British Empire: Autobiography, Mary Seacole
In 1857, only 24 years after the British had abolished slavery in the empire, Mary Seacole (1805-1881) published her autobiography entitled the Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Written in Britain, following Seacole’s experiences working among sick and wounded British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War, the book became an immediate bestseller. Seacole, who had grown up in Jamaica, was the daughter of a Scottish solder and a free woman of African descent who had taught her daughter the art of healing. Seacole traveled to the Crimea at her own expense and in the face of considerable opposition from the British War office, who refused to support sending “a motherly yellow woman” to the Crimea so she could “nurse her sons.” When she arrived in the Crimea, she set up the British Hotel where she sold goods, supplied hot food, and gave medical help to officers and soldiers. Although Mary Seacole is less well known than her contemporary Florence Nightingale, her work earned her the love and respect of the soldiers who served in the Crimean War. This brief excerpt from her book highlights Seacole’s representation of herself as a professional relied upon by soldiers for medical treatment, her attitude towards British soldiers and the war, and the opportunities available during a 19th-century war for a determined woman. Seacole’s book also complicates our understanding of colonial identities, and raises interesting questions about how a woman from a British colony could create a role for herself at the heart of an imperial war.
“Need I be ashamed to confess that I shared in the general enthusiasm, and longed more than ever to carry my busy (and the reader will not hesitate to add experienced) fingers where the sword or bullet had been busiest, and pestilence most rife. I had seen much sorrow and death elsewhere, but they had never daunted me; and if I could feel happy binding up the wounds of quarrelsome Americans and treacherous Spaniards, what delight should I not experience if I could be useful to my own ‘sons,’ suffering for a cause it was so glorious to fight and bleed for! I never stayed to discuss probabilities, or enter into conjectures as to my chances of reaching the scene of action. I made up my mind that if the army wanted nurses, they would be glad of me, and with all the ardour of my nature, which ever carried me where inclination prompted, I decided that I would go to the Crimea; and go I did, as all the world knows . . .before very long I found myself surrounded with patients of my own, and this for two simple reasons. In the first place, the men (I am speaking of the ‘ranks’ now) had a very serious objection to going into hospital for any but urgent reasons, and the regimental doctors were rather fond of sending them there; and, in the second place, they could and did get at my store of sick-comforts and nourishing food, which the heads of the medical staff would sometimes find it difficult to procure. These reasons, with the additional one that I was very familiar with the diseases which they suffered most from and successful in their treatment (I say this in no spirit of vanity), were quite sufficient to account for the numbers who came daily to the British Hotel for medical treatment . . .Don’t you think, reader, if you were lying, with parched lips and fading appetite, thousands of miles from mother, wife, or sister, loathing the rough food by your side, and thinking regretfully of that English home where nothing that could minister to your great need would be left untried? Don’t you think that you would welcome the familiar figure of the stout lady whose bony horse has just pulled up at the door of your hut, and whose panniers contain some cooling drink, a little broth, some homely cake, or a dish of jelly or blanc-mange . . .My first experience of battle was pleasant enough. Before we had been long at Spring Hill, Omar Pasha got something for his Turks to do, and one fine morning they were marched away towards the Russian outposts on the road to Baidar. I accompanied them on horseback, and enjoyed the sight amazingly. English and French cavalry preceded the Turkish infantry over the plain yet full of memorials to the terrible Light Calvary charge a few months before; and while one detachment of the Turks made a reconnaissance to the right of the Tchernaya, another pushed their way up the hill, towards Kamara, driving in the Russian outposts, after what seemed but a slight resistance. It was very pretty to see them advance, and to watch how every now and then little clouds of white smoke puffed up from behind bushes and the crests of hills, and were answered by similar puffs from the long line of busy skirmishers that preceded the main body. This was my first experience of actual battle, and I felt that strange excitement which I do not remember on future occasions, coupled with an earnest longing to see more of warfare, and to share in its hazards.”
Seacole, Mary. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. London: J. Blackwood, 1857.