Tuesday 28 February 2012

Mary Seacole

by Gerard Besson

The little woman, just a trifle plump, alighted from the carriage. Above, the London sky appeared a seamless fold of gray that descended downward and into an unremitting damp. As the carriage rolled away, she made her way across the broad pavement towards the great iron gates of Buckingham Palace and, to the startled amazement of the sentry pacing the perimeter of the palace, she slipped through the small postern gate, set into the huge railings near to the red and white striped sentry box.
"Stop at once!" called the sentry.
"Sir, a person has entered the courtyard and is making her way to the front entrance."
He reported to the sergeant of the Cold Stream Guards who had been alerted by his cry. Already the little woman was out of sight as she followed the wide curving sweep of the massive driveway, decorated with monuments of the Empire's glory. Spotting her as she took the flight of stairs, he blew shrilly on his whistle. This brought several guardsmen on the run. Their bright red tunics and tall, dark bear skins were starkly elaborate against the all-covering gray. By that time Mary Seacole had gained the portico and pulled the bell next to the main door.
"Halt, Madam!" shouted the first guardsman to mount the stairs. Already there were three other tall imposing young men, resplendent in their uniforms.
"Attention!" snapped the sergeant of the Cold Stream Guards. They had been joined by Captain Baldwin Northcliffe Phipps of the Household Regiment.
"Good Morning, Mother Seacole. I see you have come to call upon Her Majesty," tutted the distinguished, somewhat more than middle aged officer. "Perhaps you might have informed us of your presence in the city and of your intentions."
"Captain Baldwin Phipps, you look very well indeed."
"Thank you Ma'am."
Mary Seacole looked kindly at the smart young men still standing at attention and smiled into the slightly puzzled eyes of the sergeant of the Cold Stream Guards and said to him in her good West Indian way:
"My son, the Royal Family is glad any time to ask me to tea."
Indeed it proved to be true on that occasion. This is the story of one of the most remarkable West Indian women who ever lived. It is the story of a coloured woman who traveled round the Caribbean, in fact the world, at a time when most women stayed at home; the story of a woman who, with gentle persuasion, dealt with the British War office and made her way to the Crimea at the time of the Crimean War; the story of a woman who was well known to and on family terms with Her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria, Empress of India, and who was decorated by Her on more than one occasion.
The story of Mary Jane Seacole is now all but forgotten. There was a time, however,  when her humanitarian and medical services to the British Army fighting in the Crimea War from 1854 to 1856 "made her a household name in Britain".
She was born in Kingston, Jamaica, Mary Jane Grant, in 1805. She was the daughter of a Scottish army officer and a coloured woman who ran a boarding house called Blundell Hall in Kingston, largely patronised by army and naval officers and their families Mary married Edwin Horatio Seacole who was a godson of Viscount Nelson. Her mother was well known for her skills as a healer and her ability to cure fevers, especially yellow fever, which ravaged Jamaica from time to time. Mary acquired her mothers gift and knowledge of Creole medical lore. She worked with her mother saving the lives of many service men and their families. Her reputation grew in such a way that the authorities enlisted her services for their military hospital.
Among the officers and enlisted men of the regiments she had known were some of the 48th Regiment of Foot, the 1st Battalion of the Northhamptonshires, stationed in Jamaica. While still in her teens she made the first of many trips to England. Learning of the terrible hardships caused by the incompetence of the military in the Crimea in the early 1850s, particularly the suffering of the wounded and the sick, "the inclination to gain my old friends of the 97th, 48th and other regiments battling with worse foes than yellow fever or cholera, took such exclusive possession of my mind that I decided to devote my energies to the alleviation of their misery".
She undertook the difficult task to persuade the military authorities to "permit an unknown coloured woman to proceed to the Crimea to help nurse the disease prevalent among troops in this war fought between Russia, England and France". Applying without success to the Secretary of War, the Quartermaster General, the medical department and to the wife of the Secretary of War, Mrs. Sydney Herbert, who co-ordinated the recruitment of nurses, including the famous Florence Nightingale, she was eventually obliged to set out, at her own expense, for Turkey and the theatre of war.
On the way, she was recognised at Gibraltar by two officers of the 48th bound for scene of action, who warmly greeted her. On arrival in the Crimea, she set to work "serving the expeditionary force, both as unofficial nurse and as a 'suttler', that is, one who followed the army and served food and drink."
Within two months, she had opened the British Hotel just north of Balaclava on the road to Sebastopol. A London newspaper reported:
"Lord Raglan's veto for women rendering assistance at the battle front did not inhibit Mrs. Seacole from riding forward with her small personal mule train of medications, food and refreshments."
By the summer of 1855, Mary Seacole was regarded by the troops as part heroine and part mascot. If the other battle front had Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp, Balaclava could offer the romantic legend of a Creole with a tea mug. The soldiers called her "Mother Seacole" and "Auntie Seacole."
Her hotel was on the main road to the front line and to many it was a place of comfort and healing. When peace came, Mary had to sell her hotel. Her work had already made the news. W.M. Russel of the "London Times" wrote:
"I have witnessed her devotion and courage. I have already born testimony to her services to all those who needed them. I trust that England will not forget one who has nursed her sick, who has sought her wounded in order to aid and succor them and who has performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead."
Mary returned to Jamaica where she helped her sister, Louisa, to run Blundell Hall. She visited London whenever she could. Mary Seacole wrote the story of her life in a book called "Wonderful adventures of Mrs. Seacole in many lands". Count von Gleichen, a nephew of Queen Victoria, made a little bust of her in terracotta which is kept on show at the Institute of Jamaica.
She was widely known as a woman of great courage and kindness and as a devoted nurse at a time when the professions were closed to women and few ventured abroad. Today there is a Mary Seacole Hall at U.W.I in Jamaica. Wouldn't you agree that her name should be better known to West Indians?

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