The Determination of Mary Seacole at New Walk Museum Leicester for Black History Month

By Richard Moss | 04 October 2010
a portrait of an elderly black woman with a red scarf and two medals pinned to her dress
Albert Charles Challen, Mary Seacole 1869.© National Portrait Gallery
Exhibition: The Determination of Mary Seacole, New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester, until December 31 2010

Beyond the generals and politicians who bungled their way through the Crimean War, the most famous person to emerge from the ill-fated Victorian campaign in Southern Russia was undoubtedly the pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale.

However, recent years have seen the welcome rehabilitation of another nursing heroine who made an equally strong impact during the war and whose public reputation for a time rivalled that of the Lady with the Lamp.
Mary Seacole was the Kingston-born daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican Creole mother who travelled to the Crimea in 1854 to set up the British Hotel near Balaclava for the nursing of wounded officers. It was a remarkable achievement - all the more so when you consider her offer to travel there as an army nurse had been turned down point blank by the War Office.

Undaunted, she funded her own trip and, upon arrival in Balaclava, she proceeded to utilise her nursing skills to provide a "mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers". It is said she even visited the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded. To the soldiers she became known as Mother Seacole.

Exhibition Curator Tara Munroe describes Seacole as "one of the most determined women of history", and the show highlights the persistence that allowed her to overcome prejudice and travel to the Crimea. It also includes the only found portrait of her, painted by Albert Charles Challen in 1869, and recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery.

"Mary showed outstanding courage in everything she embarked on and had a humanitarian quality that embraced all," adds Munroe, who calls her "one of the most iconic Black people of all time."

After the war Seacole returned to Britain destitute and in ill health. Her plight was highlighted in July 1857 and a benefit festival was organised to raise money for her. Later that year, she published her memoirs, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. She died on 14th May, 1881.

The intervening century may have lost her. But now, at least, this nursing pioneer's reputation continues to grow.

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