Mary Jane Seacole (23 November 1805 – 14 May 1881), née Grant, was a Jamaican-born woman of Scottish and Creole descent who set up a “British Hotel” behind the lines during the Crimean War, which she described as “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers,” and provided succour for wounded servicemen on the battlefield. She was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991. In 2004 she was voted the greatest black Briton.
She acquired knowledge of herbal medicine in the Caribbean. When the Crimean War broke out, she applied to the War Office to assist but was refused. She traveled independently and set up her hotel and assisted battlefield wounded. She became extremely popular among service personnel who raised money for her when she faced destitution after the war.
After her death, she was forgotten for almost a century, but today is celebrated as a woman who successfully combated racial prejudice. Her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), is one of the earliest autobiographies of a mixed-race woman, although some aspects of its accuracy have been questioned. It has been claimed that Seacole’s achievements have been exaggerated for political reasons and a plan to erect a statue of her at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, describing her as a “pioneer nurse”, has generated controversy. Further controversy broke out in the United Kingdom late in 2012 over reports of a proposal to remove her from the country’s National Curriculum.[
With a reputation that rivals that of Florence Nightingale, Seacole certainly made history. Not only did she cope with prejudice and discrimination, but she was also a selfless nurse, dedicated to providing strong medical services to wounded soldiers.
After the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853, Seacole traveled overseas to the British War Office, determined to serve as an army nurse. Then when she was refused, she funded her own trip to Crimea, started a hotel for injured officers (built out of salvaged materials), and braved enemy fire to nurse the wounded on the battlefield. Affectionately, she was known as “Mother Seacole.” And she is still remembered in Britain, where many buildings and organizations are named in her honor.
Seacole’s recognition has provoked a reaction. It has been argued that she has been promoted at the expense of Florence Nightingale, and in an attempt to promote multiculturalism. Professor Lynn McDonald has written that “…support for Seacole has been used to attack Nightingale’s reputation as a pioneer in public health and nursing.”There is opposition to the proposed siting of a statue of Mary Seacole at St Thomas’ Hospital on the grounds that she had no connection with this institution, whereas Florence Nightingale did. Dr Sean Lang has stated that she “does not qualify as a mainstream figure in the history of nursing”.
While well-known at the end of her life, Seacole rapidly faded from public memory. Her work in Crimea was overshadowed by Florence Nightingale’s for many years. However, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in her and efforts to properly acknowledge her achievements. Seacole has become a symbol of racial attitudes and social injustices in Britain during that period. She was quoted as an example of “hidden” black history in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, like Olaudah Equiano: “See, here is Mary Seacole, who did as much in the Crimea as another magic-lamping lady, but, being dark, could scarce be seen for the flame of Florence’s candle.”