It’s a moot point whether the recent acclaim for Mary Seacole (née Grant) as ‘the Black Florence Nightingale’ has actually diminished appreciation for her remarkable role during the Crimean War. While Nightingale found the work that would make her world-famous as a hospital administrator based in Scutari, near Istanbul, Seacole was a hands-on, almost entirely self-taught ‘doctress’ and nurse, who brought both medical aid and home comforts to the British troops, very close to the front line on the Crimean peninsula.
Very little is known about her life except what she reveals in Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. She is coy about her date of birth (believed to be 1805), but proud about her ancestry: ‘I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins. My father was a soldier…and to him I trace my affection for a camp-life… Many people have also traced to my Scotch blood that energy and activity which are not always found in the Creole race’.
Mary Grant’s mother ran a boarding-house in Kingston, Jamaica, ‘and was, like very many of the Creole women, an admirable doctress’. Learning from her mother, and practising, in the first instance, on her doll, she became skilled in using both local medicines and European pharmacopoeia to cure or at least alleviate the most common tropical diseases, and from the age of twelve she became her mother’s assistant, taking care of officers and their wives from the nearby British garrisons who came to the boarding-house as to a nursing home.
In her late teens, Mary travelled twice to Britain (where her darker-skinned relatives were an object of derision for London street urchins), and also visited other parts of the West Indies. (In the Bahamas, she collected shells which she was able to sell in Jamaica, an early instance of her shrewd business sense.) Back in Kingston, in 1836 she accepted the marriage proposal of Edwin Horatio Seacole (a godson of Nelson, apparently), though aware of his precarious health. They set up a store inland in Jamaica, but Edwin died, and at about the same time Mary also lost her mother.
She continued to run the boarding-house and act as a nurse or doctor as required. When a disastrous fire in 1843 destroyed the house (along with most of Kingston), she built up the business again, and was equally resolute when a serious outbreak of cholera afflicted the town in 1850: she gained many insights into the then available treatments for this usually fatal disease through assisting the local doctors.
This knowledge stood her in very good stead when she decided to join her brother, who was running a hotel on the Isthmus of Panama which provided hospitality to the thousands of ‘forty-niners’ – gold-seekers making their way to California – who chose to cross the American continent at its narrowest part. There was a two-way flow of ‘the crowd’: prospectors from all walks of life and levels of society heading west, and people, either with gold-dust in their pockets, or exhausted, diseased and disillusioned, making their way back to the east.
The Panama route was far from easy: the road crossing (this was before the excavation of the canal) was difficult, along a crude trail through tropical jungle and in conditions where diseases of all sorts abounded. Mrs Seacole started up her own hotel, again providing nursing care when it was needed, and her account of her two years in Panama, including her work during a cholera epidemic, and her (justifiable) antipathy to the Americans she encountered, provide fascinating insights into a largely forgotten episode of nineteenth-century history.
The outbreak of the Crimean War drove her to England: the regiments whom her nursing career in Jamaica had made her familiar with had been sent there, and she felt strongly that she would be able to support them in Russia as she had at home. As reports of the dreadful conditions and organisational incompetence spread, she set off for London, where she tried in vain to offer her services to the War Office, the Quarter-Master General’s Department and the Medical Department. She also had an interview with one of Miss Nightingale’s staff, who told her that a full complement of nurses had already been obtained – ‘and I read in her face the fact, that had there been a vacancy, I should not have been chosen to fill it’.
Refusing to give up, she decided to make her own way to the Crimea and then trust to luck. She had printed cards which she posted to her friends already at the front, announcing that she intended ‘on her arrival at Balaklava to establish a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’. Having thus committed herself, she met a relative of her late husband, Thomas Day, who had a shipping business, and agreed with him that they would start up both a ‘British Hotel’ and a general store between the port of Balaklava and the encampment of the bulk of the British and French armies before Sebastopol.
Implausible as it sounds, this is what she did – along with a great deal of nursing and comforting of the dying who were carried back from the front lines past her establishment at Spring Hill. She got up at 4 a.m. every morning to begin the cooking for that day’s meals, or pluck fowls and prepare joints of meat, or to check her stores and ride down to Balaklava to place orders for more. (When she met Alexis Soyer, who like her had paid his own way to the Crimea in order to help the troops, he suggested that at the end of the war they should go into the restaurant business together: what a pity they never did!)
And each time she heard of yet another planned assault on the apparently impregnable walls of Sebastopol, she would make up a backpack of food, drink, medical supplies, bandages, needles and thread, and ride up to the camp, to help where and when she could, while Russian gunfire and shells continued to make all movement hazardous.
Finally, in early September 1855, the Russian forces withdrew and the allied troops captured Sebastopol. Mrs Seacole was the first woman to enter the once beautiful and now burning city, bringing food and drink for the troops – though some parties had already located the wine cellars and were roaring drunk, dressing up in plundered women’s clothing and dancing in the smouldering streets. ‘And all this, and much more, in that fearful charnel city, with death and suffering on every side.’
The war was now effectively over, though many of the troops stayed out in the Crimea until the treaty of Paris was signed in March 1856. Mrs Seacole has engaging descriptions of the way the army (especially the officers) relaxed, with horse racing and amateur theatricals, while the British Hotel was required to supply huge numbers of Christmas puddings and mince pies over the festive season. However, the longed-for arrival of peace had an unfortunate consequence for her, in that as the troops departed the value of her remaining stores (and of her livestock and transport animals) dropped dramatically, and she and Day effectively became bankrupt.
However, back in England, her friends rallied round – notably W.H. Russell, the correspondent of The Times whose reports had done so much to galvanise the government into much needed reforms in the armed forces. He wrote the preface for her book (‘edited by W.J.S.’, who possibly ghosted the work from Mrs Seacole’s dictation), and the publicity it received boosted sales and generated income. Punch magazine was also a supporter, and eventually a fund approved and patronised by royalty enabled her to live the rest of her life in comfort, if not in affluence.
This is a remarkable account of an extraordinary life: funny and moving in equal measure. Very highly recommended!