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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Mary Seacole: The British-Jamaican Nurse Who Served Thousands of British Troops During the Crimean War—on Her Own Dime

Mary Seacole’s life offers an example of benevolence that we would all do well to imitate.

Image Credit: Matt Brown - Flickr | CC BY 2.0

“Do-gooder” is rarely a term of endearment. A prominent dictionary defines one as “an earnest but often naive humanitarian or reformer.” Another dictionary defines what do-gooders do as “focusing on humanitarian causes in a naive and often ineffectual way.” Philosopher Henry David Thoreau famously opined, “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”

If good is in fact good, what can possibly be wrong with doing it? The answer is largely a matter of effect and consent. If an act of doing good produces harmful consequences—by reinforcing destructive habits, for example—then it’s not a good act, no matter the doer’s good intentions. And if the do-gooder uses bad means to accomplish his good ends—such as theft or coercion—then perhaps it would be more fitting to label him a “do-badder.” If, for example, the Salvation Army robbed banks to generate its income, we wouldn’t whitewash its theft by asserting that the loot was well-spent.

Sometimes a do-gooder is a turn-off because of an arrogant, uninformed, or know-it-all attitude. In Musashi, the best-selling Japanese novelist Eiji Yoshikawa wrote, “There’s nothing more frightening than a half-baked do-gooder who knows nothing of the world but takes it upon himself to tell the world what’s good for it.” Lots of those ones get elected, call themselves “progressive” and begin a career of legalized plunder for all sorts of allegedly good causes.

In this essay, I want to acquaint readers with a genuine do-gooder who meant well and did good, one whose means were as good as her ends. She had only grateful beneficiaries, and no resentful victims. Her name was Mary Seacole.

I first learned of this remarkable woman while watching a documentary about the Crimean War (1853-56). For two and a half bloody years, an alliance of Britain, France, and Turkey fought Russia over balance-of-power and other stuff governments kill people for. The conflict claimed half a million casualties, mostly in the presently-disputed Crimean Peninsula, and produced little good that anybody can remember.

Florence Nightingale’s fame began with her work as a nurse and trainer of nurses during the Crimean War; less well-known but certainly deserving of high praise is the wartime work of Mary Seacole.

Born in 1805 in the British Caribbean colony of Jamaica, Seacole was the daughter of a Scottish lieutenant in the British Army and a black Jamaican “doctress” known for healing the sick using remedies native to the island and to west Africa. From her mother, young Mary learned nursing skills and knowledge of hygiene, hydration, ventilation, nutrition, wound care, and even empathy for patients. Her bedside manner sometimes seemed to be a cure-all by itself.

Seacole visited London as a teenager but returned to Jamaica to begin her life as a healer of the sick and wounded. When everything she owned was destroyed in a fire in 1843, she determined to start over, only to suffer the loss of both her mother and husband barely a year later. Then for a time, she joined her brother in Panama where she nursed many cholera victims to recovery. The experience proved valuable to her when she dealt later with cholera epidemics in her home country and elsewhere.

By the time the Crimean War broke out in October 1853, Seacole was well-known and widely respected in the Caribbean as a self-taught doctor, and very successful as a businesswoman too. En route from the Caribbean to England to check in on her investments, she decided she wanted to go to Crimea as a nurse volunteer as soon as possible. Her repeated offers to the British government’s ungrateful war bureaucracy were all declined. In her autobiography, she wrote,

“Now, I am not for a single instant going to blame the authorities who would not listen to the offer of a motherly yellow woman to go to the Crimea and nurse her ‘sons’ there, suffering from cholera, diarrhea, and a host of lesser ills. In my country, where people know our use, it would have been different; but here it was natural enough—although I had references, and other voices spoke for me—that they should laugh, good-naturedly enough, at my offer.”

Who could blame her if she had decided to go back home to Kingston, Jamaica? That’s not what Mary Seacole did. Using her own resources to afford the transportation, she headed to the battlefront in Crimea, arriving at Balaclava in early 1855.

What happened next is a tribute to Seacole’s determination and entrepreneurship. By the end of July she had built a facility dubbed the “British Hotel”—mostly from scrap metal, driftwood, and other debris. By serving hot meals and drinks to soldiers, she earned enough of an income to survive and to purchase medical supplies for the wounded. She was the first British woman to enter the city of Sevastopol after its surrender by the Russians. The National Library of Jamaica reveals,

“Seacole would set out carrying bags of lint, bandages, needles, thread, and medicine accompanied by mules loaded with sandwiches and other food, wine and spirits, arriving on the battlefield at dawn. Such activities were no doubt risky; nevertheless, she was devoted to her cause. Seacole returned to London deeply in debt. However, the British Commander in Chief of the Crimea forces and the Duke of Wellington and New Castle organized a four-day festival of music and gave her the proceeds.”

In an amazing, riveting biography titled In Search of Mary Seacole, Helen Rappaport reveals how deeply appreciated this humanitarian, nurse, and entrepreneur was in her day:

“By the time British troops left in July 1856 everybody in Crimea knew who Mrs. Seacole was—or rather, they were much more likely to know her as ‘Mother Seacole.’ Not only that, but the British people back home knew of her Crimean exploits too. Thanks to extensive press coverage of the war…they knew about the efficacy of Mrs. Seacole’s Jamaican herbal remedies for dysentery and cholera; her skill with stitching a wound, bandaging injuries and dealing with frostbite; her wonderful stews and Christmas puddings; and most important of all—her compassion and absolute devotion to her ‘sons’ of the British Army.”

Mary Seacole served thousands of troops—the tired, the sick, the wounded and the dying—and she did it on her own dime. If you’ve ever heard the old line, You’re really good at what you do, it’s just that what you do isn’t good, you know it doesn’t apply to her. She was a do-gooder of the very best kind. She was very good at what she did, and it was very good indeed—completely voluntary, consensual, health-giving, and life-saving. No tax dollars at work here.

She died in London at the age of 75 in 1881. Posthumous honors and recognitions continue to come her way in recent years—from commemorative stamps and plaques to statues and paintings. In 2004, she was voted #1 among 100 Black Britons.

Mary Seacole, you done good.

For Additional Information, See:

Mary Seacole, Angel of the Crimea (video)

Mary Seacole, 1805-1881 (National Library of Jamaica)

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (autobiography)

In Search of Mary Seacole by Helen Rappaport


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.