Mary Seacole

Adventuring to Aide

When I think of who a Victress is, I think of a woman who is steadfast in what she wants. A person who knows her worth, who doesn’t take any bull, who sees obstacles as opportunities and puts her head down and pushes forward to what she came to do. 

When I learned about Mary Seacole, I was like “Hell yes. She is a Victress!” 

Credit: Winchester College/In aid of Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal/Mary Evans

I first listened to her story on the History Chicks Podcast, and within the first five minutes I was hooked. A lot of the information I share below comes from listening to their podcast but I included links to further information on her story. 

Mary Seacole was a British-Jamaican nurse, business woman, and writer. She was born to a mixed-race Jamaican mother and a Scottish man in 1805. During this time, she was in a higher class for her lighter skin but still dealt with prejudice outside of Jamaica. 

Her mother was a Doctress, a pro in traditional medicine, and owned a boarding house. So Mary grew up helping her mother care for soldiers who stayed there.

When she was 15 she joined some relatives to sail to England for the first time. She stayed for a year and while there she learned about European medicine. 

Two years later when she was 18, she went back to London, and this time brought a bunch of Caribbean spices and fruits. She saw an opportunity to make a buck and succeeded. During this time, she learned more about medicine and continued to run a successful import business.

After returning from England in 1825, she traveled around the Caribbean to Cuba, Haiti and Bahamas, expanding her knowledge further of local medicine. 

She returned to Jamaica for a long period to help take care of her Patroness, the woman who helped raise her and educate her. During this time, she helped her mother continue to run the boarding house, attending to sick soldiers. 

In 1936, she married a British Naval Officer. It’s believed they met as she tended to him in the Boarding House-- he was an ill man and died in 1844, shortly after she lost her mother. Naturally, these losses crushed her. 

Mary continued onward to Panama and built the British Hotel at crossroads for migrants seeking to strike rich during the California gold rush. The British Hotel was actually a restaurant and general store that she ran and also cared for sick people. Because there she had her hands full managing a cholera outbreak. 

After a few years, she went back to Kingston and then learned to care for people suffering from Yellow Fever. 

Around this time, in 1853 Britain entered into the Crimean War. There was a call for nurses in England so Mary went to offer her help and was actually denied by the official delegation. We don’t know why but it’s likely because of various factors: her race, age, and doubt of her knowledge. 

This is the same war the Florence Nightingale became the nurse known for founding modern nursing practices today. Florence Nightingale was a badass in her own right, forging a path in the very male dominated field of medicine. 

Mary, undeterred, went back to Jamaica, contacted her friend John Day and explained the opportunity. They packed up a boat with a ton of supplies and sailed the heck over to Crimea and set up a general store and care house on the front lines. She was beloved by the soldiers for providing them with some comforts and care during the war.

Mary Seacole Depicted in a Cartoon during the Crimean War. Credit: Punch Magazine, 1857, page 221 Unknown Artist (John Leech Perhaps according to Mary Evans Picture LIbrary)

I just love that this woman was told no, said to hell with them, saw a business opportunity and was so driven to help people that she went and did it on her own anyway. 

She didn’t worry too much about collecting money from soldiers and so the business aspect didn’t go too well. She returned to England after the war pretty broke. However, the soldiers hailed her and campaigned to help her gain recognition and her money back.

The queen rewarded her with a medal of honor and a bunch of money. During this time and before she passed in 1881 she wrote a memoir titled “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.”