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Mary Seacole: The Most Famous Black Woman of the Victorian Age by Jane Robinson

Mary Seacole: The Most Famous Black Woman of the Victorian Age
by Jane Robinson


Mary Seacole looked after and provided support to British troops during the Crimean War (1853-1856), setting up a hotel for sick and recovering soldiers close to the fighting near Balaclava. In her day, she was as celebrated as Florence Nightingale, but it was not until the rediscovery and publication of her diary in the 1980s that she came to be widely known as a Victorian heroine in modern times. In 2016, a memorial statue of her was unveiled in London, the first in the UK in honour of a named Black woman. Here her biographer, Jane Robinson, tells us more about the remarkable life of Mary Seacole and the world she lived in.

Interview by Benedict King

Mary Seacole: The Most Famous Black Woman of the Victorian Age by Jane Robinson

Mary Seacole: The Most Famous Black Woman of the Victorian Age
by Jane Robinson

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Jane, before we get on to the books, I wonder if you could tell us very briefly who Mary Seacole was. Where and when was she born and how did she end up in Crimea?

Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805. Her mother was a local doctress of African descent who practised herbal remedies. Her father was a Scottish army officer. There were several British regiments stationed in Jamaica, and part of Mary’s mother’s job was to run a hospital and a clinic for them. Mary grew up in a British atmosphere in Jamaica, in the company of both army officers and the rank and file, doing the same thing as her mother had done. She learned to be not only a ‘doctress’, but a nurse as well.

But Mary was too big, I think, for Jamaica, or Jamaica was too small for Mary, because she soon wanted to travel. She decided that the best way of doing this was to be a sort of travelling saleswoman. She used to pack up local produce from the kitchens at home—her mother also ran a hotel in Jamaica—and took them to the Bahamas, to Haiti, and other places in the Caribbean, sold them, picked up goods from abroad and brought them home to the Kingston markets to sell there. So, right from the beginning, she was interested in medicine, but also in business and travel. Those three things are really what got her to the Crimea in 1855, which is when the whole ‘Black Nightingale’ narrative began.

Was her father around when she was growing up?

As far as we can tell, she was brought up by her mother. If I’ve done my research right (and it’s quite difficult, because the surname of her father was Grant, and there are quite a few Grants who were stationed in Jamaica) he died while she was still a child. Even if he didn’t, he may well have moved on, because regiments would stay in Kingston for a while and then be posted elsewhere in the empire. So she was brought up by her mother, but she had siblings and cousins as well.

Let’s turn to the book you’ve chosen. The first one is Mary Seacole herself, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, which is her autobiography. Why did she write it?

She wrote it because she was a natural show woman and storyteller, and she wanted to tell her story, which was remarkable. She also needed the money. It was an instant bestseller, as she thought it might be, and it kept her going for a little while when she came back from the Crimea. It was a successful business enterprise.

Most of it is about her role in the Crimea because she knew that that was what was going to catch public attention, and therefore that was what was going to make it sell. Se did talk about her early years in Kingston. She talked about the time that she spent travelling, not just to the Caribbean, but she went twice to England as well. She also wrote about the time she spent keeping a hotel in Panama. You have to pinch yourself sometimes when you’re gently relating the story of Mary’s life. But she did, indeed, keep a hotel in Panama on the Gold Rush route and spent a couple of years there. There was no canal at that time, so people had to cross the Isthmus of Panama if they wanted to get to the goldfields of California. But the book does concentrate on the Crimea because that was where the British readership’s interest was.

“She was a national heroine”

This particular edition of her autobiography, edited by Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee, is really important. It was published in the 1980s, the first time that it had been printed since 1857, when the autobiography was launched. It’s the first time that Mary was recognized as someone really significant both in British and in Afro-Caribbean history.

Was she a celebrity of sorts, then? I’m very conscious of the fact that when I was at school in the 1970s and 80s, I never heard about Mary Seacole. We did hear about Florence Nightingale. But my children, growing up over the past 20 years, heard a lot about Mary Seacole, and less about Florence Nightingale. Did every Victorian know who she was?

My goodness, yes. When she got back from the Crimea, she was as famous as Florence Nightingale. There was a huge party put on for heroes of the Crimea soon after the peace treaty was signed, and though Florence was invited, she declined to go. Mary Seacole went and sat in the middle of the stage with her brightest outfit on and her arms outstretched. Applause rose to the rafters. She was a national heroine.

To address your point about your children knowing about her but your generation not: it’s largely thanks to this edition that I’m talking about, the one edited by Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee, that she became part of the national curriculum.

Let’s move on to Victorian Lady Travellers by Dorothy Middleton. Tell us about this one. Is Mary included here or does this illustrate that she wasn’t unique in her peregrinations?

This was published way back in 1965, although there has been a reprint since then. It’s about seven Victorian women travellers. It’s the book that first alerted me to the fact that there were more than one or two of them. When I came upon it, I hadn’t yet heard about Mary Seacole and she isn’t in this book. But there are various extremely eccentric, extremely interesting and interested women about whom I had no idea, who travelled to all corners of the globe. So there was a precedent for Mary travelling and she did see herself first and foremost as a woman traveller. Reading this book just opens a whole new world, because most of the travel accounts before had been by men. They’ve got certain agendas, whereas the accounts by women can talk about how women are feeling about what they see and the day-to-day trivia of being on the road. That’s something Mary expresses very well when she writes. This book sets the scene for people like Mary who were stepping outside the confines of their upbringing, and doing something really brave.

Did any of these women share something about their background that allowed them to do that? Was there something liberating about their social circumstances that allowed them to go off and travel by themselves? Or were they just incredibly independent minded?

There are all sorts of women traveling for all sorts of reasons. That’s another surprise I had when I first came upon this book, because I assumed that woman travellers would just be tourists, perhaps going to places where most tourists hadn’t gone before. But there are missionaries and women who are working for a living abroad. There are women who travel because they need money. There are women who travel because they have money, of course, but even then, they’re traveling to extraordinary places, and writing extraordinary books about them. It’s not just a question of moneyed ladies wandering around the world with their own little portable Britain wherever they go. It covers women who are really stepping out into the unknown to find out something about themselves and about the people that they’re meeting.

Excellent. Let’s go on to Mark Bostridge’s biography of Florence Nightingale, Florence Nightingale: The Woman and Her Legend. Tell us about this and how Mary enters it—I’m assuming Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale knew each other.

Yes, the dynamic of the relationship between Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole is very interesting. They did know each other because Mary was given a letter of introduction to Florence on her way out to the Crimea. So she called in at the hospital in Scutari and had a rather frosty interview with Florence. Florence very kindly said that Mary could stay in the washer woman’s quarters if she needed overnight accommodation that night. Mary took up that offer. Also, they met a couple of times on the battlefield because Florence, although she was based in Scutari, did go up to the Crimean peninsula.

“You have to pinch yourself sometimes when you’re gently relating the story of Mary’s life”

Florence was extremely suspicious of Mary Seacole. She was quite scathing about her in later life. I think that’s because she just didn’t understand Mary’s approach. As Mark Bostridge shows in this fantastic biography—it must be the definitive biography—Florence’s approach to medicine and to nursing was stringently clinical. That was her contribution to public health and is still recognised as such. She was a clear-eyed statistician who saw what needed to be done and how that could be achieved.

Mary was far more holistic. I think that’s something to do with her mother’s influence back home in Kingston. It was important to her to make people feel better, as well as for them clinically to be rid of disease. And if that meant giving them a beaker of sherry or a large hug, whether they were the meanest private or the highest general, then that’s what she would do. Florence didn’t understand and mistrusted that approach. It’s irritating to me that Mary is called ‘the Black Nightingale’ because they were completely different people. What they did in the Crimea and elsewhere was complementary. This divisive approach is not helpful to either of them.

Is it generally a sympathetic biography of Florence?

It is. It’s a very engaging biography, more engaging than Florence Nightingale herself was, I think. It says a lot about her context, both within her family and within her society. When I read it I felt for the first time I really understood Florence Nightingale as a person, rather than as an icon, and that’s important.

Let’s move on to Mrs Duberly’s War, edited by Christine Kelly. This is about the Crimea, too?

It’s the letters home and journal of one lady, Fanny Duberly, who was a glorified tourist, really. She went out as the wife of a regimental paymaster and used to ride around on her horse in a sky blue riding habit and gold jewellery, honey blonde hair, being admired. This was while this awful conflict was going on. There were other women like her, soldiers’ wives who were out there, as well as nurses. It was not a completely male environment, even though it was a theatre of war. That’s something that Fanny Duberly brings out because she offers rather catty and bitchy comments about other women who were there with her. It’s important to realise the social history of military history. Reading women’s accounts, whether they’re Mary Seacole’s or Florence Nightingale’s or Fanny Duberly’s, gives us an idea of what was going on behind the scenes.

Was she very consciously writing the letters for publication?

Yes, I think she is. Even though she may be disingenuous about it she was, I’m sure, writing for a wider audience. Mary very consciously wrote for publication as well. Fanny Duberly’s letters home and journal were published even sooner than Mary’s account—they were in print before Fanny herself got back from the Crimea. Fanny was a self-publicist, but then so was Mary. It was fashionable to write an account of an adventure, so why wouldn’t they both do it?

Do you get any sense of whether the presence of women was appreciated in the Crimea? or whether somewhere and some weren’t. Does Fanny Duberly give the impression people appreciated her being there?

She gives a sense that people are enjoying her presence. If you read accounts by soldiers who were there, the ladies were fine if they were well in the background. That’s why Mary Seacole got quite a lot of flak afterwards from people who weren’t actually there, because they said that she must have been distracting and interfering, getting in the way of the British Army. In fact, on the ground, they were so grateful to have her because she was going out and treating soldiers on the battlefield, under fire, with skill, and with love, and with cake and sherry.

Let’s go on to your final book, which is An American Diary by Barbara Bodichon.

I’m currently writing a biography of Barbara Bodichon, who was so like Mary Seacole in many ways. Barbara Bodichon was, incidentally, Florence Nightingale’s first cousin but she was illegitimate, so the two strands of the family didn’t often acknowledge one another.

She was travelling in the opposite direction to Mary Seacole. She went on honeymoon to America in 1857, a little bit later than Mary Seacole was in the Crimea. Her particular interest was in exploring the slave states because slavery still obtained in America, although it had been abolished in the British Empire. Unlike Mary, Barbara Bodichon was a campaigner. She was a political traveller and had something to say about her travels. Mary was just relating her adventure, but Barbara Bodichon wanted to show people what was going on in the southern states, how inhumanly slaves were being treated. She was an abolitionist who came from a dynasty of abolitionists.

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It’s interesting to me that the most prejudice that Mary Seacole mentions having ever faced was from Americans. She never actually went to America herself. When she had the hotel in Panama there were East Coast Americans travelling through to get to the goldfields in the West. The picture that Barbara paints of the southern states of America makes you understand what Mary was facing.

Barbara was somebody who was ‘other’ because she was illegitimate; Mary because she was Black. She had this slightly distanced view about what she was writing. That ‘otherness’ puts things into relief. You don’t take things for granted if you’re in some ways an outcast yourself. It gives an edge to the subjectivity of any travel account if you feel like a stranger yourself.

How does Barbara socialise while she’s going through the southern states? Is she staying with slave-owning families?

Not if she could help it. She’s staying in guest houses, hotels, sometimes she stays with people of colour wherever she finds them. She’s very much identifying herself with the oppressed. She went on to make a name for herself as the pioneering feminist of the Victorian era. Again, she was dealing with the oppressed—women. She founded the first women’s suffrage organisation and was also involved with the first university college for women, Girton College, Cambridge.

But this book exclusively covers her period in the United States, is that right?

Yes. The point I would want to make is that Mary wasn’t a crusader, in spite of all the amazing things she did, and for all that she was chosen as the greatest Black Briton in 2004. She’s a Black icon, and an icon of the nursing profession, but she never set out to be any sort of icon or crusader, she just set out to do what she felt she wanted to do. The remarkable thing was that she achieved it, in spite of everything.

What did Mary do after Crimea? Did she go back to England?

Yes, she came back to England and was declared bankrupt because the Crimean conflict ended very, very quickly. The British forces were sent home before they’d had a chance to pay their bills at the hotel that she’d set up, just behind the front lines in the Crimea. So she was declared bankrupt. Fortunately, a subscription fund was got up for her with members of the Royal Family and all sorts of other people giving her money. That kept her going, along with the proceeds from her autobiography, and she settled into feted retirement. She was a great friend of the Princess of Wales, the future Edward VII’s wife Alexandra, and she had all her old army friends. She was well loved. But I think her celebrity was of the flaring sort that once you leave the stage, it also dies. That’s why there was such silence afterwards.

Where and when did she die?

She died in 1881 in London. She did go back to Jamaica a few times. She had some business interests there, but she settled in London after the war.

Interview by Benedict King

January 27, 2022

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Jane Robinson

Jane Robinson

Jane Robinson is a social historian specialising in pioneering women. Her 12 books include Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, currently in development as a TV drama series, and histories of women travellers, women in the professions and the fight for the vote. She is a Senior Associate of Somerville College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical and Royal Geographical Societies.

Jane Robinson

Jane Robinson

Jane Robinson is a social historian specialising in pioneering women. Her 12 books include Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, currently in development as a TV drama series, and histories of women travellers, women in the professions and the fight for the vote. She is a Senior Associate of Somerville College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical and Royal Geographical Societies.