Hands on History: The Brave Mary Seacole
By Shani Asokan Ceylon Today Features
With the COVID-19 pandemic still working its way through our societies, healthcare workers have never been more important to us than they are now. Doctors, nurses and other medical staff are fighting on the frontlines to keep us safe, and healthy. So, in light of this, today we are traveling back 200 years to learn about a one-of-a-kind nurse and incredibly brave woman, Mary Seacole.
Who was Mary Seacole?
Mary was born in Kingston, on the Caribbean Island of Jamaica, around 1805. Now, I say around 1805 because to this day, no one really knows the exact date of Mary’s birthday, just the year. Mary’s father was a Scottish soldier stationed in Jamaica - at the time, the island was part of the British Empire. Her mother was a Jamaican nurse and healer.
Mary had two siblings, a sister and a brother. Now, it is unclear if Mary received any formal schooling, but we do know that she became interested in medicine and nursing at a very young age.
When Mary was just 12 years old, she helped her mother run a boarding house in Kingston that housed mostly sick or injured soldiers. Mary’s mother taught her a lot about traditional Jamaican healing practices and remedies, but she also learned a lot from the army doctors boarded at the house.
Mary was a great traveller even though at the time, it wasn’t common for women to travel a lot. She had been to England, The Bahamas, Haiti and Cuba by the time she turned 30. Mary married a man named Edwin Seacole in 1836 but he was quite sickly, and died only a few years after they married. Following the death of her husband, Mary turned all her attention towards caring for sick people.
Mary the nurse
In 1851, Mary travelled to Panama where her brother ran a hotel. While there, she opened a shop that sold food and groceries to gold miners, and continued her work in medicine, treating people for cholera (an infection of the small intestine) and tropical diseases like yellow fever. Mary briefly returned to Kingston in 1854 but she didn’t stay long.
When she heard that British soldiers were being sent to Russia to fight in the Crimean War, she knew she had to help. She went to the War Office in London, where she requested to join the team of nurses being sent to Crimea. This team was headed by none other than Florence Nightingale, the famed nurse who worked on the battlefields of the Crimean War! Unfortunately, Mary was turned down, along with several others who had volunteered. However, this wasn’t enough to stop the determined Mary from helping. She travelled to Crimea with a friend in 1855 on a ship stocked with medical supplies.
When she arrived in Crimea, she was still not allowed to join the nurses. However, Mary could see that many soldiers of the British army were sick, tired and cold. If they weren’t sick or injured, they weren’t being cared for. So, using her own means, Mary set up a British Hotel close to the battlefield. This wasn’t like an ordinary hotel; it was just a small tent where soldiers could rest and have a hot meal. Mary used the money she earned from the hotel to treat the sick and wounded soldiers.
All the nurses serving in the Crimean War did invaluable work in caring for the sick and wounded, but what set Mary apart was something incredible. She rode on horseback onto the battlefields even when the fighting was going on to care for those who had fallen - from both sides of the war. For these acts, Mary came to be called Mother Seacole.
Mary after the war
Mary returned to London after the war had ended with very little money and in poor health. However, her hard work did not go unnoticed; many of the soldiers she had cared for wrote to local newspapers, telling them of her good deeds. She received money and medals for her bravery from governments in different countries and in her last 20 years, she was able to live a quiet life, spending her time between London and Jamaica.
Now, why is Mary Seacole’s story so important? Mary was a mixed-raced woman who lived in a time where neither people of colour nor women were treated very well. In fact, Mary’s tale of bravery was lost in history for around 100 years.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that her story resurfaced, and people began to learn about her. We must remember Mary because she broke social norms and prejudices of her time to travel the world, care for people and work in a truly selfless way, under the most dangerous of circumstances.