Mary Seacole: myths and reality

The celebrated black nurse of the Crimean War led an extraordinary life.

A report by Tomiwa Owolade for The Times of London.

Mary Seacole was the most famous black woman in 19th-century England. In a 2004 poll she was voted the greatest ever black Briton. Known by the British troops in Crimea as “Mother Seacole”, she was a nurse, pharmacist, humanitarian, businesswoman and patriot. Her herbal remedies treated “dysentery and cholera”.

She was skilful at stitching a wound and bandaging injuries. And her “wonderful stews” and Christmas puddings nourished soldiers 2,000 miles from home.

Yet, as Helen Rappaport shows in this lively and enlightening new biography, there is much about Seacole’s life that we don’t know, including the identity of the father of her child. And much of what we think we do know about her is wrong.

She wasn’t born in Kingston, for instance, but in a small town called Haughton. She never ran a lodging house in Jamaica. And she didn’t build and run a hospital in Crimea.

Still, she lived an extraordinary life. At a time when women’s roles were strictly fixed to domesticity she travelled to Panama, Britain and Crimea, each place successively further away from her native Jamaica. And when she fell on hard times in later life, as many as 40,000 people attended a “Seacole Fund Grand Military Festival” in support of her.

Seacole was born Mary Grant in 1805 to a white Scottish army officer called John Grant and his mixed-race Jamaican wife, Rebecca. For someone canonised as a black heroine, it is striking that she never described herself as black. She instead simply called herself an “English woman”. (As someone from Jamaica, she was indeed a subject of the British Empire.) She also took great pride in her “Scotch” ancestry.

She first visited Britain in the 1820s, when she was a teenager, and in 1836 married an Essex man named Edwin Horatio Seacole, a navy merchant who was the godson of Admiral Nelson. This was not a “love match”, but a purely “pragmatic business arrangement”. With the abolition of slavery only three years old, it made sense for a Jamaican woman wishing to advance herself to marry a white British man.

The Crimean War made Seacole a celebrity

Mary’s early life is shrouded in so much mystery that Rappaport’s tone in the first chapters is heavily speculative; this makes it slightly frustrating to read. Things improve, though, when we reach the Crimean War of 1853-56, the conflict that made Seacole a celebrity.

By this time a middle-aged woman who had already nursed British soldiers in Panama, Seacole came to Britain in 1854, hoping to be sponsored to go to Crimea. When no support came, she went out on her own to the Black Sea to support the British troops.

There she became a sutler who provided food and medicine to the soldiers. And she became a much loved one too. She was known for the vivid colour of her clothes, her convivial spirit and her heartening meals: “good Irish stews” and “capital meat pies”. One person who particularly admired her was the Times war reporter William Howard Russell, who said of her that “a more tender or skilful hand about a wound or a broken limb could not be found among our best surgeons”. For her wartime services Seacole was later awarded the Turkish Order of the Medjidie, the French Legion of Honour and the British Crimea Medal.

Queen Victoria donated £50 to the Mary Seacole fund when Seacole was struggling financially. But the queen never invited her to tea, and this was probably because of the most famous nurse of the Crimean War: Florence Nightingale. The prim Nightingale disapproved of Seacole, who sold alcohol in Crimea and had, Nightingale claimed, a daughter who was illegitimate. Victoria’s admiration for Nightingale, Rappaport thinks, lay behind her reluctance to be seen with Seacole.

After the Crimean War Seacole lived most of the rest of her life in London in semi-penury. Her memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, was published in 1857 and widely reviewed, but she vanished from the British public imagination after her death in 1881, until her memoir was republished in 1984.

Rappaport discovered and bought a lost painting of Seacole in January 2003. It is now in the National Portrait Gallery. In recent decades Seacole has become such an iconic figure that many legends have grown up around her, but Rappaport’s book is a more valuable monument to Seacole’s legacy than that painting, or many of the other books and poems celebrating her life. Myth is important; but not as important as history.

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