Previous page | Undaunted by this setback, she traveled to the war zone and used her own funds to open the British Hotel in Balaclava to "provide a mess table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers," where she tended the wounded, often journeying into the battlefield to nurse the soldiers. She became well-known both in the Crimea and back in England for her skill and courage, eventually receiving medals from Crimean, French, and Turkish authorities. With the abrupt end of the war, she was left with unused inventory that she was forced to sell at fire-sale prices. Returning to England bankrupt, she was rescued from her financial straits as old soldiers and the Times newspaper rallied to her plight and staged a benefit on her behalf.
Financially solvent, she decided to write her autobiography, The Wonderful Adventure of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which was a bestseller, being reprinted in its publication year. She was able to live comfortably from the proceeds and spent the rest of her life traveling between Kingston and London, where she died.
Mary Seacole faded from historical memory but, on the centenary of the Crimean War (1954), the Jamaican Nurses Association named their headquarters Mary Seacole House. Subsequently, a residence hall at the University of the West Indies and a ward in the Kingston Public Hospital were named after her.
Mary Seacole was rediscovered in the 1970s when she emerged as a symbol for black nurses and the feminist movement. In 1984, she re-emerged from the shadows of history when her autobiography, also faded from memory, was reissued.
Any discussion on Mary Seacole eventually leads to comparison with Florence Nightingale and centers on each woman's place, or lack of it, in history. Referred to as the "black Nightingale" by many of her patients in the battlefield, Mary Seacole made her own remarkable contribution to both nursing and the Crimean war effort. While Florence Nightingale's work in the Crimea was mostly administrative as compared to Mary Seacole's hands-on approach, both women performed admirably. Yet, mainly due to racism and Victorian prejudice, Florence Nightingale emerged as a lasting public figure while Mary Seacole, not holding an official post, was relegated to the shadows of history.
It is a testament to Seacole's skill, courage and determination that she achieved what she did against the odds.
Black Londoners, Susan Okokon. Alan Sutton Publishing, Ltd., 1998.
Buy it in paperback: Amazon.com
Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent: From the Ancient Egyptian to the Present, Margaret Busby (ed.), Ballantine Books, 1992.
Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, Mary Seacole, Oxford University Press, 1988.
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