A Brief Biography of Mary Seacole

By Tim Lambert

Mary Seacole was a famous woman of the 19th century. She was born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. (At that time Jamaica was part of the British Empire). Her father was a white Scottish soldier in the British army. Her mother was of mixed race. Her mother ran a boarding house for army officers and their families. Mary’s mother also made herbal medicines and Mary learned from her.

Twice when she was a teenager Mary visited London. Then in 1836, she married Edwin Horatio Seacole. Unfortunately, he died in 1844. Afterward, Mary ran a boarding house. In 1850 she tried to treat people in Kingston suffering from cholera. She used herbal medicines.

In 1851 Mary went to Panama to visit her brother who ran a hotel there. She opened a restaurant. Meanwhile, there was an outbreak of cholera. Seacole tried to treat some of the sick. However, in 1853 Mary returned to Jamaica. There was an outbreak of yellow fever. Again Mary tried to treat the sick with her herbal medicines.

The Crimean War

In 1854 Mary Seacole sailed to England because she was worried about her investments in gold mining. At that time Britain was at war with Russia and British soldiers were fighting in Crimea. At that time there were adverts in newspapers for nurses to go to Crimea. But Mary did not apply in writing at that time. However, later she did visit government offices and asked to become a nurse but she was refused.

However, she decided to open a business in Crimea. She sailed there in March 1855 and she became a sutler (a person who sold provisions to soldiers). Mary ran a bar and restaurant for British officers called the British Hotel. (It was not, however a hotel in the modern sense of the word, just a place where army officers could eat and drink).

Mary Seacole never actually worked in a hospital but she sometimes went to sell food and drink near the front line. She also carried bandages, lint, and needles and treated wounded soldiers returning from the front line. Her business flourished as long as the war continued.

When the war ended in 1856 Mary returned to England, where she opened a shop in Aldershot, but it was not a success. However, in 1857 she wrote a book called Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole. It became a best seller.

Mary Seacole died on 14 May 1881 at Paddington, London. She was buried in Kensal Green Roman Catholic cemetery. At the time of her death, Mary was a wealthy woman.

In 1991 Mary Seacole was awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit.