Thursday 21 February 2013

Black Heroes: Mother Seacole

Growing up in Jamaica I lived on an all women's college called Short Wood Teacher's College.  It's an old plantation that was turned into a school, many of the old buildings were still there, but there were a few new ones as well, one of my all time favorite buildings was the Math & Science department because my mother's best friend was in charge there, so I got to roam the halls at will. This building fascinated me because it was called the Mary Seacole Building, & it had a portrait of a larger than life woman, my mother always had an answer for who she was, she was called Mother Seacole & she was the face of modern nursing for Jamaicans, she was a hero. (Source: my mother)

Born Mary Jane Seacole in 1805, she was a mixed descent of Creole mother & Scottish soldier int he British Army. Mary's mother was a healer of the old ways and she taught her daughter man of her traditions, including those pertaining to herbs. Mary learned her nursing skills at the hands of her mother while helping her treat men who were suffering from Yellow fever in Jamaica.  Her mother owned a hotel that mostly served the soldiers & those that were ill were taken care of by her.

Later on Mary was sent away to be educated  with a older woman, then from 1821-1825 she travelled extensively to London & back to Jamaica bringing with her spices and preserves to sell.  In 1826 she returned to Jamaica & nursed her old Patroness (the woman who educated her) until the woman passed some years later, then she returned tot he family home of Blundell Hall, where she returned to her roots of helping her mother in nursing and also helping out at the local British Hospital.  With her skills she travelled the Caribbean extensively and then returns home in 1836 where she marries Edwin Seacole on November 10th.

Her husband later passed in October of 1844, and so did her mother, leaving Mary in charge of the hotel her mother had built up.  Mary sought refuge in the work of making the hotel a success and she became popular among the British soldiers who stayed on the island, due to her hospitality   During the 1850 Cholera epidemic Mary treated many patients, and it was her belief that the disease was brought to the idea by a boat coming from New Orleans, Louisiana.  (source)

Her belief about the contagion theory would later help her in the Crimean War, the same war that made Nightingale a household name.  Mary later moved to Panama, where she created an all women's hotel and continued her nursing skills, advancing her esteem among the British and the new Americans there.  Later she would return to Jamaica and with the British's urging formed a nursing corp of women to help in the hospital.  (source)  In 1854 with the help of her late husband's friend she travelled to London to volunteer with Nightingale's Nurses who were going to the aide of the soldiers who were wounded;  she was rejected as a black woman and was told they had no more need of nurses.  She applied to the British War Office & they also turned her down.  Mary poured her resources into collecting nurses who wished to go and getting resources and made the trip to the Peninsula  there she briefly met up with Nightingale; who despite needing the help rebuffed her efforts.

Mary decided to open a hotel and used scraps to do so, she ran the hotel six days a week and treated soldiers and their ailes after serving them, she also went out and sought out the wounded and helped as much as she could.  When news of her efforts made it back to Florence Nightingale, she accused Mary of running a brothel.  Many dismissed Florence's accusations due to the glowing references many of the officers and war correspondents as well as returning soldiers gave Mary including the one below:
In a dispatch written on 14 September 1855, William Howard Russell, special correspondent of The Times, wrote that she was a "warm and successful physician, who doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle-field to aid the wounded and has earned many a poor fellow's blessing." Russell also wrote that she "redeemed the name of sutler", and another that she was "both a Miss Nightingale and a [chef]". Seacole made a point of wearing brightly coloured, and highly conspicuous, clothing—often bright blue, or yellow, with ribbons in contrasting colours.[69] While Lady Alicia Blackwood later recalled that Seacole had "... personally spared no pains and no exertion to visit the field of woe, and minister with her own hands such things as could comfort or alleviate the suffering of those around her; freely giving to such as could not pay ..." (Source)
Despite her success in Crimea, when the war ended Mary was left destitute  she returned to London, where a fund was created by the grateful men who survived due to her care, including the nephew of Queen Victoria.   While many grew to know and honor the name of Florence, the men who were helped by Mary never forgot her, and she wrote her autobiography (being the first black woman to do so in Britain) in it was a preface that stated:
"I have witnessed her devotion and her courage ... and I trust that England will never forget one who has nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead."
And now you know who was my role model of a nurse ( I mean other than family members).  Mary did things other women couldn't do at the time, heck she did things Black women couldn't do at the time. She was a good woman who made up her mind that she was going to succeed with or without the establishment's help and she did it.  Black Nurses everywhere should know her name. Actually i think Nurses everywhere should know her name,
Close up of a portrait of Mary by Albert Challen
She is a hero, a role model,  a woman of substance.

Resources to Learn More

  •  Her autobiography is FREE on Amazon at the moment, so go get it!!  
  • Click here for a list of books about Mary. 
  •  If you have children you wish to teach about Mary, the BBC has a wonderful website dedicated to her here

 Happy Black History Month my loves


  1. Drat! I don't have a kindle, so I couldn't get her autobiography from Amazon! I am glad that you posted this -- this reminded me of the ladies in my neighborhood. If someone was very sick, the ladies would visit the sick and bring them soup or other nourishment.

    1. you can download the kindle app it's free. you can have it for pc/mac or android cellphones


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