Thursday, 26 November 2015
Black Victorians - Mary Seacole
Mary Seacole is quite famous - she volunteered as a nurse during the Crimean War, got turned down, and decided to go anyway. She paid for her nursing by opening a "British Hotel" which provided food and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent British soliders.
She was born Mary Jane Grant, in Jamaica, the daughter of a black woman and a Scottish soldier - her mother kept a boarding house in Kingston, and was also known as a "doctress" - she had a good knowledge of herbal medicine.
She married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole in 1836 - he was supposed to have some connection with Lord Nelson, either being a secret illegitimate son or a godson - but he had a weak constitution and was dead by 1844. Sadly, by this time Mary's mother had also died, and Mary took over the running of the boarding house.
She gained experience of nursing cholera victims in an epidemic in Jamaica in 1850 and later at her half-brother's hotel in Cruces, in Panama. She charged the rich patients, and nursed the poor for free. Later returning to Jamaica, she nursed patients of a yellow fever epidemic. When news of the Crimean War reached her - she was now back in Panama - she decided to volunteer her services as a nurse.
Her services were refused, but she had ample experience of both nursing and setting up hotels and restaurants, so that's what she did. On the way, she met a doctor returning from the Crimea, who gave her a letter of introduction to Florence Nightingale. Their first meeting was friendly, but in later years they didn't get on at all well.
She built her British Hotel from locally found scrap materials, and as well as providing meals, with a staff of two black cooks, she had a shop that sold "anything from an anchor to a needle". She also provided outside catering, including to spectators who gathered to watch the battles from a short distance away. Having a picnic while watching men kill each other (from a safe distance) was quite common in wars of the period.
At the end of the war, she was forced to sell off her stock and possessions at a low price, as the armies left the area, and she then came to England. Though popular, she was in severe financial difficulty and became bankrupt. When this became public, a fund was set up for her, and she was discharged from bankrupcy. She also wrote a book, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, which was the first autobiography of a black woman in Britain.
In 1872, she was back in London from Jamaica, and became the personal masseuse of the Princess of Wales, who suffered from rheumatism and "white leg" which starts with deep vein thrombosis.
She died in 1881, and was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetary at Kensal Green.
She has a blue plaque at the house where she lived in Soho Square, and her story is part of the National Curriculum in schools.