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Author Highlight #1 - Mary Seacole

There are so many amazing authors in this world, both past and present ones which resurface on our #bookstagram feeds when they have an anniversary or birthday (it's never often enough of new book releases, but hey ho...). But what do we really know of our great inspirations, leaders, trail blazers and role models? We have created a highlight category to bring you information about some of our favourites and our first highlight will be of the eternal and ethereal Mary Seacole.

Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica more than 200 years ago. This was during the period when many black people in the Caribbean were forced to work as slaves. Although Mary’s mother was black, her father James Grant was a white Scottish army officer and Mary was born a ‘free person’. She had a sister, Louisa, and a brother, Edward.

Mary’s mother ran a lodging house, called Blundell Hall, which was much respected by local people in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital city. But she was also a healer and taught Mary many of her skills using traditional Jamaican medicines.

A keen student from early childhood, Mary practised medicine on her doll, dogs and cats, and on herself. She writes in her autobiography:

“It was very natural that I should inherit her tastes; and so, I had from early youth a yearning for medical knowledge and practice which never deserted me…. And I was very young when I began to make use of the little knowledge I had acquired from watching my mother, upon great sufferer – my doll… and whatever disease was most prevalent in Kingston, be sure my poor doll soon contracted it.”

By 1818, aged 12, Mary helped run the boarding house, where many of the guests were sick or injured soldiers. Three years later, she travelled to England with relatives and stayed for about a year. It was an opportunity to acquire knowledge about modern European medicine which supplemented her training in traditional Caribbean techniques.

In 1823, Mary went to London on her own, remaining there for 2 years. She experienced racist comments while in London. She describes herself as “only a little” brown, but her friend was very dark so London boys made fun of their complexions. However, Mary’s companion was hot-tempered, and because there were no police officers around it was quite eventful!

During 1825, her travels included Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas, returning to Kingston in 1826 to nurse her patroness in a long illness.

In 1853, Mary returned to Kingston, caring for victims of a yellow fever epidemic. She was invited by the medical authorities to supervise nursing services at Up-Park in Kingston, the British Army’s headquarters, and she re-organised New Blundell Hall, her mother’s former lodging house rebuilt after a fire, to function as a hospital. Mary had no children of her own, but the strong maternal attachments she formed with these soldiers, and her feelings for them, would later drive Mary to the Crimea.

The Crimean War lasted from October 1853 until February 1856. It was fought by a coalition including Britain, against the Russian Empire.

Mary travelled to England and approached the British War Office, asking to be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea where she had heard there were poor medical facilities for wounded soldiers. She was refused.

Undaunted, she funded her own trip to Crimea, now part of Ukraine, where she established the British Hotel with Thomas Day, a relative of her husband, Edwin. The hotel provided a place of respite for sick and recovering soldiers. At the time, Mary was as well-known in Britain as Florence Nightingale. Ms Nightingale’s famous military hospital was situated hundreds of miles from the frontline in Scutari (now called Üsküdar, just outside the Turkish city of Istanbul). But Mary’s hotel near Balaclava was much closer to the fighting. Mary was able to visit the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded. Indeed, she nursed sick soldiers so kindly that they called her ‘Mother Seacole’.

When the war ended, Mary went back to Britain with very little money. Soldiers wrote letters to newspapers, praising what she had done.

The Times War Correspondent, Sir William H Russell, wrote of Mary in 1857: “I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead”. All those who admired her came to her aid, whether soldiers, generals or members of the Royal family. In 1857 a fund-raising gala was held for her over four nights on the banks of the River Thames. Over 80,000 people attended. The same year she published her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, which became an instant bestseller.

Mary died in London in 1881. Unfortunately, she was then lost to history for around 100 years until nurses from the Caribbean visited her grave in North West London, where the local MP, now Lord Clive Soley, promised to raise money for a statue for Mary. In 2004, Mary was voted the Greatest Black Briton. Lord Soley launched the campaign for a statue after leaving the House of Commons. In 2016, the statue was finally unveiled in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital on London’s Southbank.

Her legacy is continued by the Mary Seacole Trust (MST) which, as well as maintaining the statue, aims to educate and inform the public about her life, work and achievements, ensuring that she is never again lost to history.


Source of all information on this page:

You can read more about this remarkable woman from the MST website (source link). Or get a copy of her biography in our web shop via the link below.

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