Who is Mary Seacole?
Born in Jamaica in 1805 to a Scottish soldier father and a mixed-race mother, Mary Seacole travelled to Crimea in the 1850s to set up a treatment centre for soldiers.
Known as “Mother Seacole”, she was not a traditional nurse likeFlorence Nightingale or Edith Cavell. Indeed, having been taught herbal medicine by her mother – a “doctress” who used traditional Caribbean and African herbal remedies – she was rejected four times when she tried to join the official nursing ranks.
She moved to Gorgona in Italy, where she briefly ran a women’s-only hotel, before she decided to travel to the war-torn region of Crimea independently, setting up a “hotel” for injured soldiers in the town of Balaclava. She is said to have sold everything from handkerchiefs to champagne. She cooked up sponge cakes, custards, soups and stews to bring a taste of home to her “sons”.
In her memoirs she described it as a place to provide “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”.
“The grateful words and smiles which rewarded me for binding up a wound or giving a cooling drink was a pleasure worth risking life for at any time,” she said.
Tributes and awards
In 2004, Seacole was ranked the greatest black Briton ever in an online poll and she is one of just over a dozen women to be honoured with one of English Heritage’s commemorative blue plaques.
Top 10 | Great Black Britons
- Mary Seacole – Nurse in the Crimean war
- Wilfred Wood – First black bishop / O.A. Lyseight – Founding Father of the New Testament Church of God England & Wales
- Mary Prince – First black female author to be published
- Olaudah Equiano – Political activist
- Queen Phillipa – Wife of Edward III
- Courtney Pine – Jazz saxophonist
- Sir Bill Morris – Union leader / Sir Trevor McDonald – Newsreader
- Dame Shirley Bassey – Singer
- Bernie Grant – Labour MP
- Professor Stuart Hall – Sociologist
Source: 100 Great Black Britons
Salman Rushdie cited Seacole as an example of “hidden” black history in his Satanic Verses. “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.”
In June, a statue of the nursing heroine was unveiled outside St Thomas’ Hospital in London – an institution long associated with Nightingale.
Mary Seacole statue unveiled in LondonPlay!01:45
“This is an incredible woman who is a role model to us all,” said Baroness Benjamin at the time. “Because we all have to face adversity, we all have to face obstacles but when you’re determined, when you know you can break down those barriers and that’s what she showed.”
A painting of her hangs in the National Portrait Gallery after a local antiques dealer accidentally found it behind a framed print at the boot sale in Burford, Oxfordshire.
She is said have been awarded several medals for bravery.
What the critics say about Mary Seacole
There are those who say Seacole’s achievements have been overstated.
Sociology professor Lynn McDonald wrote in the Times Literary Supplement: “During the Crimean War, probably her greatest kindness was to serve hot tea and lemonade to cold, suffering soldiers awaiting transport to hospital on the wharf at Balaclava.
“She deserves much credit for rising to the occasion, but her tea and lemonade did not save lives, pioneer nursing or advance health care.”
Professor McDonald also says it is not true that she won any medals for bravery.
The decision to erect the statue at St Thomas’ Hospital was also criticised because she had no connection with the institution. According to The Times, Dr Sean Lang said she “does not qualify as a mainstream figure in the history of nursing”.