Thursday, 2 April 2015

Mary Seacole - The Creole with a Teacup and the Crimean War, 1854-1856

Think of the Crimean War from 1854-1856 and your mind turns to the ‘Lady with the Lamp’, Florence Nightingale and yet she is not the only celebrated helper during that era. There is another person who deserves equal praise. Her name is Mary Seacole and she is a nurse who gains her skill whilst growing up in her native Jamaica.

The Crimean peninsula is a tough inhospitable environment for anyone but for Mary Seacole there is the additional challenge of dealing with racial discrimination as a black woman. In spite of all of this she does not let this faze her and even uses her own funds to create a ‘British hotel’ for the sick and poorly. All soldiers are met with a hearty jovial attitude. It is a complete contrast with the more reserved and puritan Florence Nightingale. Unsurprisingly her famous rival does not take a shine to her. The soldiers on the other hand adore her.

Courageous as she is, Mary can not avoid being affected by the appalling conditions that soldiers suffer under during the war. The following story from her own memoirs illustrates this and how her natural warmth radiates forth very well. 

‘It was very usual, when a young officer was ordered into the trenches, for him to ride down to Spring Hill to dine, or obtain something more than his ordinary fare to brighten his weary hours in those fearful ditches. They seldom failed on these occasions to shake me by the hand at parting, and sometimes would say, "You see, Mrs. Seacole, I can't say goodbye to the dear ones at home, so I'll bid you goodbye for them. Perhaps you'll see them some day, and if the Russians should knock me over, mother, just tell them I thought of them all—will you?" And although all this might be said in a light-hearted manner, it was rather solemn. I felt it to be so, for I never failed (although who was I, that I should preach?) to say something about God's providence and relying upon it; and they were very good. No army of parsons could be much better than my sons. They would listen very gravely, and shake me by the hand again, while I felt that there was nothing in the world I would not do for them. Then very often the men would say, "I'm going in with my master tonight, Mrs. Seacole; come and look after him, if he's hit" and so often as this happened I would pass the night restlessly, awaiting with anxiety the morning, and yet dreading to hear the news it held in store for me. I used to think it was like having a large family of children ill with fever, and dreading to hear which one had passed away in the night.

And as often as the bad news came, I thought it my duty to ride up to the hut of the sufferer and do my woman's work. But I felt it deeply. How could it be otherwise? There was one poor boy in the Artillery, with blue eyes and light golden hair, whom I nursed through a long and weary sickness, borne with all a man's spirit, and whom I grew to love like a fond old-fashioned mother. I thought if ever angels watched over any life, they would shelter his; but one day, but a short time after he had left his sick-bed, he was struck down on his battery, working like a young hero. It was a long time before I could banish from my mind the thought of him as I saw him last, the yellow hair, stiff and stained with his life-blood, and the blue eyes closed in the sleep of death. Of course, I saw him buried, as I did poor H---- V----, my old Jamaica friend, whose kind face was so familiar to me of old. Another good friend I mourned bitterly--Captain B----, of the Coldstreams, a great cricketer. He had been with me on the previous evening, had seemed dull, but had supped at my store, and on the following morning a brother officer told me he was shot dead while setting his pickets, which made me ill and unfit for work for the whole day. Mind you, a day was a long time to give to sorrow in the Crimea.’

If you enjoyed reading this story and would like to read more about another brave woman then read

Grace Darling and her Heroism with a Rowing Boat in 1838