5 OCTOBER 2017
BY JANE ROBINSON, social historian and author


Walk south over Westminster Bridge, look down at the gardens of St Thomas’s Hospital, and there you’ll see a remarkable statue. Larger than life, a woman strides out to meet the world with a satchel over her shoulder and her head held high. She is the first named black woman to be so honoured in the UK and one of the Victorian era’s most luminous heroines: Mary Seacole (1805-1881).

Mary is a heroine for our own times, too. She was half-Jamaican, half-Scottish, enjoying serial and unlikely careers as a nurse, travelling saleswoman, hotelier and restaurateur, gold prospector, military heroine, best-selling author, and a celebrity boasting friends in the highest of places. Yet Mary was also an iconoclast. She exploded almost every preconception and prejudice the Victorians held dear. Hers is an intriguing story.

Mary’s mother kept an hotel in downtown Kingston, from where she operated as a healer, locally known as a ‘doctress’. Mary proved a worthy successor to her mother. Indeed, she might well have been happy for the rest of her life in her hometown. Just one thing got in the way: a disquieting ‘inclination to rove’. That’s what Mary called it: she was restless. A highly-intelligent and driven young woman, as she matured she felt her grasp exceeding her reach, and – in a most unladylike manner - she craved adventure. At least, we assume it was unladylike, but no-one told Mary. Her mother encouraged her to be useful and independent. Her father, a Scottish infantry officer by the name of James Grant to whom, not unusually, her mother was never married, must have told his daughter tales of the battlefield to stir her blood. An elderly friend of the family to whom Mary was sent for her education fostered in her a questing sense of curiosity and, extraordinarily, complete self-confidence.

It is extraordinary: here was an illegitimate, Afro-Caribbean, unprivileged, girl, living in an outpost of the Georgian British Empire where slavery still obtained (emancipation didn’t come till 1834) enjoying an education, a responsible career, and enough self-belief to turn her life in any direction she wished. She mentions being troubled by racial prejudice a few times, but never allowed anyone to judge her by making comparisons with other people. She was her own woman, and her achievements were unprecedented.

Mary left home, travelling as a trader in the Caribbean and to Britain. She settled in Jamaica during her marriage to Englishman Edwin Seacole, but continued travelling after his death. Ever the astute businesswoman, she opened a hotel on the isthmus of Panama in 1851 catering to prospectors on their way to the Californian gold-fields. While she was there, cholera broke out. Mary was fascinated by it. She studied its pathogenesis, epidemiology, its management – even performing a secret autopsy on an infant casualty, the better to understand this terrifying disease. Her treatments accorded closely with modern methods: replacing lost fluids with cinnamon water, and keeping the sickroom as clean and well-ventilated as possible, which wasn’t easy in the close and putrid Central American heat.

When news reached her in 1854 that war had broken out between Britain and Russia in the Crimea, at the age of nearly 50 Mary determined to visit the theatre of war as a nurse. She would never have come across anyone else contemplating the same journey for the same purpose: she hadn’t heard of Florence Nightingale (yet) and the only women who traditionally followed the troops were army wives, provisioners, or prostitutes. This mission was visionary.

Applications to the War Office and to join Miss Nightingale’s nurses were firmly rebuffed. Perhaps it’s not surprising: Mary was used to being her own boss, and highly unlikely to submit to orders without question, which all Nightingale nurses were required to do. And, of course, she was black. So she simply changed her plans, going into business partnership with a relative of her late husband to set up ‘The British Hotel’ right behind the front lines between Balaklava and Sevastopol.

Known affectionately as ‘Mother Seacole’s Hut’ this establishment speedily became famous. Mary enjoyed her success; the profits from the hotel and associated general stores financed her medical work. Whenever there was any battlefield action, or sick and wounded in need of attention in camp, Mary would cheerfully dash to help, day or night, armed with a capacious satchel (the one in the statue) crammed with medicines, dressings, food and drink, and a bottle of sherry to use as antiseptic. She made no charge, accepting payment of course when it was offered, but expecting none.

When Mary returned to England after the war, she was famous. She wrote a best-selling autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, and enjoyed the patronage and friendship of soldiers, officers, aristocrats and even members of the royal family. But never of Miss Nightingale.

Florence was stringently clinical in her fight against the diseases that corrupted the military medical system, and burned with a cold fury at the suffering her Crimean patients faced unnecessarily thanks to administrative incompetence. Mary’s approach was more holistic. She 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, with good spirits. Florence didn’t understand Mary, and was deeply suspicious of her.

Mary Seacole was all but forgotten when she died. Her celebrity, born of her own strength of character, died with her, until a group of Jamaican nurses rediscovered her and the autobiography was reprinted in the mid-1980s. Now she is recognised not just as an icon of black history, an indomitable woman traveller, a nursing pioneer, a writer of huge wit and charisma and an inspirational – if accidental - feminist. We salute her as someone with the fearlessness and confidence to carve her own path and follow it with integrity, good humour, compassion and enormous spirit.

As I said: a heroine for our times.


ABOUT AUTHOR

Jane Robinson is a social historian and the author of 11 books including Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea (Constable, 2005) and Hearts and Minds: Suffragists, Suffragettes and How Women Won the Vote (Penguin, 2018).