Tue | Dec 7, 2021

Preserving Mary Seacole’s legacy

Published:Sunday | April 12, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Baroness Floella Benjamin and Lord Soley of Hammersmith are in a jubilant mood as the statue of Mary Seacole is unveiled in London in 2016.
Mary Seacole.

IT HAS been about 167 years since Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole demonstrated acts of kindness to the sick and dying in the Crimean War in the mid-19th century.

Now, the Mary Seacole Foundation (MSF) will be introducing programmes this year to honour and preserve her legacy.

Initiatives being embarked on by the MSF, which was launched in August 1998, include a Young Seacole Ambassadors Programme, Mary Seacole Nurse Awardee, Mary Seacole Day (November 23), and an educational awareness campaign incorporating social media.

Born Mary Grant in Kingston on November 23, 1805, from the union of a free black woman and a Scottish army officer, Mary Seacole gained renown for caring for the sick British soldiers on the battlefield during the Crimean War, from 1853 to 1856.

She also nursed the sick and dying impacted by cholera epidemics in Kingston and Panama, and was invited by the medical authorities to supervise nursing services at Up Park Camp in Kingston for victims of a yellow fever epidemic. She died in May 1881.

Director of the MSF, Sonia Mills, said the foundation is seeking to resurrect the spirit and legacy of the 19th-century nurse and “re-establish her as a recognisable model of compassion, adventure and enterprise for many generations to come”.

The MSF, which was dormant for several years, was relaunched on International Women’s Day – March 8, 2020 – in partnership with the Mary Seacole Trust at a ceremony titled ‘Welcome Home Mary Seacole’, at the Institute of Jamaica in downtown Kingston.

Chairman of the United Kingdom (UK)-based Mary Seacole Trust, Trevor Sterling, a British lawyer of Jamaican parentage, and Vice-Chair Lisa Rodriques, were guests at the ceremony.

Mills said the MSF intends to focus on Mary Seacole’s contribution to medicine, healing, and nursing, given the fact that 2020 has been declared the International Year of the Nurse by the World Health Organization.

She further informed that other qualities, such as “her adventurousness, her daring, compassion and her enterprise”, will also be promoted, noting that by the time Seacole was 18, she had visited Britain twice, and subsequently travelled to Cuba, Haiti, and The Bahamas.

“She lived her life like an independent free woman. She did what she wanted to do, and whatever she dreamt of doing, she did. It seems such an inspiring way to live your life, and we thought that Jamaicans should embrace the legacy of Mary Seacole. She has been an inspiration for us,” Mills said.

The director added that the Seacole Ambassadors programme aims “to heighten awareness of Miss Seacole’s attributes and help young women and men find in themselves the spirit of Mary Seacole”.

“It is a competition aimed at primary-school children, who will be asked to identify persons in their communities who embody the qualities of the heroic Miss Seacole,” she explained.

Additionally, Mills said the foundation is hoping to celebrate Seacole’s birthday on November 23, and to have the day declared Mary Seacole’s Day.

“We are hoping that we can announce the Mary Seacole Awardee to a young nurse, to help her in some way, and also to announce the winner of our first Seacole Ambassadors competition,” she added.

Plans are also afoot to educate the nation about women and men who have made a significant impact in Jamaica and elsewhere.

“We have plans to continue to tell the story of other women. There are many women in Jamaica who started life as nurses and who have branched out and found fame in other areas. We want to publicise their lives and to hold them up as role models,” the director pointed out.

During the foundation’s early existence, it produced a docudrama on Mary Seacole’s autobiography, titled The Doctoress – Mary Seacole of Jamaica, which has been shown on local television on heritage-focused occasions.

Mills said Mary Seacole’s memory was first honoured by the nurses in Jamaica when they named their headquarters ‘Mary Seacole House’. She informs that the Jamaican Government posthumously bestowed on her the country’s fourth-highest honour, the Order of Merit.

Additionally, she said the female hall of residence at The University of The West Indies, Mona campus, bears Mary Seacole’s name in recognition of her contribution to medicine, healing, and nursing.

Mary Seacole is well known globally. Mills says that a statue was built in the United Kingdom (UK) in June 2016, after Jamaican and UK nurses and the Nursing Association of Jamaica Foundation had advocated for one to be built in her honour.

At the unveiling, the Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal made way for the Mary Seacole Trust, which is responsible for maintaining the statue and preserving Mary Seacole’s legacy.

“The first statue to a named black woman in the UK came to fruition with the unveiling of the magnificent £500,000 monument in the grounds of St Thomas Hospital on London’s Southbank,” she said.

She continued: “It is a monument that represents the power of Jamaican women, the power of Jamaica, the dreams that one can have, and have realised, even if you’ve come from virtually nowhere.”

Additionally, she said that Mary Seacole was voted the greatest Black Briton of all time in 2004, the initial launch of the 100 Great Black Britons Project. Since 2005, her portrait has hung in the National Portrait Gallery in London, she added.

Mills disclosed that the MSF is seeking partners to fund the educational awareness campaign about Mary Seacole and other remarkable Jamaican women “whose stories will encourage this and future generations”.