She was born in Kingston in about 1805, the child of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican boarding house keeper. Her mother spent her time caring for invalid officers and their wives and, perhaps inevitably, Mary soon developed a deep desire to nurse. In the absence of formal training, she continued to learn by watching and working with medics around her.
In 1854 (ten years after her husband’s death), the Crimean War broke out and Mary applied to both the British war office army medical department and to Florence Nightingale for any post that would enable her to support and care for the wounded and dying as the war gained pace. However, her persistent offers of help were flatly refused. Reflecting on her rejection by Florence Nightingale’s nurses she wrote:
‘Was it possible that American prejudices against colour had some root here? Did those ladies shrink from accepting me and because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs? Tears streamed down my foolish cheeks as I stood in the fast thinning streets; tears of grief that any should doubt my motives and that Heaven should deny me the opportunity that I sought. Then I stood still and looking upward through and through the dark clouds that shadowed London and prayed aloud for help.'(Ziggi Alexander and Audrey Dewjee (eds), Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (London: Falling Wall Press, 1984), p.126.)
Mary responded to this setback by taking the initiative and at age 50 she set up a boarding house like her mother’s near the war front, under her own steam and at her own expense. Her subsequent courage and determination eventually won her widespread admiration and support.
Mary Seacole did what few others, let alone a black woman, did in her era. She travelled, ran a business and went to a war. It is written of her:
She faced death from cholera, yellow fever, shipwreck and on the battlefield. In 1843 she nearly lost her life in the great fire of Kingston which burned down her home; and in Panama she narrowly escaped being stabbed by a thief; in the Crimea a flood swept away a quantity of her supplies and herself, but fortunately she was a good swimmer. Her whole life was one long battle with death. (World's Great Men of Color, Volume 2, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), J.A. Rogers p. 270)
What I love about this woman is her courage, audacity and utter reliance on God. As a leader, she was willing to do whatever it took to honour what she believed to be her calling from God and refused to allow prejudice, age, danger or even lack of formal qualifications to stand in her way.
Rev Dr Kate Coleman is founding director of Next Leadership. She has nearly 30 years of leadership experience in the church, charity and voluntary sectors and is a mentor and coach to leaders. Kate recently completed a term as Chair of the Evangelical Alliance Council (2012-2014), is a former president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain (2006-2007), and a Baptist Minister.