Figure 8: Mary Seacole


Underrated: Born Mary Jane Grant in Jamaica (1805-1881), Mary spent her life travelling to different countries in order to try to save lives. Her mother owned a boarding house, and it was there that Mary learned traditional medicine and gained a reputation as a nurse.

She was also pretty entrepreneurial, opening a hotel with her brother in Panama in 1851 where she learned to treat cholera, as well as surviving the disease herself. She left to treat yellow fever in Jamaica two years later, and began to provide services for troops at this time.

Not long after she made the trip to England, where she heard about the issues facing the nurses on the battlefields of the Crimea. Mary went to several different officials, requesting admission to the front to provide her services, all of whom rejected her. She was even apparently rejected by Florence Nightingale, although this is still a big point of contention.

So Mary decided to make her own way there. She established a company with a relative, and set up a general store and hotel, and they were given permission to travel to Crimea. With her medicines, Mary nursed and cared for injured soldiers at military hospitals, where ‘Her remedies for cholera and dysentery were particularly valued. She earned the nickname Mother Seacole, and she became famous back in England thanks to a war reporter named W. H Russel reporting on her good deeds. Unfortunately, when the war ended her hotel and general store naturally failed, and he returned to the UK destitute.

But many people had not forgotten Mary, and an enormous benefit was organised to raise money for her by two former Crimea Commanders and lords. She continued to work, and was apparently rejected once again from helping during the Franco-Prussian war, as she contacted Florence Nightingale’s brother-in-law Harry Verney, who was closely involved in the British National Society for the Relief of the Sick and Wounded. Mary spoke very fondly of Florence in her memoirs, but a letter from Florence to Verney referred to Seacole’s hotel as a ‘bad house’ and said ‘I had the greatest difficulty in repelling Mrs Seacole’s advances, and in preventing association between her and my nurses (absolutely out of the question).’

In recent times, it seems to me that both of these womens’ impressive legacies have been overshadowed by modern historians, politicians and newspapers attempting to pit them against each other. Every article I’ve looked at resorts to the claim that one or the other of these nurses were terrible and Bad and not worth remembering. Very little mainstream media seems to care that it’s easy to celebrate both women.

Mary Seacole portrait illustration

I feel that Florence had her reasons for rejecting Mary, living as she did in a time when almost anything could destroy a woman’s reputation. Mary had unconventional medical practices, and in a society that had only banned slavery around a decade before, and in the days of Empire, it was normal for white British people to look down on basically anything anyone did differently to them. While I wholeheartedly disagree with this world view, I think that holding Florence solely responsible for colonialist ideas is more than a little unfair, especially considering that a lot of men rejected her back in England too. It is a classic example of men pitting women against each other because they think that only one can be a saintly woman, the other has to be terrible, doesn’t she?

I also think that Mary has become a target of this drama due to the polarising effects of contemporary discussions on Brexit and immigration. For some, the fact that she has a statue outside a hospital at which Florence worked – and the fact that her statue is a tiny bit bigger than Florences (which by the way was installed over 100 years before Mary’s!) is a huge spit in the face for white people across the country – darned immigrants, stealing our jobs, healing our sick!!

This goes hand in hand with the attitude that acknowledging Mary’s accomplishments is ONLY being done to pander to PoC’s *insert comments about liberal snowflakes here.* They conveniently ignore the fact that the main reason People of Colour from history are only now being recognised is because we wilfully ignored their contributions in the past due to racism. People have gone as far as saying that she didn’t actually contribute anything, really, to the Crimea war, and therefore should not be celebrated, despite those nice quotes from W H Russel.

Which is funny because London has statues of the likes of George IV, ‘by all accounts the worst king Britain’s had’ and statues of animals who probably weren’t massive contributors to British society.

I think that Mary’s techniques were unconventional and possibly unscientific. But I feel that as long as she was helping people, as she certainly did, then she still absolutely deserves celebrating.

Further reading here.

Read a great article about the modern ‘feud’ here:

‘Even Natasha McEnroe, the director of the Florence Nightingale Museum, can’t understand the fuss. And pitting the two against each other is plain sexist, she says. “No one ever asks me to compare the work of two (male) surgeons in the Crimean War, yet it is always assumed that two women feud,”’



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