Later this year a memorial statue to Mary Seacole will be unveiled in the gardens of St Thomas' hospital, overlooking the River Thames and the Houses of Parliament. Sir Hugh Taylor, Chairman of Guys & St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, said: "Mary Seacole was a pathfinder for the generations of people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds who have served the NHS over the years and she remains a positive role model for the current generation. The Trust is proud to be hosting the statue, not least because it speaks to the diversity of our local population, our patients and the staff who work here."
It was 160 years ago that Mary first set foot in the Crimea to feed and nurse British soldiers and she stayed there for the remaining 18 months of the conflict. Sir William Howard Russell, The Times newspaper's Crimean War correspondent praised her efforts. In 1857 he wrote "I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead." He would have been sad to see that Mary was virtually forgotten for a century following her death in London on 14 May 1881. This was despite an obituary appearing in the pages of The Times!
So what on earth motivated this Victorian woman to trek thousands of miles from Jamaica, her country of birth, to the wretched battlefields of the Crimea? Much can be learnt from her 1857 autobiography, a bestseller published a year after the Crimean War ended. Let's start with the title: Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. It's a particularly appropriate one for International Women's Day as it clearly reveals her to be a truly global woman. Coy about her exact date of birth, she was born in Kingston, probably in 1805. Shining through the narrative is pride in both her mother's African-Jamaican Creole heritage and her father's military Scottish ancestry. Following in her mother's footsteps she became a boarding house keeper and a doctress and nurse who used a mixture of traditional Creole and western medicine. From her father there was "good Scotch blood coursing through her veins" and "sympathy with what I have heard my friends call 'the pomp, pride and circumstances of glorious war'".
Mary's feistiness and self-confidence leap from the pages of her book. As does the disdain displayed to anybody who dared to consider her inferior due her skin colour. In Panama she had single-handedly cared for victims of cholera, including some gold-prospecting Americans. As a result Seacole was invited as a guest to an Independence Day dinner and the man making a toast in her honour thanked her for the nursing care given. He should have stopped there but unwisely waxed on: "I calculate, gentlemen, you're all as vexed as I am that she's not wholly white ... and I guess, if we could bleach her by any means we would and thus make her acceptable in any company as she deserves to be. Gentleman, I give you Aunty Seacole!"
Mary was so livid that after a few words of thanks retorted: "But I must say that I don't altogether appreciate your friend's kind wishes with respect to my complexion. ...and as to his offer of bleaching me, I should, even if it were practicable, decline it without any thanks. As to the society which the process might gain me admission into, all I can say is, that judging from the specimens I have met with here and elsewhere, I don't think that I shall lose much by being excluded from it. So, gentlemen, I drink to you and the general reformation of American manners."
It will not be a surprise then to hear that Mary was an avid and confident voyager. As well as Panama, the Crimea and visiting England twice in her youth (and eventually settling there), she also travelled to Cuba, Haiti, the Bahamas, Belgium and Ireland. Recent findings reveal even greater coverage of her in newspapers throughout the British Empire, both during and after the Crimean War. This included being awarded a war medal in 1856 by the Turkish government.
Martin Jennings, the internationally renowned sculptor, has designed the memorial. His work includes statues of Sir John Betjeman at St Pancras station and Charles Dickens in Portsmouth. The Mary Seacole Memorial Statue Appeal set out to raise just under £500,000 and has received widespread support from all sections of the community. An outstanding amount of £80,000 is still needed though to reach the target and urgently! Online donations can be made via: https://www.justgiving.com/maryseacolememorial/donate/