Mary Jane Grant was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish soldier and her mother was Jamaican. Mary learned nursing skills from her mother, who kept a boarding house for invalid soldiers.
“When I was about twelve years old I was more frequently at my mother’s house, and used to assist her in her duties; very often sharing with her the task of attending upon invalid officers or their wives, who came to her house from the adjacent camp at Up-Park, or the military station at Newcastle.” (Seacole)
Although technically ‘free,’ being of mixed race, Mary and her family had few civil rights – they could not vote, hold public office or enter the professions. (BBC)
“I nursed my old indulgent patroness in her last long illness. After she died, in my arms, I went to my mother’s house, where I stayed, making myself useful in a variety of ways, and learning a great deal of Creole medicinal art”. (Seacole)
In 1836, “until (she) couldn’t find courage to say ‘no’ to a certain arrangement timidly proposed,” Mary married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole (the godson of Admiral Horatio Nelson;) but the marriage was short-lived as he died in 1844. (BBC)
“In the year 1850, the cholera swept over the island of Jamaica with terrible force. … they sent some clothes on shore to be washed, and poor Dolly Johnson, the washerwoman, whom we all knew, sickened and died of the terrible disease.”
“While the cholera raged, I had but too many opportunities of watching its nature, and from a Dr. B—, who was then lodging in my house, received many hints as to its treatment which I afterwards found invaluable.” (Seacole)
She travelled to Cruses, Panama to see her brother. A family friend developed cholera; there, she diagnosed it and gave medicine from her medicine chest (“I never travel anywhere without it.”)
“I went hastily to the patient, and at once adopted the remedies I considered fit. It was a very obstinate case, but by dint of mustard emetics, warm fomentations, mustard plasters on the stomach and the back, and calomel, at first in large then in gradually smaller doses, I succeeded in saving my first cholera patient in Cruces.”
War had been declared against Russia and following her trip to Panama, Mary had a pressing desire to go to Crimea to nurse the British soldiers whom she had grown both accustomed to and fond of when she had nursed them in Jamaica.
She tried to offer her services in London in the autumn of 1854; following several rejections, she traveled to the Crimea (on the northern coast of the Black Sea in the Ukraine) and opened the British Hotel and store at Balaclava and worked tirelessly during the year she spent there.
During an outbreak of cholera, Mary’s services were again in great demand. This time, she succumbed to the illness herself but made a full recovery. (Gabriel) She also saved others.
“I have seen her go down, under fire, with her little store of creature comforts for our wounded men; and a more tender or skilful hand about a wound or broken limb could not be found among our best surgeons.”
“I saw her at the assault on the Redan, at the Tchernay, at the fall of Sebastopol, laden, not with plunder, good old soul! but with wine, bandages, and food for the wounded or the prisoners.” (Russell, 1857; British Journal of Healthcare Assistants)
“She not only, from the knowledge she acquired in the West Indies, was enabled to administer appropriate remedies for their ailments, but, what was of as much or more importance, she charitably furnished them with proper nourishment …”
“… which they had no means of obtaining except in hospital, and most of that class had an objection to go into hospital.” (Sir John Hall, Inspector-General of Hospitals, 1856; British Journal)
“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed the sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succor them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.” (Sir William Howard Russell, 1857)
Following the war in Crimea, Mary Seacole returned to England destitute and in poor health; however, her reputation after the Crimean War rivalled Florence Nightingale’s. She lived in London, as well as in Jamaica.
Then, on June 24th 1865, Mary Seacole made a Hawaiʻi connection. It turns out Queen Emma made a brief stopover in Kingston on her way to London.
Queen Emma was welcomed with a royal gun salute and was met by an honor guard of the 1st West India Regiment. As she landed, she graciously acknowledged the cheers of the many citizens of Kingston who had gathered to greet her. One of the citizens of Kingston who greeted the Queen was Mary Seacole.
In the words of the reporter of the Colonial Standard, “A carriage was in attendance at the wharf to receive Her Majesty, as soon as she entered the carriage Mrs Seacole requested the honour of placing around Her Majesty a magnificent cloak that had been presented to her by the Sultan, which she accepted, thanked Mrs Seacole and shook hands with her”. (Lumsden)
The two women shared a dedication to health care, Mary Seacole in the battles in the Crimea and Queen Emma through the practice of her father (an English physician) that eventually led to the formation of the Queen’s Hospital (named in her honor.)
Queen Emma decided to visit England and the British Government provided the ships to transport her and her party. It was on this voyage that she stopped at Kingston. In England she stayed at Windsor with Queen Victoria, and visited hospitals and educational establishments. (Lumsden)
The last 25 years of Mary Seacole’s life were spent in relative obscurity; she died in London on May 14, 1881 and is buried in St Mary’s Roman Catholic cemetery, Kensal Green, London. Queen Emma died four years later and is buried at Mauna Ala, Honolulu.
(Seacole was voted Greatest Black Briton in 2004. “As a black Jamaican woman in the 19th century, Mary Seacole stood up against the discrimination and prejudices she encountered. Against all odds, Mary had an unshakeable belief in the power of nursing to make a difference.” (BBC))