Mary Seacole was a nurse who worked on the front line during the Crimean War. She is often overlooked while the more famous Florence Nightingale is celebrated by history. However she arguably did more good, was loved more by the soldiers and had a more remarkable story than Florence.
Women’s involvement in medicine was slowly developing during the nineteenth century, but it took a long time for the British government to agree to female nurses being sent into warzones. Not only did Mary Seacole have to contend with prejudice due to her sex but also her race, yet she still succeeded astonishingly.
Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish soldier in the British Army and her mother was Jamaican. Her mother taught her a great deal about traditional herbal and folk remedies and her medical education came from her mother’s boarding house for disabled European servicemen.
Hearing of the terrors of the Crimean War she wanted to volunteer as a nurse and travelled to London to do so. At first the British War Office first refused her along with many other women, but even after women began to be accepted, she was left out of the party of nurses led by Florence Nightingale, who travelled to the Crimea on 21 October 1854.
This is when Mary Seacole demonstrated her remarkable resilience and dedication. Instead of giving up on her dream, she travelled to the Crimea on her own, using borrowed money. She visited Florence Nightingale’s hospital in Scutari but was turned away.
Again she did not give up. She travelled to Balaclava, gathered building materials and set up her new British Hotel, which opened in March 1855. It was applauded by the men for providing good food and simple cures. The Hotel sold useful items, food, and alcohol to soldiers, tourists and passers by and provided simple folk medicines and treatment for injuries. Seacole also often went out onto the front line to treat soldiers and give out food and drink.
While some praised her efforts, Florence Nightingale tried to avoid associating herself with Mary Seacole, as she objected to some aspects of Seacole’s Hotel such as selling alcohol and allowing access to tourists. Nightingale even likened Seacole’s Hotel to a brothel.
The Treaty of Paris was signed on 30 March 1856 and as soldiers began leaving the battlefield, Mary Seacole was struggling financially. After she returned to London she went bankrupt and when her problems were discussed in the British press, a fund was set up to help her.
A fundraising event, the “Seacole Fund Grand Military Festival” was organized and held at the Royal Surrey Gardens, from Monday 27 July to Thursday 30 July 1857. With many prominent military guests, the event was a success but unfortunately did not make that much money for Seacole.
In July 1857, she published an autobiography called Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. It was the first autobiography written by a black woman to be published in Britain.