Great Jamaicans: Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole was born ‘Mary Jane Grant’ in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805 during the period of British Colonial rule. Her father was a Scottish army officer and her mother a free Jamaican mulatto. Her mother ran a boarding house and was according to Mary, a ‘proficient nurse’, highly regarded by soldiers who were from time to time stationed at Kingston. In her book – The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, Mary reveals a happy childhood in which she was raised by an elderly lady in her home, among her grandchildren. However, she is clear to point out that she still saw a great deal of her mother and indeed attributes her love of medicine and nursing to her mother. Reminiscing fondly of her childhood, Mary tells us how she used to dress her dolls up as patients and at the age of twelve, assist her mother at nursing. As a teenager Mary longed to travel and often used to mark the route to England on a map. Her dreams were realized on her first visit to England at the age of eighteen when she traveled with relatives to London, staying for a year.

During her twenties Mary traveled overseas on several occasions. In addition to visiting London for a second time, she also traveled to Haiti and Cuba. On her trips abroad she sold West Indian preserves in England and brought back rare shells to sell in Kingston. On her return to Kingston, Mary nursed her former Nanny on her deathbed, who died in her arms. Following the death of her Nanny, Mary returned live with her mother where she learnt more about Creole medicine. At the age of 31 she married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole, the godson of Admiral Horatio Nelson and they moved to Black River where they set up a store. However, her husband had poor health and fell gravely ill, forcing them to return to Kingston to live at Mary’s mother’s house. He died within a month. Mary’s book mentions very little about her relationship with her husband. However, the affection which she had for Edwin is revealed where of his death, she admits ‘I felt it bitterly’. She also describes the days following his death as ‘a dull stupor of despair’. Not long after her husband’s demise, Mary’s mother also passed on and she was ‘left alone to battle with the world…’

Mary Seacole Great Jamaican
Mary Seacole Great Jamaican

Mary was a strong and determined woman. Although she admits that ‘it was no easy thing for a widow to make ends meet’, she did not waste time feeling sorry for herself. She had a determined and independent spirit that enabled her to overcome adversity, such as the death of her husband and mother and the loss of her home in the great fire of 1843 which decimated much of Kingston. Mary thrived on her freedom and guarded it carefully. She states that ‘one of the hardest struggles of my life in Kingston was to resist the pressing candidates for the late Mr. Seacole’s shoes.’ Alone, Mary took over the running of her mother’s boarding house and endeavored to follow in her footsteps, nursing officers and their wives. The cholera epidemic which swept across Jamaica in 1850 was invaluable experience for Mary and she learnt a great deal from a doctor who was one of her lodgers at that time.

That same year, Mary traveled to Panama, a gold-prospecting town, to reside with her brother who had set up a hotel and store. She was not impressed with her new accommodation or its patrons and wished she had never left Kingston. She found the town’s inhabitants who were predominantly Yankees ‘coarse and rude’. Nevertheless, determined to make the best of things she adjusted to life there and before long had opened a hotel of her own, directly opposite her brother’s establishment. Drawing on her experiences during the cholera epidemic in Jamaica, Mary was able to deal with an outbreak in Panama that flourished in the damp, dirty conditions among the travelers that came to seek their fortunes.

Mary’s book reveals as much about her own character as it does about the people of the era in the many places to which she traveled. She writes with great wit and humor. For example of the travelers that patronized her hotel in Panama, she states that the majority of them were ‘rough, rude men, of dirty quarrelsome habits…’ On more than one occasion Mary came up against thieves and attackers and was forced to defend herself. One night she was awakened by the piercing screams of her young black helper who discovered a thief in the house. As Mary dashed forward to retrieve her purse the villain produced a knife. Mary’s defiant response was to bravely challenge her attacker with a pistol which her brother had wisely given her for protection, and the thief took flight.

Mary paints a vivid picture of the social tensions that existed in Panama in the mid nineteenth century, on account of slavery and racism. Slavery still existed in the Southern states of America and the Panamanian locals detested the Americans who naturally felt themselves superior. They did not hide their loathing for Negroes: ‘Terribly bullied by the Americans were the boatmen and muleteers who were reviled, shot and stabbed by these free and independent filibusters who would fain whip all creation abroad as they do their slaves at home.’ Mary was popular with everyone as she had a no-nonsense attitude and with her medical expertise it was her to whom they turned for remedies and nursing when they fell ill. However Mary leaves us in no doubt as to her feelings on slavery, despite the fact that she was born a free woman: ‘…knowing what slavery is, having seen with my eyes and heard with my ears proof positive enough of its horrors…’ Mary took great care to leave her English readers in no doubt that she was proud of her African heritage: ‘ 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…’

Mary Seacole 1805-1881

Mary‘s return to Kingston in 1853 coincided with a violent outbreak of yellow fever which was particularly devastating to the British who had no resistance to the tropical disease. She recreates the grim scene of a house full of sufferers including women and children. Mary was not unaffected by so much death and suffering, but possessed the strong presence of mind required to handle such stressful situations. Her proficiency and expertise did not go unnoticed and she was called to the headquarters of the British Army at Up-Park Camp in Kingston to oversee their nursing services.

War had been declared against Russia and following a trip to Panama to wind up her business affairs Mary had a pressing desire to go to Crimea to nurse the British soldiers whom she had grown both accustomed to and fond of when she had nursed them in Jamaica. Traveling to London in the autumn of 1854 she tried to offer her services, first to the War Office, then to the wife of the then Secretary of State Elizabeth Herbert. She was not granted an interview on either occasion, despite having many glowing references from former officers from Jamaica. She applied to an assistant of Mary Nightingale and was again refused. Mary had long suspected her rejection was due to her color: ‘I read in her face the fact that, had there been a vacancy, I should not have been chosen to fill it.’ Finally, she applied to the managers of the Crimea fund to have her fare paid to travel there on her own and faced rejection yet again. Poor Mary was so distraught she stood crying in the streets: ‘Was it possible that American prejudices against color had some root here?’

Mary quickly composed herself and undaunted decided that she would travel at her own expense. Together with a distant relative known as Mr. Day, she established the British Hotel and store at Balaclava, supplying provisions to the troops. There she was reunited with many of the soldiers who had lodged with her in Jamaica, most of whom greeted her with warmness and relief at seeing a familiar face. They knew they were in skilful hands, having already witnessed her medical expertise back in Kingston. One of them on seeing Mary for the first time exclaimed: ‘Why bless my soul, old fellow, if this is not our good old Mother Seacole!’

Mary worked tirelessly during the year she spent in the Crimea. She endeavored to provide all the home comforts to soldiers to lessen the severity of the war. Whatever they desired be it a handkerchief or a slice of sponge cake, Mary would supply it. When she was not exhausting herself running the British Hotel and store, Mary would be wherever her services were required. She risked her life on many occasions to attend to wounded and dying soldiers on the battlefront itself. During one such incident she dislocated her right thumb when she was forced to throw herself to the ground to avoid being blown up. Mary’s bravery drew the attention of British journalist and Times correspondent William Howard Russell. In one of his regular columns he wrote of Mary: ‘A more tender and skilful hand about a wound or broken limb could not be found among our best surgeons.’ During an outbreak of cholera Mary services were again in great demand. This time, she succumbed to the illness herself but made a full recovery.

Unfortunately for Mary, the end of the war spelt personal disaster as she was left with unsaleable stores that were eventually sold for next to nothing. Returning to London in 1856, Mary was forced to declare bankruptcy. Reflecting on the mixed blessings of her Crimean experience Mary acknowledged that: ‘Whereas others in my position may have come back to England rich and prosperous, I found myself poor – beggared.’ However, Mary was greatly moved by the genuine affection and warmth she received in London from many of the soldiers that survived the war and who felt indebted to her for the selfless way she had served them. It was two former commanders of the Crimean war – Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget who organized a lavish fund-raising gala for Mary at the Royal Surrey Gardens in Kennington.

Mary’s best-selling autobiography – The Wonderful adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands was published in 1857. It included a preface by journalist William Howard Russell who wrote: ‘I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succor them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.’ In 1871 Queen Victoria commissioned a sculpture of Mary and a bust was created by her nephew, Prince Victor.

Mary died on 14th May 1881 and was laid to rest at St. Mary’s Catholic cemetery in Kensal Green. Her obituary appeared in the Times, the Manchester Guardian and the Jamaica Gleaner. Among the commendations Mary had received were the Crimean war medal and the French Legion of honor. However, in 1915 when a Crimean War Memorial was erected in Central London, whilst it included a statue of Florence Nightingale, Mary had been long forgotten.

It was not until 70 years following her passing that recognition of Mary began to emerge. In Jamaica, the Jamaican Nurses Association named their Kingston headquarters Mary Seacole House. Both a hall of residence at the University of West Indies and a ward in Kingston hospital were named after Mary. On 14th May 1981, 100 years after her death, a memorial service was held by the Mary Seacole Foundation. It has since become an annual event. Considerable efforts have been made in recent years by the African Caribbean community in Britain to bring about the recognition within the mainstream that Mary Seacole so richly deserves. A new addition of her popular book was published in 1984, prefaced by Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee. In 2003 MP Clive Sloley mounted a campaign to get a statue of Mary erected in Central London. In 2004 Mary Seacole was voted the most important person in Black British history in the 100 Great Black Britons award.

And so, her memory continues to be a source of pride for people of color throughout the world and her strength of character and courage are a source of inspiration today for people of all races, ages and colors. The year 2005 will mark the 200th anniversary of her death and many events are being planned to celebrate the life and legacy of Mary Seacole. New books on Mary’s life are due to be published which will ensure that Mary Seacole will continue to be remembered and acknowledged as a great Jamaican who played an important role within British history.


The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, by Mary Seacole published by Black Classics in 1999

The website – information compiled by Professor Elizabeth N Anionwu RN HV Tutor, Head of the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice, Faculty of Health and Human Sciences at Thames Valley University London and Honorary Professor, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine