The problem with history is that a lot of what we consume is written by white people. As such, we often fail to acknowledge the achievements and special qualities of immensely influential black people – a lot of whom pop back into the public consciousness a century or two later as one of history’s forgotten figures.
Here at Bloom, we think it’s important to celebrate influential and interesting people of all creeds and colours. The recent surge in the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd has demonstrated the systematic oppression and difficulty black people face in everyday life; an unwelcome remnant in society leftover from the days of slavery and segregation. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting significant figures from black history and celebrating the huge impact they’ve had on society.
Mary Seacole was a nurse born in 1805 to a Scottish father and Jamaican mother, in Jamaica. Despite being herself a product of British colonial presence in the West Indies, she professed pride in both her Scots and Jamaican heritage, as well as espousing the values of Empire in general. This is perhaps what led her to Crimea in her adulthood.
Seacole watched her mother’s skill at running a boarding house in Kingston and treating colonial soldiers for diseases with which western European bodies were unfamiliar. Jamaican doctors made good use of herbal medicines and were advanced as general practitioners; the western propensity for catching yellow fever gave them no shortage of practice.
Seacole married in 1836, though her husband tragically died in 1841, around the same time her mother tragically died, and her boarding house burned down. She proved adept at business by rebuilding her fortunes and pushing a new boarding house back into profitability just a few years later.
After spells in Panama and further time in Jamaica, treating wounded soldiers from the Spanish Civil War and British soldiers suffering from a yellow fever outbreak, where she demonstrated her swift adeptness and pragmatism providing effective and hygienic treatment utilising herbs such as cinnamon to treat cholera. When she received word of British casualties amassing in a conflict in Crimea, she felt duty bound to offer her services. Florence Nightingale was already en route – and this would prove a stumbling block in Seacole’s journey.
Despite bringing with her a wealth of glowing recommendations to Nightingale’s recruiter for the official nursing corps of the British Army (the wife of a prominent British politician,) Seacole was told all the positions available were filled. Thus, Seacole’s journey to Constantinople was funded jointly by herself and Thomas Day, an official at a mining camp in Panama where she had established a medical camp some years earlier. When she arrived and pressed Nightingale for a nursing position, she was again refused.
From scrap metal and wood, Seacole and Day constructed a field hospital in Balaclava, affectionately named the “British Hotel.” Although payment was required for Seacole’s services due to the tenuous circumstances which had brought the pair to Crimea, many soldiers fondly recognised her from their time in Jamaica and called her Aunty or Mother. She also treated troops in the field, in the heat of the battle – something Florence Nightingale never did. She did earn some enemies by offering alcohol in the British Hotel as a woman of colour, chiefly amongst the British aristocracy. Yet, she was warmly received by any soldiers who met her.
For all her efforts, Seacole was rewarded with bankruptcy on her arrival in London after the war. Despite an outpouring of sympathy and donations by soldiers after an article in The Times culminating in a multi-day Grand Military Festival (July 1857) in Surrey in Seacole’s honour, accusations of mismanaged finances by its organisers (Lord Rokeby and Lord Paget) have long swirled. Seacole is thought to have received little for her wartime work or from the festival. Seacole was also refused an audience with Queen Victoria, although the monarch had met with other people of similar heritage. It has been suggested that supporters of Florence Nightingale spread rumours of Seacole having run a brothel in order to besmirch her standing within British society. Nightingale’s brother-in-law headed relief efforts for the Franco-Prussian War and refused Seacole’s offer of assistance in 1870, so the evidence that Nightingale entertained a conspiracy against Seacole has value. She died with little fanfare 11 years later in her London home of a stroke.
Mary Seacole was a pioneer of battlefield healthcare and defied the establishment to service a country that had barely showed her any kindness, however much she tried to help it. Everybody remembers the Lady with the Lamp – perhaps we should remember Mother Mary too.
Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
This portrait can be viewed physically in the National Portrait Gallery, London, where it was installed after Seacole was voted Greatest Black Briton in 2004.