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Mary Seacole: Autobiography


Seacole was a pioneering nurse and heroine of the Crimean War, who as a woman of mixed race overcame a double prejudice.

Mary Jane Grant was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish soldier, and her mother a Jamaican. Mary learned her nursing skills from her mother, who kept a boarding house for invalid soldiers. 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. In 1836, Mary married Edwin Seacole but the marriage was short-lived as he died in 1844.

Seacole was an inveterate traveller, and before her marriage visited other parts of the Caribbean, including Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas, as well as Central America and Britain. On these trips she complemented her knowledge of traditional medicine with European medical ideas. In 1854, Seacole travelled to England again, and approached the War Office, asking to be sent as an army nurse to the Crimea where there was known to be poor medical facilities for wounded soldiers. She was refused. Undaunted Seacole funded her own trip to the Crimea where she established the British Hotel near Balaclava to provide 'a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers'. She also visited the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded, and became known as 'Mother Seacole'. Her reputation rivalled that of Florence Nightingale.

After the war she returned to England destitute and in ill health. The press highlighted her plight and in July 1857 a benefit festival was organised to raise money for her, attracting thousands of people. Later that year, Seacole published her memoirs, 'The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands'.




I was born in the town of Kingston, in the island of Jamaica, some

time in the present century. As a female, and a widow, I may be well

excused giving the precise date of this important event. But I do not

mind confessing that the century and myself were both young together,

and that we have grown side by side into age and consequence. I am a

Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins. My father was

a soldier, of an old Scotch family; and to him I often trace my

affection for a camp-life, and my sympathy with what I have heard my

friends call "the pomp, pride, and circumstance of glorious war." Many

people have also traced to my Scotch blood that energy and activity

which are not always found in the Creole race, and which have carried

me to so many varied scenes: and perhaps they are right. I have often

heard the term "lazy Creole" applied to my country people; but I am

sure I do not know what it is to be indolent. All my life long I have

followed the impulse which led me to be up and doing; and so far from

resting idle anywhere, I have never wanted inclination to rove, nor

will powerful enough to find a way to carry out my wishes. That these

qualities have led me into many countries, and brought me into some

strange and amusing adventures, the reader, if he or she has the

patience to get through this book, will see. Some people, indeed, have

called me quite a female Ulysses. I believe that they intended it as a

compliment; but from my experience of the Greeks, I do not consider it

a very flattering one.

It is not my intention to dwell at any length upon the recollections

of my childhood. My mother kept a boarding-house in Kingston, and was,

like very many of the Creole women, an admirable doctress; in high

repute with the officers of both services, and their wives, who were

from time to time stationed at Kingston. It was very natural that I

should inherit her tastes; and so I had from early youth a yearning

for medical knowledge and practice which has never deserted me. When I

was a very young child I was taken by an old lady, who brought me up

in her household among her own grandchildren, and who could scarcely

have shown me more kindness had I been one of them; indeed, I was so

spoiled by my kind patroness that, but for being frequently with my

mother, I might very likely have grown up idle and useless. But I saw

so much of her, and of her patients, that the ambition to become a

doctress early took firm root in my mind; and I was very young when I

began to make use of the little knowledge I had acquired from watching

my mother, upon a great sufferer--my doll. I have noticed always what

actors children are. If you leave one alone in a room, how soon it

clears a little stage; and, making an audience out of a few chairs and

stools, proceeds to act its childish griefs and blandishments upon its

doll. So I also made good use of my dumb companion and confidante; and

whatever disease was most prevalent in Kingston, be sure my poor doll

soon contracted it. I have had many medical triumphs in later days,

and saved some valuable lives; but I really think that few have given

me more real gratification than the rewarding glow of health which my

fancy used to picture stealing over my patient's waxen face after long

and precarious illness.

Before long it was very natural that I should seek to extend my

practice; and so I found other patients in the dogs and cats around

me. Many luckless brutes were made to simulate diseases which were

raging among their owners, and had forced down their reluctant throats

the remedies which I deemed most likely to suit their supposed

complaints. And after a time I rose still higher in my ambition; and

despairing of finding another human patient, I proceeded to try my

simples and essences upon--myself.

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.

As I grew into womanhood, I began to indulge that longing to travel

which will never leave me while I have health and vigour. I was never

weary of tracing upon an old map the route to England; and never

followed with my gaze the stately ships homeward bound without longing

to be in them, and see the blue hills of Jamaica fade into the

distance. At that time it seemed most improbable that these girlish

wishes should be gratified; but circumstances, which I need not

explain, enabled me to accompany some relatives to England while I was

yet a very young woman.

I shall never forget my first impressions of London. Of course, I am

not going to bore the reader with them; but they are as vivid now as

though the year 18-- (I had very nearly let my age slip then) had not

been long ago numbered with the past. Strangely enough, some of the

most vivid of my recollections are the efforts of the London

street-boys to poke fun at my and my companion's complexion. I am only

a little brown--a few shades duskier than the brunettes whom you all

admire so much; but my companion was very dark, and a fair (if I can

apply the term to her) subject for their rude wit. She was

hot-tempered, poor thing! and as there were no policemen to awe the

boys and turn our servants' heads in those days, our progress through

the London streets was sometimes a rather chequered one.

I remained in England, upon the occasion of my first visit, about a

year; and then returned to Kingston. Before long I again started for

London, bringing with me this time a large stock of West Indian

preserves and pickles for sale. After remaining two years here, I

again started home; and on the way my life and adventures were very

nearly brought to a premature conclusion. Christmas-day had been kept

very merrily on board our ship the "Velusia;" and on the following day

a fire broke out in the hold. I dare say it would have resisted all

the crew's efforts to put it out, had not another ship appeared in

sight; upon which the fire quietly allowed itself to be extinguished.

Although considerably alarmed, I did not lose my senses; but during

the time when the contest between fire and water was doubtful, I

entered into an amicable arrangement with the ship's cook, whereby, in

consideration of two pounds--which I was not, however, to pay until

the crisis arrived--he agreed to lash me on to a large hen-coop.

Before I had been long in Jamaica I started upon other trips, many of

them undertaken with a view to gain. Thus I spent some time in New

Providence, bringing home with me a large collection of handsome

shells and rare shell-work, which created quite a sensation in

Kingston, and had a rapid sale; I visited also Hayti and Cuba. But I

hasten onward in my narrative.

Returned to Kingston, 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, until I couldn't find

courage to say "no" to a certain arrangement timidly proposed by Mr.

Seacole, but married him, and took him down to Black River, where we

established a store. Poor man! he was very delicate; and before I

undertook the charge of him, several doctors had expressed most

unfavourable opinions of his health. I kept him alive by kind nursing

and attention as long as I could; but at last he grew so ill that we

left Black River, and returned to my mother's house at Kingston.

Within a month of our arrival there he died. This was my first great

trouble, and I felt it bitterly. For days I never stirred--lost to all

that passed around me in a dull stupor of despair. If you had told me

that the time would soon come when I should remember this sorrow

calmly, I should not have believed it possible: and yet it was so. I

do not think that we hot-blooded Creoles sorrow less for showing it so

impetuously; but I do think that the sharp edge of our grief wears

down sooner than theirs who preserve an outward demeanour of calmness,

and nurse their woe secretly in their hearts.


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