Tue | Dec 6, 2016

Mary Seacole

Published:Friday | November 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Louis Marriott, Contributor

In 1805, more than a generation before the abolition of slavery in the British empire, a remarkably unique and outstanding life began in Kingston, Jamaica, when a free black woman who had mated with a Scottish army officer gave birth to a daughter whom she named Mary Jane Grant.

Mary Jane's exceptional free black mother was the proprietor of a boarding house on East Street called 'Blundell Hall', where she hosted many British army and navy officers and their families and also treated their ailments - mainly tropical diseases - with herbal folk medicine, enjoying an impressive reputation as a 'doctoress'.

The bold, adventurous, intellectually curious, fast-learning Mary Jane Grant swiftly acquired her mother's health-care skills and entrepreneurial zeal. In 1836, she married Edwin Horatio Seacole, an English businessman and godson of the British naval hero, Admiral (Lord) Horatio Nelson. The marriage did not last long, however, as her husband soon died, followed shortly by her mother.

STERLING ANTI-CHOLERA WORK

Mary Seacole took over Blundell Hall and very substantially expanded it. She earned sterling credentials for her work in combating the cholera epidemic that ravaged Jamaica in 1850. Soon after, she travelled to Central America in search of her eldorado and spent three years in Panama while the railway system was being developed there.

A voracious reader, she learnt about the Crimean War, which broke out in 1854 on the Crimean peninsula, the part of Russia jutting into the Black Sea. The war pitted Russia against France, Turkey, Sardinia and Britain. One of the British regiments involved was previously stationed in Jamaica, where Seacole was its caterer.

News reached Jamaica that tropical diseases - including cholera, yellow fever, malaria and dysentery - that she had successfully treated in Jamaica and Panama were inflicting a heavy toll on the lives and health of the troops in Crimea. Seacole set sail for Britain and offered the War Office her services as a nurse. 'The Lady with the Lamp', Florence Nightingale, was then recruiting a team of nurses to serve the troops but, in an age when racial segregation was the norm, not surprisingly there was no space for Seacole in Florence Nightingale's team.

CRIMEAN WAR

Consistent with her character, Seacole would not be denied involvement in the war. She packed her bags and headed for the battlefield in a convoy of three mules, one on which she sat, while the second carried her self-concocted herbal medicines and, the third, baskets of food and drink for the forces.

She moved around with the combatants as the battleground shifted from one spot to another, feeding the men and dispensing her medicine, collecting pay where she could and nonetheless doling out the goodies to those unable to pay, treating friend and foe alike.

Seacole became an international figure, as newspapers constantly reported her activities. In 1857, the year after the Crimean War ended, her autobiographical Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands was published in Britain. As well as conveying much interesting and useful information, the bestselling book reflected an intellectual depth that would have surprised those who judged human worth by skin colour in addition to harbouring bigoted notions related to race.

By the 1870s, the once rejected 'coloured' nurse from Jamaica was befriended by Britain's social elite, including members of the royal family. She also paid several visits to the land of her birth in that decade.

EXEMPLARY HEALTH PROFESSIONAL

She died in Britain in 1881, having lived up to the best traditions of health professionals, rendering the best service of which she was capable without regard to the recipient's ability to pay, treating every life as precious and demonstrating courage of heroic proportions.

The Institute of Jamaica, established in 1879, acquired her home, the adjacent Blundell Hall, to house one of its components, the West India Reference Library, now the National Library of Jamaica.

Mary Seacole was arguably the first in a long line of superbly gifted Jamaicans who have earned worldwide respect for our nation through their excellent standards of performance, their behaviour and their values and attitudes.