Mary Seacole | Martin Jennings
photo | Piers Northam
In recent months, I have been having treatment at St. Thomas’s Hospital at the southern end of Westminster Bridge. In the garden there is a remarkable statue depicting Mary Seacole . It was unveiled in 2016 and it is claimed to be the first statue of a named black woman in the United Kingdom. I have sat at her feet on a number of occasions and wondered about her story.
The Plaque in the floor in front of her statue gives a little information:
Nurse of the Crimean War
1805 – 1881
“Wherever the need arises
on whatever distant shore
I ask no higher or greater privilege
than to minister to it.”
To find out more, I discovered that there was The Mary Seacole Trust which was set up to promote the values for which she stood. This article owes its inspiration from material by the Trust.
I discovered that Mary was born in Jamaica more than 200 years ago. This was the heyday of the slave trade when many Black people in the Caribbean were forced into slavery. However, though Mary’s mother was black, her father was a white Scottish army officer so Mary was born a ‘free’ person.
Her mother had skills in healing and she passed on her skills to her daughter. Mary was eager to learn and as a child she practiced her ‘skills’ on her doll, her dog and cat and even on herself. She spoke of having a yearning for medical knowledge and practice. Her doll supplied a ready patient and, in her autobiography, Mary wrote: “Whatever disease was most prevalent in Kingston, be sure my poor doll soon contracted it.”
By the age of 12 she was helping her mother to run a ‘boarding house’ where many of the guests were sick or injured soldiers. At the age of 15 Mary travelled to England to stay with relatives for a year. This provided her with an opportunity to learn about Modern European medicine. Later, in 1823, she was to return for 2 years. I was during this time that she first encountered racist comments made against her. After further travels she returned to Jamaica where she nursed her patroness through a long illness.
In 1836 she married Horatio Hamilton Seacole but sadly, they had been married but a short time when he fell ill. Mary nursed him until he died in 1844. Her mother died soon after and Mary was plunged into a double grief. A Cholera epidemic followed by an epidemic of Yellow Fever kept her busy and she was invited to supervise the nursing service at Up-Park in Kingston, the Headquarters of the British Army.
The compassion she felt for injured soldiers awakened a strong maternal instinct in her and it led her to the War in Crimea – part of what is now the Ukraine. The conflict was between Britain and her allies against the Russian Empire. It lasted from October 1853 until February 1856.
Mary heard that medical facilities were poor so she approached the British War Office to volunteer her nursing services. She was refused and later she thought this might have been because she was black and a result of racism. She was not deterred! She funded her own trip to the Crimea. There she established the ‘British Hotel’ with a relative of her husband, Thomas Day, to provide a place of respite for sick and recovering soldiers. It was near to Balaclava, close to the fighting.
Regardless of personal danger she visited the battlefield to nurse the wounded. Such was her deep care and kindness that the soldiers began to call her ‘Mother Seacole’. After the war soldiers wrote letters to the newspapers praising what she had done. Sir William H Russell, war correspondent for ‘The Times’ wrote about her:
“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.
These words are carved near her memorial at St. Thomas’s
Mary came back to England with very little money but those who admired her came to her aid. Soldiers, Generals and the Royal Family all contributed. A fund-raising event lasting 4 days attracted 80,000 people.
She also wrote her autobiography. Its rather dull title – The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in many lands – did nothing to stop sales and it became an instant best seller.
She died in London in 1881. For a while – almost one hundred years – she was all but forgotten. Then some nurses from the Caribbean visited her grave. The local MP, who had became Lord Clive Scoley, set up fundraising for a statue. In 2004, Mary was voted the Greatest Black Briton and in 2016 her statue, by Martin Jennings was unveiled in the garden at St. Thomas’s Hospital.
She is remembered for her empathy, compassion and kindness. She needs to be remembered for much more. She is an icon for the Black Lives Matter movement but in a very special way. Her life, her self-giving, her tending of the sick, her desire and longing to heal others are important qualities which should inspire all of us.
She was also a bridge-builder. Her life, lived for others was mainly helping white people. For her, White Lives Mattered. So she reminds us that integrity, respect and love grow when we all recognize our mutual dependence on each other. All who needed her were met with acceptance, not judged, not treated as sub-human but with friendship and deep care. Many who were ministered to by her came to see her not for the colour of her skin but rather for the depth of her heart.
That’s why she matters today.