Behind the battlefields, journalists, chefs and surgeons were making their mark
MARY SEACOLE THE HEROIC BATTLEFIELD NURSE 1805-81 JAMAICA
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, to a Scottish soldier and a mixed-race proprietress of an officer’s boarding house, Seacole (née Grant) had an obscure early life. It is known that she acquired nursing skills through her mother based on Creole medical traditions that largely involved herbal treatments. She married Lord Nelson’s godson, Edwin Horatio Seacole, but was soon widowed. Seacole ran the family boarding house for several years while treating cases of cholera and yellow fever. After briefly serving as a nursing superintendent at Kingston’s Up-park Military Camp, Seacole sailed to England upon the outbreak of the Crimean War.
She attempted to join Florence Nightingale’s first group of Crimean nurses but her application was declined. Determined to provide her services, Seacole sailed to the Crimea at her own expense and arrived at Balaclava in February 1855. After meeting her husband’s kinsman Thomas Day, who was locally involved in shipping, the pair set up the ‘Seacole and Day Hotel’ between Balaclava harbour and the British military headquarters. The hotel housed a club for British officers and a hygienic canteen for troops. Day remained at Balaclava while Seacole managed the facilities.
This independence allowed Seacole to carry out solo nursing missions on the battlefield. By June 1855 she was a familiar figure who rode forward with two mules carrying medicine, food and wine. Seacole provided comfort to the wounded and dying after assaults on Sevastopol and her care was not just administered to British soldiers. After the Battle of Chernaya in August 1855, she tended to French, Italian and even Russian casualties as well as providing lunch for nearby British regiments.
Much-loved by British soldiers who called her ‘Mother Seacole’, her exploits were publicised by journalist William Howard Russell and she became famous in Britain. Although the Crimea left her financially ruined, she wrote a bestselling autobiography and her service was eventually recognised by the ‘Seacole Fund’. With patrons including the Prince of Wales, the fund allowed Seacole to live comfortably in London until her death.
Although Seacole was largely forgotten during the 20th century, her heroic reputation has been restored by revisionist histories. Many nursing centres are named after her and her story is taught alongside Florence Nightingale’s in the British school curriculum.
“AFTER THE BATTLE OF CHERNAYA IN AUGUST 1855, SHE TENDED TO FRENCH, ITALIAN AND EVEN RUSSIAN CASUALTIES”
Seacole was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991 and she was voted as the greatest Black Briton in 2004