Mary Jane Seacole was a Jamaican business woman who set up the British Hotel behind the lines during the Crimean War. She described this as "a messtable 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 was born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica, in May 1805 to a white Scottish army officer and a mulatto mother, a legal classification given by the British colonists to persons of mixed race. By standards of that time, her family was considered well off. Her mother was the daughter of freed slaves and was a well-known doctress and sutler.
Seacole's education was twofold: she learned from formal schooling and from observing her doctress mother, who was particularly skilled in diagnosing tropical diseases and treating them with herbology. The knowledge derived from African herbal medicine combined with the practice of treating ailments and injuries, known as "Creole medical art," was bom from the need for blacks in the plantations to look after each other because conventional medical training and care was denied them at the time. In her autobiography, Seacole wrote about watching her mother attend the soldiers who stayed in the boarding house she ran for military personnel and how this kindled her ambition to follow in her mother's footsteps. By the age of 12, when not practicing medicine on her dolls and pets, she assisted her mother in the treatment of patients.
Seacole traveled throughout her life and was confronted with issues of race many times. During the 1820s, she traveled twice to England and also visited the Bahamas, Haiti, and Cuba. In 1836 she met and married Edwin Horatio Seacole, with whom she traveled throughout Central America and the Caribbean. The brevity of the marriage and the trauma of Horatio s death made Seacole pledge she would never marry again.
In 1843, while living in London, she received news of her mother's death and returned to Jamaica to manage the boarding house. That same year, the propeity was burned to the ground in the great fire of Kingston. Seacole was able to rebuild an improved version and, following in her mother's steps, became nurse and doctress to tire military personnel who stayed at her hotel. When a severe cholera epidemic hit Kingston in 1850, Mary Seacole treated hundreds of victims. A year later, she followed her bother to Panama, where a gold rush was undeway. There she found herself in the midst of another cholera epidemic, and wanting to better understand the disease, she performed her first autopsy. Although it was an illegal procedure, she used it to teach herself much-needed surgical skills.
Seacole followed her brother Edward in his travels through Colombia and other Latin American countries, where she continued to treat victims of cholera, yellow fever, and other diseases. In 1853 she returned to Jamaica when professional medical personnel there recruited her during an outbreak of yellow fever. She continued to perform the medical skills that would make her famous, but her next challenge would occur thousands of miles away from home.
In 1854 Turkey, France, and Britain were waging war against Russia in Crimea. Soldiers were dying at a fast rate and nursing help was needed. Florence Nightingale was heading a group of nurses to assist in this effort. Seacole, who had traveled to London, applied, but the authorities refused to interview her or grant her permission to go. Undaunted by this rejection, she bankrolled her own mission and just as her mother had done, she established and opened the British Hotel, two miles from Balaclava, where she attended the wounded and served as sutler, selling provisions to the soldiers.
Unlike Nightingale's nurses, whose work was limited to attending the wounded in the hospital wards, Seacole worked out of improvised hospitals on the battlefields. She displayed courage on the frontline and "carefully picked her way through the mutilated bodies of men hit by round shot and shell, seeking out the wounded and dying whether enemy or ally".
After the Crimean War, Seacole found herself with a sizeable quantity of unusable and unsellable provisions. Back in London she was bankrupt, but by 1857 British soldiers and citizens had raised enough money to pay off her debts. That same year in London, 40,000 people joined a four-day celebration honoring Seacole, who by then was known as "The Crimean Heroine" and "The Mother of the Regiment."
Also in 1857, Seacole's autobiography became a best-seller. Although her writing is seemingly optimistic, the reader understands the difficulties she experienced as a black woman confronted by the racism of the times. On her return from the United States to Jamaica she was intimidated by white passengers who were unwilling to tolerate a black woman passenger. When she called the captain, he characterized the harassment as being "the custom of the country" and arranged for her fare to be refunded so that she could get off and take a British ship. The identity problems caused by the "mulatto" racial classification are reflected in some of the narrative in Seacole's autobiography.
Even though Seacole lived in a slave society for the first 30 years of her life, her writing seems to let the status quo of the time go unchallenged: "In her and in her writing are combined the conflicting elements of pride in her African ancestry and unquestioning acceptance of British culture and attitudes, which sometimes manifested itself in her use of pejorative European terminology".
She married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole in Kingston on 10 November 1836. Her marriage, from betrothal to widowhood, is described in just nine lines at the conclusion of the first chapter of her autobiography. His middle names are notable: Robinson reports the legend in the Seacole family that Edwin was an illegitimate son of Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson and his mistress Emma, Lady Hamilton, who was adopted by Thomas, a local "surgeon, apothecary and man midwife" (Seacole's will indicates that Horatio Seacole was Nelson's godson: she left a diamond ring to her friend, Lord Rokeby, "given to my late husband by his godfather Viscount Nelson", but there was no mention of this godson in Nelson's own will or its codicils.) Edwin was a merchant and seems to have had a poor constitution. The newly married couple moved to Black River and opened a provisions store which failed to prosper. They returned to Blundell Hall in the early 1840s.