WISW: Mary Jane Seacole

The Story of Mary Jane Seacole, Part 2. 

In 1851 Seacole travelled to Cruces, Panama to visit her half brother, who ran a hotel there. There was a cholera outbreak in the town soon after her arrival. Mary Seacole treated the first victim of the outbreak, who survived. This brought her many more patients. She even helped poor patients for free. Her treatments found a little success, though many people succumbed to the disease. Ulysses S. Grant even passed through the town with a hundred and twenty military men, and one third of them died. Seacole was the only person treating cholera in the town aside from a dentist at the time. Toward the end of the epidemic Seacole caught cholera herself, and was bedridden for weeks. Soon after she opened a barber shop and restaurant in the town, capable of seating up to 50 diners. 

In 1952 Seacole joined traders moving to Gorgona. She recorded a toast a white American made to her along the way, “God bless the best yaller woman he ever made, she’s so many shades removed from being entirely black, […] if we could bleach her by any means we would […] and thus make her acceptable in any company[,] as she deserves to be”. She contested the remark and toasted to a reformation of American manners. In Gorgona Seacole briefly opened a women’s only hotel. She travelled to Jamaica in late 1952. 

In 1953 Seacole was tasked by the Jamaican medical authorities with caring for victims of a yellow fever outbreak. She wrote of this experience “[I] did my best, but it was little we could do to mitigate the severity of the epidemic.” In 1954 she became determined to travel to volunteer as a nurse for the escalating Crimean war. She initially had trouble being drafted as a nurse among Florence Nightingale’s companions because of racial discrimination and for the fact that she had few official recommendations and documents to support her medical history. Of Mary Seacole’s numerous attempts to be deployed as a nurse in the war effort, Florence Nightingale wrote:  “I had the greatest difficulty in repelling Mrs Seacole’s advances, and in preventing association between her and my nurses (absolutely out of the question!)…Anyone who employs Mrs Seacole will introduce much kindness – also much drunkenness and improper conduct”.

Seacole resolved to travel to Crimea by her own means, and to open a British Hotel there. She recruited a few medical staff and gathered letters of introduction along the way. After many ship voyages, Seacole found herself gathering metal, salvaged driftwood, iron sheets, glass doors and windows, to build her hotel with the help of local hired labor, within a mile of the British headquarters in Crimea. Seacole’s self made establishment actually prospered against all odds. There were constant thefts of her livestock and provisions. Seacole became widely known to the British Army as “Mother Seacole”, providing catering, in house meals, lodging, and nursing services. She attended battles and tended to wounded soldiers on site and even under fire. She often carried bandages, needles, lint, and thread to the wounded. She famously brewed tea for anyone present. 

After the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1856, and the soldiers departed, Mary Seacole found her business failing. She returned to England poorer than she had departed in material goods, but the warmth and hospitality she had provided to soldiers was not lost on them. She had become famous throughout the British Army’s ranks. 

Read Part 3 of Mary Seacole’s story next Wednesday! 

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