Ages before the formation of the nurses’ fraternity as we know them today, the practice of women and men looked upon as healers flourished in tribal societies. By gender, their prominence may be ascribed in legend based on matriarchal or patriarchal preferences.
Harnessing trough years observation, at times from animals and trial and error, they assembled medicine chests of herbs, roots and fruit towards the healing of the afflicted in their respected communities. These are of course the predecessors that inspired the first oral and written medical doctrines, creeds and manuscripts of the old world that the post-medieval practitioners inherited. It is inspiring that the World Health Organization (WHO) has nominated 2020 as the year of the Nurse. Commemorating the 200th birth anniversary of Florence Nightingale, noted as the lady of the lamp during the bloody Crimean war of 1854. Florence Nightingale is a significant part of that history, but not all of it.
Nothing stops the Caribbean fraternity of Nurses from adding another significant name for recognition and commemoration from our fount of gifted souls, in this respect the name and works of Mrs Mary Seacole of Jamaica. The unique child of an Afro-Jamaican mother and a Scottish army officer stationed in Jamaica, born Mary Jane Grant, November 23, 1805. As a child, Mary took to the unusual interest of nursing the cats and dogs of her neighbourhood, and when older, she extended her interest to the nearby elderly folk. Mary was inspired and no doubt inherited the innate inclination of a healer from her mother who was nicknamed ‘The Doctress’ Her mother kept a lodging house in Kingston where she nursed army officers and their families. At 12, after much observation, Mary was allowed to help her mother with the patients. Mary Seacole as an adult was infected with Cholera when the epidemic hit Jamaica in 1850, applying methods and approaches she recovered. She then travelled to Panama with her brother to set up a hotel, while there; she diagnosed what might have been the cause of the Cholera in the region. Again when the Cholera returned to Jamaica In 1853, her skills and approaches were most effective. She returned to Panama in 1854 and her arrival coincided with the Cholera epidemic in that country.
There in Panama she applied her knowledge to assist Cholera victims and acquired the reputation as the ‘yellow woman from Jamaica with the Cholera medicine’ she was the celebration of the city and was invited to the 4th of July banquet given by the Americans she was the guest of honour. There the prejudices of the day unfolded from one American guest who toasted her sarcastically, ‘regretting that she was not born white and laughingly suggested that she should be bleached to make her so’. “Well gentlemen I expect that there are only two things we are vexed for. The first is that she ain’t one of us; a citizen of the United States, the other is that providence made her a yellow woman. Gentlemen, let’s drink to the health of Aunty Seacole.” To which Mary Seacole replied. “I must say that I don’t altogether appreciate your friendly kind wishes with regard to my complexion. If it been dark as any negro’s I would have been just as happy and useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value, and as to the 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 admission into, all I say is, from the specimens I have met here and elsewhere, I don’t think I shall lose much from being excluded from it. So, gentlemen, I drink to you and the general reformation of American manners.”
In 1854 another European war was alit, fuelled by religious contentions and national ambitions, that would include the British, French and Turks against Russia. The field of combat was Gallipoli-Crimea. By this time Mary Jane Grant had married Edwin Horatio Seacole, an invalid with English class pretentions, she not too long became a widow, with her mother also then diseased, she threw herself into her work as a healer, and with the Yellow fever outbreak in Jamaica in 1853 her services were again indispensable. Then Mary’s intentions became centred on the new theatre of conflict, where she was determined to go and participate as a Mother of Mercy, but upon applying and presenting her services to Florence Nightingale, who was then recruiting nurses for the campaign, she was rejected. [Another opinion was the objection by the military, generally of having medical women on the Battle field] undeterred, Mary Seacole arrived at the Crimea, financing her mission and built an establishment known as the Mess-Table and the British Hotel, and provided health, healing and support services to British troops, there is a perception that battlefields only incur wounds from weapons, but there are great possibilities of dysentery, yaws, Cholera, invasions of lice etc. Battlefields are places of death and that ‘Horseman’ does not know restraint; to which W.H Russell the London Times war correspondent wrote of her “In their time of illness, these men in common with many others, have found a kind and successful physician. Close to the railway, Mrs Seacole formally of Kingston Jamaica and of several parts of the world such as Panama and Chagres has pitched her abode-and here she doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance on the battle fields and has earned many a poor fellows blessing…”-abridged.
She remained in Crimea after the war, having stood the hardships better than Florence Nightingale who had to be ordered home because of illness. Mary left Crimea broke, but the gratitude of the British people had reimbursed her. She passed on May 14, 1881. Mary Seacole is well celebrated in Jamaica, but that is not enough, we of the Caribbean Plantation, of CARICOM, must have our MAMA MERCY, Mary of Healing, of equal merit and stature to Madam Nightingale. Sources- World’s Great Men of Colour vol. 2-J.A. Rogers: -National Library of Jamaica.