My Black History Heroine is Mary Seacole, the so-called ‘Black Florence Nightingale’ of the Crimean War. Her story not only reflects her own incredible personal resilience, but is also marked by the struggle against racial injustice both during her life and afterwards.
She was born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1805. While her father was a Scottish soldier, her mother was a traditional Jamaican healer who cared for injured soldiers and their wives at a boarding house.
Seacole gradually built upon her early experience of medicinal practice as she traveled extensively across the Caribbean and twice to England. Between 1836 and 1844, her travels were of a more limited nature, due to her marriage to Edwin Seacole, who sadly died in 1844.
Over time, she increasingly gained a reputation for her medicinal skills. Less well-known than her work in the Crimea, was her pioneering medical treatment and understanding of cholera during the 1850 Jamaican cholera epidemic. In total, some 32,000 people died, but Seacole demonstrated an early example of contagion theory by identifying the source of the epidemic being a steamer from New Orleans, Louisiana.
In October 1853 the Crimean War, pitting British, French, Sardinia and Ottoman Empire forces against the Russian Empire’s troops, broke out. Seacole traveled to London to attempt to join the army nurses.
In spite of citing a wealth of previous medical experience caring for soldiers in the Caribbean, her applications to the War Office, medical department and Secretary of State for War to be allowed to travel to Crimea to tend to the wounded, were refused.
Undeterred, she resolved to make her own way to Crimea. Using both her own funds and partnering with a distant relation, Seacole was able to reach Crimea in early 1855 and set up the British Hotel, a convalescent establishment behind the front-line, designed to be a ‘mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’.
However, as well as working from her base at the British Hotel, Seacole attended as a sutler on the front-line, earning the fond soldiers’ nickname of ‘Mother Seacole’s’. Her wider fame was ensured by a report by William H. Russell, the famous war correspondent for The Times in July 1855. He described her as:
a warm and successful physician, who doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success.
When the war concluded in Spring 1856, Seacole was left bankrupt from her activities. A public outcry followed, headed by The Times, and a benefits festival was organised by two Crimean War commanders, Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget, to raise funds. The event was successful with over a thousand attending.
Seacole published in 1857 her own autobiography of her experiences in the Crimea, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in many lands, to which William H. Russell added a generous preface:
I trust that England will not forget one who 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
However, England did forget and Seacole passed away in relative obscurity in 1881. Only around a century after her death were her contributions in the Crimea celebrated again, and in 2004, in a poll to decide the 100 Greatest Black Britons, Seacole was voted number one. She has also received perhaps the even higher acclaim of being one of the figures in history to have had a ‘Horrible Histories’ song written about her achievements.
Even so, the fact that for a century or so she was largely forgotten about, raises uncomfortable questions as to the ‘whitewashing’ of British history, where noted BME figures are excluded from historical coverage.
This is a debate still relevant to Seacole for in 2013 the then-Education Secretary Michael Gove was forced to u-turn after heavy public pressure on proposals to drop Seacole from the National Curriculum. Further, in 2016, a group of historians strenuously objected to plans to construct a statue of Seacole outside St Thomas’s Hospital, London. They described the legend of Seacole’s accomplishments in the Crimea as a ‘history hoax’, citing the evidence of her business transactions in selling beverages and food, that make her more a generous businesswoman than medical pioneer. This is an interesting viewpoint, considering that the racial discrimination she faced forced her to have to fund herself. However, they were unsuccessful in their objections as a statue of Seacole does now stand outside St Thomas’s.In my own opinion, one final move could be made to commemorate and celebrate the extraordinary life of Mary Seacole. As our banknotes are slowly being transferred to their new waterproof, sleek form, each denomination is being given a new figure to celebrate. If a sustained public campaign was able to bring about Jane Austen’s inclusion on the £10 banknote, perhaps it’s time for a campaign to push for Mary Seacole on the £20 or £50.
This would also be a hugely symbolic move against the previous ‘whitewashing’ of history, to include a representative of Britain’s BME community on a Bank of England banknote for the first time.