mary Seacole again in 1843 when the great fire in Kingston destroyed her home but she was not deterred by this disaster and immediately set about rebuilding it. During that time she began to develop a good reputation in Kingston as a ‘skilful nurse and doctress’ whose house was always full of invalid army officers or their wives from Up-Park camp or Newcastle.
Mary Seacole had never attended a conventional medical or nursing school but she seemed to have natural aptitude to develop her own medicinal remedies to almost any virus or ailment that she encountered. She recalls in 1850 when the cholera outbreak hit Jamaica she observed the nature of the illness and a doctor who had lodged at her home treating sufferers of the illness, thereafter she was able to create her own treatment.
‘Mother Seacole’ as she would become affectionately called by British soldiers, most definitely had a love for travel and this love for travelling could be described by local Jamaicans as her having a ‘wondering spirit’. In 1850 she followed her brother Edward to Panama where they established a storehouse and the Independent Hotel. At that time Panama was the route for many Americans travelling to ‘gold rush’ California, the route via Panama prevented American travellers travelling via a long, weary and dangerous sea voyage around the Cape Horn.
Mother Seacole was far from her creature comforts in Kingston Jamaica when she arrived in Cruces Panama. The weather was rainy, damp, the surroundings very muddy and her accommodation at the hotel was ‘a low hut, built of rough, unhewn, unplanned logs, filed up with mud and split bamboos’. The majority of the patrons at the hotel were Californian gold diggers both male and female, and Mother Seacole would provide meals for patrons consisting of pork, beef stew, ham, chicken, eggs and large bowls of rice.
Shortly after arriving in Cruces there was a cholera outbreak and Mother Seacole was called into action by nursing local people with her home-made remedies. She recalls saving her first cholera patient by using ‘a dint of mustard emetics, warm fomentations, mustard plasters on the stomach and the back, and calomel’. This was her own simple remedy that she found to be the best but she does admit that during that cholera outbreak she made ‘lamentable blunders’ and lost patients that in hindsight she could have saved.
Whilst busily nursing natives and Americans who were suffering from this crippling illness Mother Seacole also fell ill with cholera. Albeit she describes her cholera attack as a ‘mild one’, and she was soon on the mend to then go on to establish her own hotel opposite her brother’s and call it the ‘British Hotel’.
Mother Seacole never had much admiration for Americans because of her experiences of racial prejudice whilst being in their presence. She once said ‘if I have a little prejudice against our cousins across the Atlantic – and I do confess to a little – it is not unreasonable. I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related – and I am proud of the relationship – to those poor mortals whom you once held enslaved, and whose bodies America still owns’. One of the things that was pleasing to Mother Seacole to see in Panama is that the local blacks held positions in municipal office and wielded power over Americans without them being able to do anything about it despite of their prejudice against the local blacks. She said ‘it was wonderful to see how freedom and equality elevate men, and the same Negro who perhaps in Tennessee would have cowered like a beaten child or dog beneath an American’s uplifted hand, would face him boldly here, and by equal courage and superior physical strength cow his old oppressor’. Mother Seacole eventually left Cruces for the town of Gorgona, but soon grew weary of life there too.
Upon leaving Panama, she returned to Jamaica in 1853 and stayed there for eight months when yellow fever attacked the island. She recalled the following, –
‘so violent was the epidemic, that some of my people fell victims to its fury, a thing rarely heard of before. My house was full of sufferers – officers, their wives and children. Very often in a dying state, sometimes – after long and distressing struggles with a grim foe – to recover’.
She went onto say ‘habituated as I had become with death in it most harrowing forms, I had previously borne a part in; and for this reason perhaps, that I had not only to cheer the death-bed of the sufferer, but, far more trying task, to soothe the passionate grief of wife or husband left behind’.
In 1854, war was declared against Russia by the British and French Empires, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia in the Crimea near the Black sea (in modern day Ukraine). Mother Seacole said that ‘no sooner had I heard of war somewhere, than I longed to witness it’. She travelled to London in the autumn of 1854 and with thoughts of joining her friends in the Crimea which played heavily on her mind. She said ‘need I be ashamed to confess that I shared in the general enthusiasm, and longed more than ever to carry my busy fingers where the sword or bullet had been busiest, and pestilence most rife’.
Eventually Mother Seacole decided ‘I made up my mind that if the army wanted nurses, they would be glad of me, and with all the ardour of my nature, which ever carried me where inclination prompted, I decided that I would go to the Crimea’.
However, in spite of Mother Seacole’s enthusiasm and gusto for nursing servitude in the Crimea she would face what can only be described as racial discrimination by being rejected from the British War department and Florence Nightingale’s team of nurses who were also leaving for the Crimea.
Mother Seacole was like most who British colonial people at that time she could almost be said to be more British than the British. She believed in the British Empire, the ethos of serving Queen and country. But with her being emotionally distraught from being rejected by the British army she began to even question whether the British had adopted the same prejudice as their American cousins. She said ‘doubts and suspicions arose in my heart for the first time and last time, thank Heaven. Was it possible that American prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies (Florence Nightingale’s nurses) shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?
But Mother Seacole was never someone who would allow adversity to get the better of her, she decided that ‘if the authorities had allowed me, I would willingly have given them my services as a nurse; but as they declined them, should I not open an hotel for invalids in the Crimea in my own way?’
She decided to travel to the Crimea and in doing so she demonstrates us that she is a model of self-sufficiency and determination for all ‘people of culture’ who face similar challenges of prejudice in our lives. What is more remarkable is that Mother Seacole embarked on this project as a woman of colour during a time that was considered to be a less tolerant period of history towards people of colour. In addition to that, she was entering a war zone for the very first time, and she was under no illusion when she said that ‘beyond all doubt, my project was a hazardous one’.
One thing that needs to be highlighted that upon her journey and arrival in the Crimea, Mother Seacole had encountered several old army friends that she had treated at her house in Jamaica. Her reference to them is evidence that there were Jamaican soldiers fighting in the Crimean war. It must never be forgotten by ‘people of culture’, the countless amount of West Indian soldiers’ lives that have been lost on foreign soils all in the name of the British Empire.
Whilst travelling to the Crimea, Mother Seacole had a chance meeting with another heroine nurse of that time, Miss Florence Nightingale, at her military hospital in Scutari, Turkey. Quite often historians have tended to overlook the stellar contributions made by Mother Seacole in the Crimea in an attempt to make Miss Nightingale’s achievements in the Crimea appear to be independent. However, in recent times we have seen that there has been a resurgence of interest in Mother Seacole, her efforts and her achievements.
Mother Seacole only spent one night at the military hospital, sleeping in the hospital kitchen; she requested a meeting with Florence Nightingale and when they did meet each other Mother Seacole recalled her first impression of ‘The Lady with the lamp’ was that of ‘a slight figure, the nurses’ dress; with a pale, gentle hand, while the other supports the elbow – a position which marked. Standing thus in repose, and yet keenly observant unwitting motion of the firmly planted right foot – was Florence Nightingale – that Englishwoman whose name shall never die, but sound like music on the lips of British men until the hour of doom’. Upon Madam Seacole presenting her case to Miss Nightingale she was ‘upgraded’ from the hospital kitchen to the washerwoman’s room to get a night’s sleep.
When Mother Seacole arrived in the Crimea she spent six weeks in Balaclava spending days and nights on the ship Medora, she gathered goods to organise her store and she treated injured soldiers. The scenes that she witnessed in the Crimea were heartrending, soldiers with legs and limbs blown off by Russian artillery. However, she demonstrated a high level of courage whilst boarding the Medora which itself was an ammunition ship loaded with gunpowder and tons of cartridges that was fair game for an enemy attacks.
In the summer of 1855, Mother Seacole set up the British Hotel in Spring Hill, Crimea with no less than £800. ‘The hotel consisted of a long iron room, with counters, closet, and shelves; above it was another low room, used for storing our goods, and above this floated a large union jack’. Mother Seacole had also gathered a large amount of livestock including horses, mules, geese, fowls and pigs. The British hotel would house and treat a number of injured British, Sardinian and French soldiers.
Mother Seacole’s medicinal skills and practical experience was greatly needed in the Crimea she had developed cures for jaundice and diarrhoea for the soldiers in the trenches. She recalls that ‘before very long I found myself surrounded with patients of my own, and this for two simple reasons. In the first place, the men had very serious objection to going into hospital for any but urgent reasons, and the regimental doctors were rather fond of sending them there; and, in the second place, they could and did get at my store sick-comforts and nourishing food, which the heads of the medicinal staff would sometimes find it difficult to procure’.
Mother Seacole risked her own life by at times being subjected to gunfire during her travelling around the Crimea tending to soldiers. She was known to run into the battlefield as soon as there was a lull in fire to treat badly injured soldiers or to merely comfort a dying soldier’s passage into the afterlife. But in her own opinion ‘the grateful words and smile which rewarded me for binding up a wound or giving cooling drink was a pleasure worth risking life for at any time’.
Although her mission was in the Crimea was to treat her fellow countrymen (the British soldiers) Mother Seacole’s generosity and kind-heartedness extended to French and Russian soldiers who were injured in the battlefield she said ‘I derived no little gratification from being able to dress the wounds of several Russians; indeed, they were as kindly treated as the others’. She also described that on one occasion she had inserted her finger in the mouth of Russian soldier to remove a bullet and in doing so the soldier bit down on her finger, scarring her finger for life.
In March 1856, the Treaty of Paris peace treaty was signed and Mother Seacole left the Crimea and returned to England bankrupt. Her British hotel was also destroyed in the Crimean war. She said ‘if I were to express more shame and annoyance than I really feel at the pecuniary disastrous issue of my Crimean adventures, but I cannot – I really cannot. When I would try and feel ashamed of myself for being poor and helpless, I only experience a glow of pride at the other and more pleasing events of my career’.
She went on to say, ‘I returned (from the Crimea) shaken in health. I came home wounded, as many others did. Few constitutions, indeed, were the better for those winters before Sebastopol, and I was too hard worked not to feel their effects; for a little labour fatigues me now – I cannot watch by sick-beds as I could – a week’s want of rest quite knocks me up now. Then I returned bankrupt in fortune. Whereas others in my position may have come back to England rich and prosperous, I found myself poor – beggared’.
Mother Seacole in her later years rapidly faded from public memory. Several concerts and charity fundraising events were organised in London to assist Mother Seacole in her financial bankrupt plight. From official records we know that Mother Seacole died in London in 1881 according to the census list in 1881 for Paddington, Marylebone. Her age was given as 71 years old but her death certificate was issued three days of her death on the 17th May 1881 at Cambridge street confirmed that she died at the age of 76 years old, after suffering two weeks from a coma following an apoplectic episode.
A famous writer once wrote, ‘See, here is Mary Seacole, who did as much in the Crimea as another magic-lamping lady, but, being dark, could scarce be seen for the flame of Florence’s candle’.
Mother Seacole’s memory may have been lost in British history but she has never been forgotten in Jamaica for her heroism in the Crimea. She is still regarded in Jamaica today as a heroine and several buildings in Jamaica have been named after her including the Mary Seacole Hall at the University of West Indies Mona campus in Kingston and also the Mary Seacole ward at Kingston general hospital.
In 2014, the Jamaica Times newspaper in London published an article drawing attention to readers in to order to raise funds to erect a statute of Mother Seacole in the gardens of St. Thomas Hospital Westminster in the summer of 2015.
We at the NSOCA, encourage our readers to study and learn more about our heroine Mary Seacole, her character, her strengths and her life works by reading her autobiographical book entitled the ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in many lands’.
This history article was written by Anthony R. Mcken (Head of the NSOCA Legal Department) and many quote references from Mary Seacole in this article that were written in italics are taken from the book ‘Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in many lands’.