Lord Raglan, Maréchal Pélissier, & Omar Pacha gathered around a table draped in cloth. Looking and pointing to documents on the table, Stone wall and floor backgrounds.

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands – Part Two

The second part of Nicole Mcneill's close look at the remarkable life of Mary Seacole.

Mary Seacole in a hat and dress welcoming guests into her store in the Crimea. Some are wearing military dress and other not. There are barrels and bottles around the bottom of the image and shelves of goods in the background.
Mrs Seacole in her Store in the Crimea (R198215.1)

On 28 March 1854, Great Britain declared war on Russia, in what would later be known as the Crimean War. Mary Seacole heard this news all the way in Jamaica and describes wanting to see the theatre of war much more strongly after learning that the British regiments that had been stationed in Kingston, whom she had got to know and tended to, were to be sent across to fight. After travelling to London, Mary contacted the War Office in an attempt to gain a position as a hospital nurse in the military hospital in Scutari, which would be run by Florence Nightingale. However, her repeated offers to nurse were ignored and rebuffed by Sidney Herbert, Secretary at War, and his wife Elizabeth, who was in charge of recruiting nurses.

In her autobiography Mary cannot help but wonder if ‘[…] these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs?’[1] This line of thought is a perfect example of W. E. B. Du Bois’ idea of a double consciousness. In his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois argued that ‘It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness.’[2] Mary was aware of herself as an individual but also how other people, particularly white people, were perceiving her and how this was affecting her ability to be nurse.

Eventually, after repeated rejections, Mary decided that she would go to the Crimea on her own initiative and more importantly at her own expense. “If the authorities had allowed me, I would willingly have given them my services as a nurse; but as they declined them, should I not open an hotel for invalids in the Crimea in my own way ?”[3] After going into business with her brother-in-law Thomas Day, they opened what Mary refers to as a store and hotel near the medical camp.[4] Rappaport notes that it was likely not a hotel as such, but more of a store and food hall which would later also become an apothecary workshop when she began nursing.[5] This ‘hotel’ was four and a half miles from the battlelines and while Mary was not in imminent danger from exploding shells, there were other threats closer by.[6] Not long after Mary arrived, a washer woman and most of her family were brutally murdered near Mary’s hotel and the killer was never discovered.[7] Mary also continually put herself in danger by personally attending the battlefields to do what she could for any soldiers she came across, regardless of which country they fought for.[8]

In the centre of the photo is Colonel Brownrigg C.B. & the two Russian boys Alma & Inkermann. They are in front of a tent with a floor of dirt and stones.
Colonel Brownrigg C.B. & the two Russian boys Alma & Inkermann (JRL1304039)

But before very long, I found myself surrounded with patients of my very own. [9]

Mary was predominantly taking care of men, particularly officers, who had better pay to spend, from the Land Transport and Army Work Corps. She argued that they came to her because ‘men of rank’ were reluctant to use the hospital in Scutari, except when desperate, because they could get better food and home comforts from Mary’s store than elsewhere; Mary had invested her own money to bring with her medicines and home comforts that were not readily available in the Crimea. Additionally, she seems to have established trade links with Turkey while on route to the Crimea, which meant that she could provide fresh produce.                              

Self-Portrait of Roger Fenton. His seat and the floor are made up of fur. He is wearing a non traditional uniform and holding his long rifle. Background of cloth covering the wall.
Self-Portrait of Fenton in Zouave (2nd Division) uniform, seated, facing front and holding rifle. (JRL1304037)

While Mary’s story so far has been extraordinary, it is equally remarkable – if not more so –  that she had the backing of highly established British medical officers to set up a store, and could provide medical attention to British soldiers independent of the medical establishment already in place. Sir John Hall, the principal medical officer in the Crimea, allowed Mary substantial autonomy. Despite there being no official documents evidencing his approval, Rappaport argues that “Mary would not have been able to operate in the warzone without official army approval and this fact alone suggests a degree of respect for her nursing skills”.[10] She theorises that during Sir John Hall’s stint in Jamaica between 1817 and 1832 he must have encountered Jamaican doctresses and their herbal remedies, suggesting that he may even have been looked after by Mary’s mother, who was also a doctress, and that this familiarity may be why he not only allowed, but actively facilitated, Mary’s work in the Crimea.[11]                           

Lord Raglan, Maréchal Pélissier, & Omar Pacha gathered around a table draped in cloth. Looking and pointing to documents on the table, Stone wall and floor backgrounds.
Council of War held at Lord Raglan’s Head Quarters, portraits of Lord Raglan, Maréchal Pélissier, & Omar Pacha (JRL1304038)

The Crimean War officially ended on March 30th, 1856. This sudden cessation of the war was a disaster for Mary’s business and bankrupted her and her brother-in-law, who had invested their own money into the enterprise. They both had to face the bankruptcy court when they returned to England. However, before she returned home to bankruptcy and debtors, Mary was hailed a hero and even received medals for her assistance during the war. Although none of them appear to have come through official channels, Mary did receive ‘The Turkish Medidjie, The French Legion of Honour, The British Crimean and possibly the Sardinian Al Valore Militare.’[12] She makes no mention of the medals in her autobiography, which may be due to the informal nature of how she received them, and the medals themselves have been lost to time, but there are two separate photographs of her wearing them after the war.

Mary was also personally thanked by Omar Pasha (see image above), the Field Marshal of the Turkish forces at Crimea, with whom Mary had struck up a friendship early on in her stay. Mary wrote that Omar Pasha not only visited her but was one of her best customers. Although some clearly thought he had a romantic interest, Mary did not: ‘[Some] say that the crafty Pacha was throwing his pocket-handkerchief at Madame Seacole, widow; but as the honest fellow candidly confessed, he had three wives already at home, I acquit him of any desire to add to their number.’[13] While Mary was thanked by Omar Pasha, she never received any personal thanks from Queen Victoria despite treating and becoming friendly with her nephew, Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg.[14]

Mary’s autobiography finishes with the cessation of the Crimean War and tells little of what happened afterwards. We know Mary wrote to Lord Rokeby (a Major she had befriended during the war) for aid during her bankruptcy case, and he and the British press rallied to save Mary from poverty by shaming high ranking officers who owed her money into paying the tabs they had run up during the war. There were also several relief funds set up for her over the years, paid into by British military and the British public, although she did not always receive the full sums raised for her. For instance, a fundraising festival was held at the Royal Surrey Gardens to put towards the Fund for Seacole, but the Royal Surrey Gardens went bankrupt before they could pay her. She only managed to reclaim part of this money through the courts.

Mary continued to practise medicine but found herself increasingly relegated, although she did nurse during the 1866 cholera outbreak in London. Mary also attempted to nurse abroad during the 1857 rebellion in India, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, but was continually held back by British institutions.[15]

Mary Seacole’s autobiography provides a window into her life even if it leaves us with more questions than answers. In my next blogpost we will look further into black women’s positions in relation to the medical field.

Nicole Mcneill

[1] Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, p.79.

[2] W.E.B Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Yale: Yale University Edition, 2015), p.5.

[3] Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, p.80.

[4] Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, p.81.

[5] Rappaport, In Search of Mary Seacole, p.169.

[6] Rappoport, In Search of Mary Seacole, p.158.

[7] Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, p.121.

[8] Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, pp.154-166.

[9] Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, p.125.

[10] Rappoport, In Search of Mary Seacole, p.155.

[11] Rappoport, In Search of Mary Seacole, p.155-157.

[12] Rappoport, In Search of Mary Seacole, p.219.

[13] Seacole, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, p.110-111.

[14] Rappoport In Search of Mary Seacole, p.216.

[15] Rappoport, In Search of Mary Seacole, p.244-280.

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