I found Helen Rappaport’s biography, In Search of Mary Seacole, on one of my lunchtime wanders to the nearby bookshop. Her name was already familiar to me as she has previously written books about the Romanov family, so I was quite excited to get stuck into a new book by her. I ended up enjoying her book so much that I felt compelled to have a look at what our own collections could tell me about Mary Seacole. We have a first edition copy of Mary’s autobiography Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, at the John Rylands (see here) and the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre also has a few modern editions (see here).
Although there has been a push towards bringing to light hidden histories, Mary Seacole’s story was actually brought back into popular consciousness during the 1980s and 1990s. There are those who would argue that Mary’s memory was unearthed to repair racial legacies, and that by acknowledging her efforts for the British empire it showcased a historical precedence to the Windrush generation and the multicultural society Britain was trying to build. While quite a few biographies have been written on the subject of Mary Seacole, the reason there is perhaps not more research on her as such a pioneering figure is due to a lack of sources available. After a 20-year investigation, Rappaport concluded that the main reason Seacole’s legacy faced such disregard and marginalisation was due to a lack of legacy including material culture. What furthers the difficulty of researching Mary is that she seems to have purposefully hidden key facts about herself and her family, as we shall see.
Mary’s personal life
Although many sources claim that Mary Seacole’s birthday is the 23rd November 1805, this date is most likely incorrect as no researcher to date has managed to find Mary’s birth certificate. Rappaport, after twenty years of research, found her Baptismal record which stated that Seacole was born Mary Grant, but alas no birth certificate. The record led to the revelation that her parents were Rebecca Grant and John Grant. John Grant was a white Scotsman, Rebecca Grant a black Jamaican, and whilst they shared the same surname, this was mere coincidence as the pair were unmarried. It is likely that the concealment of Mary’s age and maiden name in the book, and its publication under Seacole’s married name, was a way to hide Seacole’s illegitimacy from the public. While unwed relationships like those of Seacole’s parents would have been considered scandalous in Britain, they were highly prevalent in Jamaica at the time. Seacole also withheld the identity of other family members from the reader. Rappaport makes a compelling case that Mary had a daughter named Sarah, or Sally as she is alluded to in the autobiography. She may also have been illegitimate, as we hear little about her, nor is there any mention of a family connection. This exemplifies how research is impeded by a deficiency of reliable information and sources.
I will not touch too much on Mary and the theme of medicine here, as I discuss this in a later blog. What Mary does tell us about her mother was that she was a highly reputable “doctress” or healer and that she trained Mary in the same medical skills for which she would become renowned.
The young Mary Grant liked to travel and had a number of businesses in the process. For instance, she spent two years in England in the 1820s selling pickles and preserves. She married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole in 1836, and was called “Mrs Seacole” for the rest of her life. The two ran a store together in Black River, Jamaica. Mr Seacole was sickly, however, and Mary looked after him until his death in 1844, after which she returned to Kingston. There she took over the running of her mother’s boarding house.
Ever the businesswoman, Mary subsequently moved to Panama in 1850 to help her brother run his hotel and then later started up her own hotel, taking advantage of the demand for hospitality amongst the labourers constructing the Panama Railway. These hotels were certainly not like the ones we have today. As well as being the proprietor, taking care of space and food needs, Mary had taken her medical chest with her and became the locals’ go-to for medical issues. She ended up gaining a lot of valuable hands-on experience with endemic diseases that would help her later in Crimea. There were several bouts of cholera amongst the labourers and locals that she treated with her knowledge of herbal remedies from Jamaica, even catching cholera herself and living to tell the tale.
Mary Seacole did touch on slavery in her autobiography, going as far to write ‘I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related – and I am proud of the relationship – to those poor mortals whom you once held enslaved, and whose bodies America still owns.’ 
Writing in 1857, American Slavery was still operating and would not be abolished until 1865. Interestingly, Mary makes no overt mention of the slavery in the Caribbean or Britain’s role in the Transatlantic slave trade, which only came to an end in 1833-4. Thus, by directing the focus onto the Americans, Mary was free to disparage slavery (to an extent) without alienating her British audiences. This double standard is glaring, yet Mary’s position as the first black “celebrity” was unique and precarious. Her memoir was being published, but its main aim was to promote and raise money for her retirement fund, which she desperately needed after the Crimean War. Mary needed the British public, to whom the book would be sold, on her side and therefore could not afford to alienate them by comparing them to American slavers. It is also worth noting that Mary did consider herself a British citizen and may not have wanted that image tainted by the Empire’s dark history of slavery.
Mary is not as overt in her criticism of racism as she was with slavery. This could be for several reasons, the first being that the word did not come into circulation until the early 20th century.  It may also have been an uncomfortable topic to discuss with a primarily white audience, although it should be noted that Mary does make reference to several instances where she was abused or faced prejudice due to her skin colour or race. However, it must also be acknowledged that Mary herself perpetuated prejudices and racist rhetoric in her autobiography. For example, Mary tries to illustrate to the audiences that although many of her country people were ‘lazy creole’ she was not amongst them. Seacole was therefore drawing a clear divide between herself and other people of colour. Throughout the rest of her book, she does maintain this distance, mostly drawing associations with herself and prominent members of the British Military. Although she does mention a few people of colour such as Mac the cook who followed her on her adventures and travels, she far preferred the association between herself and the white elite.
In the second part of this blog we will follow the events of Mary Seacole’s life during her stay in the Crimea and the events that followed the cessation of the war.
 Samantha Pinto, ‘” The Right Woman in the Right Place”: Mary Seacole and Corrective Histories of Empire”’, ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Volume 50, Number 2-3, (2019), pp. 1-31 (pp.1-22).
 Helen Rappaport, In Search of Mary Seacole: The Making of a Cultural Icon (Simon & Schuster, London, 2022), p.302-303.
 Rappaport, In Search of Mary Seacole, p.16-17.
 Mary Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (London: James Blackwood, 1857), p.20.
 Oxford English Dictionary, https://www.oed.com/dictionary/racism_n?tab=meaning_and_use#27242931 .