Seacole, Mary Jane (Mary Jane Grant Seacole)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Seacole, Mary Jane (Mary Jane Grant Seacole)

Seacole, Mary Jane (Mary Jane Grant Seacole) (1805-1881) Caribbean herbalist and memoirist

Mary Jane Seacole, an herbalist and combat nurse from Jamaica and a compatriot of the English nurse Florence Nightingale, compiled eyewitness accounts of SLAVERY and racism in the West Indies and the ravages of the Crimean War. Born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, she was the daughter of a Scots soldier and a Creole Jamaican mother who was descended from slaves. She grew up among British army officers who boarded at her mother's inn in Kingston and later said she valued “good Scotch blood coursing in my veins” (Seacole 1857, 1). From her mother's care of boarders, Seacole learned folk treatments for malaria and yellow fever, the sources of seasonal Caribbean epidemics. While tending invalids, she developed a vigorous work ethic and strong imperial loyalties. In 1836, she married Edwin Seacole, who died in 1844, leaving her to raise their two children.

Seacole turned her practical skills into a career. In 1850, as a young widow, she joined her brother in Cruces, New Granada (now Panama), to nurse victims of cholera. During a sojourn in Chagres, Panama, she faced coarse comments and contempt from American men who disdained the authority of a lone black woman. She grieved that Americans and Europeans were more likely to recover from cholera than Central American Indians, who had no natural immunity to the microbe. Amid the sufferings, she opened a store at Navy Bay and sold West Indian preserves and pickles to pay for bandages and medicine. Yet in a salute to the civil engineering of imperialists, she took pride in the completion of a rail line across swamplands on the Isthmus of Darien: “It was reserved for the men of our age to accomplish what so many had died in attempting, and iron and steam, twin giants, subdued to man's will, will put a girdle over rocks and rivers, so that travellers can glide as smoothly … as they can from London to Brighton” (10).

In 1853, back in Jamaica, Seacole ran a hospital during the virulent yellow fever epidemic that ravaged the island. The following year, she traveled to London to volunteer for the nurse corps in the Crimea, a prize on the Black Sea fought over by British, French, Ottoman, and Russian imperialists. Because the military medical corps rejected her for being a mulatto, she journeyed overland to the combat zone outside Balaclava on her own funds and opened the British Hotel, an inn and canteen that funded her medicines, buggy, and driver. Before an armistice ended the war in March 1856, Seacole ventured into bombardments within range of cannon fire to rescue the fallen, whom she transported to her wards. She treated battle wounds as well as cholera, pneumonia, scurvy, typhoid fever, and typhus. Of her treatment of English, French, Russian, Sardinian, and Turkish patients, she remarked, “All death is trying to witness—even that of the good man who lays down his life hopefully and peacefully; but on the battlefield, when the poor body is torn and rent in hideous ways, and the scared spirit struggles to loose itself from the still strong frame that holds it tightly to the last, death is fearful indeed” (138). Her commentary provided the most valued glimpses of war by a black female autobiographer of her century.

In nursing's infancy, Seacole valued freedom of movement and unrestricted professional practice, which combined traditional medicine from the Americas, Europe, and the West Indies. Soldiers preferred her care to army hospitals because of her standards of cleanliness and nutrition and her kindness to patients of all backgrounds and ranks. In her journal, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), she boasted that the typical casualty called her “Mother Seacole” because he “knew very well that I should not ride up in answer to his message empty-handed” (167). A wounded Russian officer was so grateful for Seacole's gentle boost into a field ambulance that he gave her his ring and kissed her hand. By the time she returned to London, she, like Florence Nightingale, was herself a recovering veteran. Her four campaign medals, her work later as masseuse to the princess of Wales, and the success of her book recouped the financial losses of her Crimea dispensary and rescued her from bankruptcy. She died a respected figure in London on May 14, 1881.


McLeod, Jacqueline. Crossing Boundaries: Comparative

History of Black People in Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Robinson, Jane. Mary Seacole: The Black Who Invented

Modern Nursing. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004. Seacole, Mary. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in

Many Lands. London: James Blackwood, 1857.