'Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?'
Born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica in the year 1805, Mary
Seacole was the daughter of a Scottish soldier and
a mixed-race Jamaican mother.
Her mother kept a boarding house in Kingston and was much admired for her medical skills. From an early age Mary took
a keen interest and would practice first on her doll then later on cats and dogs. By the age of twelve she was assisting her mother tending to invalid officers and their wives from local military camps.
As she grew into a woman Mary longed to travel and got the chance to visit London for a year whilst still a teenager,
though little is known of what she did whilst there. She returned to Kingston for a short while before returning
to London for another two years taking with her West Indian preserves and pickles to sell. Mary realised that she could
make some sort of a living from selling goods on her travels and after returning to Kingston once more loaded up with
provisions and visited New Providence in the Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti. She would purchase local provisions and shells
and take them back to Kingston with her to sell there.
Whilst in Kingston on November 10th, 1836 she married Edwin Seacole and they started a store together. Unfortunately
Edwin was not in good health and despite Mary's nursing Edwin died in 1844. Mary was heartbroken and not long after
had to endure further grief when her mother died.
Alone in the world Mary struggled to make ends meet and made her way by selling provisions and her medical skills.
Whenever a doctor or surgeon was in the area Mary would ask for instruction and they, impressed by her keenness would
willingly give it to her. In 1850 Cholera swept the island of Jamaica and Mary had her first of many encounters with
the deadly disease. She learnt what she could from a doctor around at the time, skills that would be invaluable later on.
Later that year Mary followed her brother Edward to the Isthmus of Panama where her medical skills were soon needed for
an outbreak of cholera. She also set up a hotel for travellers selling food and medical provisions mainly to the English
and the Americans passing through. It was here that Mary had her first experience of the slaves of America and was deeply
affected by their treatment.
In 1854 the Crimean war broke out and Mary realised that her skills could be of great help to the soldiers on the front
line. She went once again to England and applied to the war office and several other bodies to be sent to the Crimea.
She came well armed with excellent references from the many distinguished officers she had helped and worked with over
the years but to no avail. Mary began to feel that her colour was hindering her chances.
'I was so conscious of the unselfishness of the motives which induced me to leave England - so certain of the service I
could render among the sick soldiery, and yet I found it so difficult to convince others of these facts. Doubts and
suspicions arose in my heart for the first and last time, thank heaven. Was it possible that American prejudices against
colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat
duskier skin than theirs? Tears streamed down my foolish cheeks, as I stood in the fast thinning streets; tears of grief
that any should doubt my motives.'
Mary was not so easily deterred and unable to secure a position from the war office or any other English establishment
she used her own funds to make her way to the Crimean. There she established her own British Hotel and spent the rest
of the war tending to the wounded and the sick and providing decent food and shelter to those most in need.
She returned to England after the war destitute, however the many soldiers she helped during the war held a grand military
festival held over four nights at the Royal Surrey Gardens, which raised enough funds for her to spend her last years in
There was much written about Mary's work during the war and she acquired the name the 'female Ulysses' though she herself
did not consider it a flattering name. She was praised in the 'Times' and had both an opera and a musical made about her
life. In 1856 the magazine 'Punch' published a poem in her honour ' A Stir For Seacole' click here to read it. Her
autobiography first published in 1857 Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole In Many Lands has recently been published by
penguin books, click here for an excerpt in which Mary puts in place an American who dares to comment on her colour.
In 2004 Mary was voted no. 1 in the hundred greatest black Britons. She was not the only person of mixed racial heritage
in the list of greatest black Britains others include Daley Thompson, Kanya King, Oona King, Cleo Laine, Phyl Lynott and
2005 is the bicentennial year of Mary Seacole's birth, for details of events and programmes or to learn more about her
life click here for Mary Seacole.com a website devoted to her.