The Caribbean island of Jamaica was originally inhabited by the Redware people, the Caribs, and the Arawak group of indigenous peoples including the Taíno people. The island was named “Xaynaca” by its early inhabitants, which meant “land of wood and water”. Christopher Columbus is believed to have been the first European to reach Xaynaca in 1494, after which it was colonised* by the Spanish. The Spanish changed the name of the island to “Jamaica”.
The Spanish enslaved Arawak people and by 1602 some historians believed the Arawak people were extinct. However, some had escaped the Spanish and had settled in the mountainous regions of Jamaica. The Spanish also enslaved* people from West Africa and transported them to the island.
*Colonised: To settle among and take control over a land and its indigenous people, often through forceful means.
*Indigenous: Originating naturally in a particular place; native.
*Enslave: to cause someone to lose their freedom of choice and action; slave.
Jamaica: A Brief Introduction
In 1655 the English invaded Jamaica and defeated the Spanish to claim Jamaica as their colony*. The sugar cane industry replaced piracy as British Jamaica’s main source of income. Enslaved people were forced to work without rest or pay, and regularly abused.
Mary Seacole’s mother, Mrs Grant, had been born into slavery, but despite this became a nurse and an entrepreneur. Mary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805, when slavery was still very much a reality for many.
*Colony: A country or area controlled politically by another.
Mary Seacole’s mother Mrs Grant was a healer who used traditional Caribbean and African herbal medicines and was nicknamed a “Doctress”. Mrs Grant also ran a boarding house called Blundell Hall which had an excellent reputation.
Jamaican doctresses mastered folk medicine*, had a vast knowledge of tropical diseases, and had a General Practitioner's (GP’s) skill in treating ailments* and injuries, acquired from having to look after the illnesses of fellow enslaved people on sugar plantations.
The role of a doctress in Jamaica was a mixture of a nurse, midwife, masseuse and herbalist, drawing strongly on the traditions of Creole medicine. Doctresses practised the use of good hygiene a century before Florence Nightingale wrote about its importance in her book Notes on Nursing.
*Ailment = an illness.
*Folk medicine = medicine using herbal and other remedies based on traditional beliefs
Women in the 1800s
What jobs would women have done?
Men dominated every position of power in society, and women were expected to stay home and be wives and mothers. Female entrepreneurs* would have been unheard of in Britain.
What barriers would they have faced? Women could not vote, and married women could not own their own property, keep their own wages, or enter into contracts.
What freedoms would they have had? Women didn’t travel alone, let alone go to war and/or set up hospitals.
*Entrepreneur = businessperson
Women in the 1800s
Listen to the following poem written by Lawrence Hoo and performed by Sophia Harari.
Mary's mother taught her many skills using traditional Jamaican medicine. Mary would often practice medicine on her doll, dogs and cats, and on herself. From the age of 12, Mary would help her mother run the boarding house, where many of the guests were sick or injured soldiers. At aged 15, Mary traveled to England with relatives and stayed for about a year. There she learnt about modern European medicine, which complemented her Caribbean techniques.
Mary Seacole’s Story
In the late 1830s, Mary nursed her husband and her mother, before they passed away. In 1850, a epidemic of Cholera hit Jamaica, and Mary nursed those who fell ill. In 1853, Mary was invited by the medical authorities to supervise nursing services in Kingston. When the Crimean War (1853-1856, Britain vs. Russia) began, Mary travelled to England and approached the British War Office, asking to be sent as an army nurse to Crimea, as she heard about the poor medical facilities. She was refused. As a result, Mary funded her own trip to Crimea where she founded the British Hotel, which provided a place for sick or recovering soldiers to rest. Mary’s hotel was near the battlefield and Mary was able to visit the battlefield, sometimes under fire, to nurse the wounded soldiers.
Portrait of Mary Seacole
Europe And Ukraine
Mary Seacole’s Story
“It was very natural that I should inherit her tastes; and so, I had from early youth a yearning for medical knowledge and practice which never deserted me… And I was very young when I began to make use of the little knowledge I had acquired from watching my mother, upon great sufferer – my doll… and whatever disease was most prevalent in Kingston, be sure my poor doll soon contracted it.”
From Mary Seacole’s autobiography “The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands”, published in 1857.
Mary Seacole by contemporary
London artist Richard Mensah
Worksheet Task 1
Answer the following questions:
1- Make a list of Mary Seacole’s experiences. What did she achieve in her lifetime?
2 - Describe the barriers and challenges she faced in her lifetime.
3 - Explain how Mary overcame these barriers and challenges.
The Mary Seacole Trust exists to educate and inform the public about the life, work and achievements of Mary Seacole.
As a result of a nationwide appeal supported by thousands of individuals as well as the military and major corporations, a statue of Mary was unveiled at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, opposite the Houses of Parliament, in June 2016.
Mary Seacole Trust
Mary Seacole’s Legacy
Mary Seacole used to feature in GCSE History specifications teaching Medicine Through Time. Although she was often only taught for a lesson or two (and should have definitely had more time), she was included as someone whose story must be taught.
However, the Government acted to remove Mary Seacole from the specifications. This made it no longer compulsory to teach her story in schools. Other female nurses were removed too, making the history of medicine mostly a story of white, middle-class men.
Worksheet Task 4
Write a letter to the Government’s Education Secretary.
Tell them your thoughts about Mary Seacole being removed from GCSE History specifications, and what you think should be done about this.
Suggested points to mention:
Question why Mary Seacole was removed.
Explain why she should be put back in.
Argue why she deserves to be taught for more than just a couple of lessons.
Justify why her story needs to be in the curriculum.