Anyone who has studied plant remedies in any great detail or indeed the history of herbal medicine and herbal folklore throughout the world will have certainly come across Mary Seacole. Yet, given her prominenet status in the Caribbean and other regions of the American subcontinents, particularly South America, relatively few (until recent years) would have heard of her when one mentions the Crimean War. It has more often than not, been her English counterpart Florence Nightingale who has attracted notoreity and fame not to mention the numerous accolades and recognition for her contribution to nusing and care of the sick and injured.
However, more than any other, the Black History Month events and the many campaigns to raise awareness of the enormous contributions of key black people who have made history throughout the world via their work, life commitments and their causes, has meant that at long last, the significant work of Mary Seacole can be given due credit and its rightful place in history. We are only now fully realising her true and valid place in British history but sadly for many, many years, this remarkable woman with her courage, determination, fortitude and compassion remained one of the great unsung heroines of her generation.
Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805, the daughter of a white Scottish army officer and a free black woman who ran a boarding house in Kingston. Mary's knowledge of herbal remedies was gained early on from her mother who treated people who were ill using her various lotions and potions made from natural plant remedies. These medicines were based on the wealth of knowledge from the slaves that were brought over from Africa during the slave trade and Mary's eagerness to learn more about these amazing plant medicines and how to successfully administer them later earned her the informal title of 'doctress' and healer.
In 1850 however, Kingston was hit by a cholera epidemic and Mary, using her knowledge of herbal medicines was instrumental in bringing this disease under control and to prevent further loss of life. She wasn't to know at the time just how important her experience of tackling this disease outbreak was going to be but many would agree that this was unquestionably a rehearsal of what was to follow later on in European history. Moreover, she also successfully dealt with a yellow fever outbreak in Jamaica using her powerful herbal remedies. Her fame as a medical practitioner grew as many on the island came to rely on her expertise and knowledge of disease and sickness as well as her skill in treatment. Much of this herbal folklore and practice is very much in evidence today since many people in Jamaica as well as the other Caribbean islands routinely seek natural plant remedies as a first resort which is in direct contrast to Western medical practices in Europe and the US who seek conventional medicine and where herbal alternatives are very much the last resort.
Her love of travelling saw her visiting and acquiring herbal knowledge all the while in places such as Panama, Cuba, Haiti and the Bahamas. She collected details of how the indigenous people used the local plants and herbs to treat the sick and dying, especially in war-torn countries and its battlefields. Mary's reputation grew as well as her medical experience when she found herself conducting life-saving operations on people suffering from knife and gunshot wounds.
Of course, she frequently visited England, particularly to see her relatives on her father's side and in 1853 when Russia invaded Turkey, Britain and France went to Turkey's aid by sending thousands of their soldiers in a war now known as the Crimean War. Soon after the British soldiers arrived in Turkey, they came down with cholera and malaria, two of the most deadliest diseases at the time, and still is to some extent. When Mary heard of this, she travelled to Britain convinced she could help and volunteered her services to the British Army to help save the lives of the soldiers. It was clear that someting needed to be done since more soldiers were dying from disease than from injuries sustained on the battlefields. Whether it was prejudice against women or of her racial origin is unclear but what is clear is that she was refused. Undeterred by this, she financed the trip to Turkey herself by using her own resources and very much under her own steam unlike Florence Nightingale who among the other party of nurses was chosen by the British Army to travel to the affected area to treat the wounded officers.
When Mary arrived at the war zone she again went to volunteer her services, this time to Florence Nightingale directly citing her experience of treating cholera, of wounded soldiers and various related injuries. Florence Nightingale refused her offer of help. Again, Mary was forced to be resourceful and eventually found a way to open the British Hotel, a hotel built from salvaged driftwood, packaging cases, iron sheets and salvaged architectural items such as glass doors and window frames. With help from local labourers, the Hotel was finally open for business in March 1855. The Hotel flourished as a business and ostensibly catered for British soldiers by supplying food and drink as well as accommodation to those travelling from Britain to other parts of the country and to the rest of Europe. The success of her business meant that she was able to buy the urgent and necessary medical supplies that she needed to treat the casualties of the war. Unlike Florence Nightingale who was afforded the means to open a hospital, Mary often found herself at the site of the battlefields itself, and sometimes treating soldiers on both sides of the conflict even as the battle was going on. Her remarkable courage and determination to treat the wounded earnt her respect and praise although it was many years before Britain acknowledged her contribution, in particular, this detail about her perseverance and bravery. What a woman!
Florence Nightingale although on the surface seemed ambivalent about Mary's contribution to the war effort was actually unimpressed and accused her of intoxicating soldiers and running a brothel under the guise of a hotel. Despite this however, Mary Seacole's reputation rivalled if not was greater than that of Florence Nightingale's.
Mary returned to England, destitute and in ill-health. Publicity around her plight saw hundreds of war veterans and families of loved ones whose lives she had saved come to her rescue by raising money for her. In late 1857, she published her memoirs 'The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands'. In later life, she made many influential friends including members of the royal family and was a well known public figure at the time of her death in 1881. She is buried in Kensal Green, North West London. Sadly, after death she rapidly faded into obscurity and public memory. Her valuable work and contribution to British history was largely overshadowed by Florence Nightingale's for many years. However, in recent years, Mary Seacole's life and work has become celebrated and rightly noted being part of the schools' National Curriculum for history. Together with the global Black History Month movement, we are finally realising the enormity of this remarkable woman's contribution to history, medicine and the role of black women at a time when attitudes to them were steeped in racial prejudice and discrimination. Her achievements are made more remarkable given these constraints, difficulties and limitations and the fact she remained undaunted by them to fulfill her desire to treat the sick, vulnerable and dying. We all owe her an enormous gratitude.