Mother Seacole

Born in 1805 as the daughter of a black Jamaican hotel owner and a Scottish soldier, Mary Seacole was a woman of many contradictions. She inherited an entrepreneurial spirit from her mother, and had a sharp mind for quickly seizing upon opportunities to make a profit. She was just as quick to give her earnings away to the poor, however, as she used her nursing skills to help save the lives of those who could not afford to save themselves. Mother Seacole, as she would later become known by her soldier sons, is one of the unsung heroes of the Crimean War; she helped patch up countless British soldiers, and treated their illnesses using both European and Jamaican remedies. Why, then, was Mary Seacole lost to history until just recently? The most likely answer, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, is that she was a woman of color. In fact, Seacole faced many obstacles and barriers throughout her life due to the color of her skin. Mama Seacole didn’t let that stop her, though. Mama Seacole wasn’t about to take anyone’s shit.

At just 16-years-old, Mary went to London to start her first thriving business. She shipped Jamaican goods across the sea, and sold them for a steep profit to Londoners who thought that the Caribbean islands were “exotic” and “mysterious.” Despite their vaguely offensive ways, Mary sensed that the Brits weren’t that bad and considered herself to be a proud British citizen. During this time in London, Mary also took up nursing during a cholera epidemic that swept the city, treating many patients for free and using funds from her more wealthy clients to make up the difference.

Not all was to be smooth sailing for Mama Seacole, however. When she was 31-years-old, she married a British man by the name of Edwin Seacole, and the two opened a general store as partners. The store soon proved to be a poor investment, and Mary decided to move back to Kingston, Jamaica to help her mother run the family hotel after her business tanked. But the hardship wasn’t over yet. The hotel burned down in a huge fire in 1843 and shortly thereafter both her mother and her husband passed away. But not even these hardships could stop Mama Seacole and her badass antics.

When the Crimean War erupted in Europe (white men fighting over land and resources, what else is new?), Mary rushed back to her beloved London and marched straight into the army offices where she demanded to be sent to the front lines as an army nurse. Seeing her advanced age, her dark skin, and her general femaleness, the army was uninterested in her services and told her to file an application with Florence Nightingale’s Nurses. Mama Seacole, however, decided that ain’t nobody got time for that, and marched straight over to the Nurse’s offices and demanded an interview, where she was again denied (her being fierce and independent no doubt scared the poor ninnies).

Mother Seacole moved straight into the war zone anyway, using scrap metal and driftwood to build the British Hotel, where she sold comforts from home as well as remedies for disease and hot food and pastries, all luxuries for the soldiers who had been in battle for months on end. She soon became quite popular among the British forces, who remembered her fondly for treating their ailments even when they hadn’t the funds to repay her. She soon began to see these men as her children, and oftentimes put herself directly in harm’s way to bring them refreshments and homemade remedies as bullets flew back and forth overhead and canon blasts shook the ground. Twitter hadn’t been invented in those days, but if it had, Mama Seacole would have just invented the Boss Bitch hashtag.

The war wound to a close in 1856, and at that point Mary’s booming business fell away to nothing as the soldiers vacated the front and moved back to England. She found herself in a financial rut, since no customers existed to sell her fully stocked stores to, and she moved back to London in poverty. Soon her sons learned about her plight, however, and could not let their mother go hungry. They set up a fund for her and advertised it in the British papers; the fund was so successful that in 1857 she was granted a certificate discharging her from bankruptcy.

Mother Seacole served as a stunning example of what selflessness, grit, and a bold, independent woman can accomplish in one life time. The world would be a much safer, kinder place if we all learned to take a page from Mother Seacole’s book.

Mary Jane Seacole (1805-1881), Jamaican born British Crimean War nurse, portrait. Also known as Mother Seacole. Date: C.1850s

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