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Mary Seacole

(1805-1881), Entrepreneur, nurse, adventurer and writer

Mary Jane Seacole (née Grant)

Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue Entry

Sitter in 2 portraits
In the face of racial and social barriers, Mary Seacole became a self-made businesswoman who achieved great fame in her day. Today she is celebrated as a pioneer of the Victorian age. Born in Kingston to a mixed-race Jamaican mother and a white Scottish father, Seacole learnt healing and entrepreneurial skills that took her to different countries in pursuit of trading opportunities. When in 1853 she heard that British soldiers were fighting in the Crimea, she volunteered to go and work with the official military hospitals. She was rejected, however, and later cited racial discrimination as the likely cause. Undeterred, she managed to travel to the Crimea independently and set up her ‘British Hotel’ near the battlefields, providing ‘comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’. Seacole remained in the Crimea until July 1856, when she moved to England after she and her business partner went bankrupt. Her plight was highlighted in the British press and a fund was set up, to which many prominent people donated. In 1857, she published her memoir Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, a 200-page autobiographical account of her travels and the earliest known autobiography by a Caribbean-born woman. A familiar figure to British newspaper readers through the reports of William Howard Russell, she was largely forgotten, until the 1980s when campaigns helped resituate her in British history. In 1991, Seacole was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit and, in 2004, she was voted the greatest Black Briton in an online poll.

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