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News & Views

Celebrating Black Lives: Mary Seacole

This month, we celebrate the life of Mary Seacole (1805-1881), British-Jamaican nurse voted the greatest Black Briton in 2004.


Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica at the beginning of the 19th Century. As the daughter of a black mother and white Scottish army officer father, she was born a ‘free person’ at a time when many black people were forced to work as slaves.


She learned healing through traditional Jamaican medicines from her mother who ran a lodging house in Kingston. In her autobiography she remembered practicing on her dolls, who would happen to catch whatever disease was most prevalent in Kingston at the time.


As a young woman, she spent time in England, where she acquired knowledge about modern European medicine which supplemented her training in traditional Caribbean techniques.


In the 1850s she cared for victims of cholera and yellow fever epidemics and was eventually invited to supervise nursing services in the headquarters of the British Army in Kingston. She reorganised her mother’s boarding house to function as a hospital. She didn’t have children of her own, but she formed maternal bonds with the soldiers which would eventually take her to the Crimean War. When she read in the papers that the English soldiers were dying there because of cholera and diarrhea, she was determined to help improve the situation. Initially, when she asked to be sent to the Crimea as an army nurse, she was refused. Instead, she funded her own trip and set up a hospice to care for sick and recovering soldiers close to the front line. Mary went to the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded. Sick soldiers were so grateful for her kindness they called her ‘Mother Seacole’.


After the war, Mary returned to Britain with very little money. Soldiers wrote letters to newspapers in praise of her work. The following year, a four-day fund-raising gala was held for her and 80,000 people attended. She later published her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, which became an instant bestseller. She wrote: “Unless I am allowed to tell the story of my life in my own way, I cannot tell it at all.”


Mary died in London in 1881. Unfortunately, she was then lost to history for over a century until nurses from the Caribbean visited her grave in North West London. In 2004 she was voted the Greatest Black Briton and, after a long campaign, in 2016 a statue of Mary Seacole was at last unveiled in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital.


In her autobiography Mary wrote: “Death is always terrible—no one need be ashamed to fear it. How we bear it depends much upon our constitutions. I have seen some brave men, who have smiled at the cruelest amputation, die trembling like children; while others, whose lives have been spent in avoidance of the least danger or trouble, have drawn to their last painful breath like heroes, striking at their foe to the last, robbing him of his victory, and making their death a triumph.”


Each month we mark the significant life of a person of colour as a positive statement and a contribution to redressing historical imbalances in our society. More profiles.


Illustration: Statue of Mary Seacole, in front of St Thomas's Hospital, Battersea, sculpted by Martin Jennings in 2016. Photo by OwenBlacker.