Rare Photograph of Mary Seacole Discovered


Mary Seacole, the 19th century Jamaican nurse, entrepreneur, and world traveler, who is known in the UK as a hero of the Crimean War, is one of my favorite (and most intriguing) historical figures. I was thrilled to read (Caribbean Net News, 20 June 2009) that a previously unknown photograph and a rare signature of Seacole have been unearthed at one of England’s oldest private schools, Winchester College. Geoffrey Day, the current Fellows’ and Eccles Librarian at Winchester College, discovered the photograph in an elegant private campaign scrapbook, compiled by former Coldstream guards officer, Ely Duodecimus Wigram (1802-1869). The photograph of Mary Seacole is full face with a wealth of detail, including her hairstyle and the lace edging on her clothes. [It is not the photograph shown here].

The photograph will be used to support the fundraising efforts of the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal (MSMSA). A release from the Statue Appeal said that while Winchester College retains the copyright of the image, it has allowed the MSMSA sole use in order to raise funds for the project. The MSMSA, which is supported by the Jamaican High Commission in London, was set up in November 2003 to create a permanent reminder of the life and courage of the Jamaican nurse who put herself in danger’s way to support British troops in spite of the racism she often faced (and fought against). A specially designed postcard has been produced by the MSMSA, and will be available for sale to help finance the memorial, at a site donated by and located on the grounds of St. Thomas’ Hospital, facing the Houses of Parliament in London.

Although Seacole herself rarely admitted to having been treated differently, in her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Mary Seacole in Many Lands (first published in 1857), she wonders whether Florence Nightingale had not accepted Seacole’s offer to join her corps of nurses because of the color of her skin. Her critique of racism was more often directed at white U.S. citizens. On one occasion, after having been toasted by a group of “Yankees” expressing joy that she was “so many shades removed from being entirely black” and the wish to bleach her skin to make her “acceptable in any company,” she thanked them and returned their toast, adding, “But I must say that I don’t altogether appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion [. . .] and as to his offer of bleaching me, I should, even if it were practicable, decline it without any thanks. As to the society which the process might gain me admission into, all I can say is, that, judging from the specimens I have met with here and elsewhere, I don’t think that I shall lose much by being excluded from it. So gentlemen, I drink to you and the general reformation of American manners.” [Excerpt from Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Mary Seacole in Many Lands, edited by Ziggy Alexander and Audrey Dewjee; Falling Wall Press, 1984.]

For full article on the new photograph, see http://www.caribbeannetnews.com/jamaica/jamaica.php?news_id=17219&start=0&category_id=9

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