Mary Seacole Essay - Critical Essays

Seacole, Mary


Mary Seacole 1805-1881

(Full name Mary Jane Grant Seacole) Jamaican autobiographer.

Although during her lifetime Mary Seacole gained a measure of fame as a heroic nurse during the Crimean War, she earned lasting renown with her authorship of Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857). This view into the life of a humorous, self-reliant, and often strong-willed woman who traveled the world has been assessed as a challenge to many Victorian stereotypes about the proper role of women, particularly women of color.

Biographical Information

The daughter of a Jamaican mother and a Scottish military father, Seacole was born in 1805. From an early age she worked as an aide to her mother in the boarding house her mother ran for convalescing soldiers. In 1836 she married Edwin Horatio Seacole, who died shortly after their marriage. Thereafter Seacole's desire for financial and social independence led her to eschew marriage. While in her twenties Seacole traveled alone to many places, including the Bahamas, Haiti, Cuba, and England; later she traveled to North America and present-day Colombia. She was renowned for her medical skill, especially her ability to cure cholera and yellow fever victims, and in 1853 Jamaican health officials asked her to join them in combating a yellow fever epidemic. When the Crimean War broke out a year later, Seacole resolved again to help the afflicted. This conflict between Russia and an alliance of England, France, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire over the fate of present-day Turkey resulted in thousands of British casualties. Rather than suffering battle wounds, however, the majority of afflicted suffered from poor planning on their leaders' part. Malnutrition and poor sanitation led to outbreaks of such diseases as cholera and malaria. Although Seacole repeatedly applied to various aide organizations serving soldiers, her applications were denied due to racial discrimination. Yet after the determined and enterprising Seacole headed to the battlefield on her own, she was later universally praised for her bravery and compassion in treating the wounded. When the war ended suddenly in 1856, Seacole found herself left with many unusable supplies and in possession of a now virtually useless boarding house. Bankrupt, she relied on her many supporters in England, who held several well-attended fund-raisers in her honor. Because the war had taken its toll on Seacole's health as well as her finances, she found herself unable to successfully support her previous lifestyle. Determined to alleviate her financial troubles, she penned Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands in 1857. When it proved to be a popular success, she was able to live out the rest of her days in financial security. Seacole died in Jamaica in 1881.

Major Works

Mary Seacole's Wonderful Adventures is a narrative chronicling how a free Jamaican woman overcame social, racial, and economic barriers to forge her own identity. She considered England to be the only truly civilized society, and her narrative demonstrates her preoccupation with what it means to be civilized and how a lack of civility leads to societal ills. Seacole delves into the inhumanity of racial discrimination in nineteenth-century England, the Americas, and her native Jamaica. She compares the freedom ex-slaves enjoy in English colonies, however new, with the poor treatment of American slaves. She expects that due to the natural civility of the English, her fellow citizens will both recognize and reward her for her humanitarian efforts. While she exposes and rebuffs the Victorian constraints imposed on women, she does so in a sympathetic and agreeable fashion. Her book was enthusiastically received, and was reprinted within months of its release.

Critical Reception

According to Sandra Pouchet Paquet, a fair assessment of Seacole and Wonderful Adventures must include both Seacole's love of the Empire of England for its protection and its civility and her celebration of independence as a free Jamaican woman. The contrast between her indigenous nursing skills, her obvious independence, and her esteem for the supremacy of all things British are illuminated through the narrative and the artistic arrangement of the text. Seacole challenges the conservative boundaries of English protocol, especially those boundaries imposed on women, and in her narrative explores the adventurous and often heroic events in the same manner as her white male contemporaries. Seacole journeys across both geographical boundaries and social boundaries in a self-determining and liberated manner.

Although the recognition that Seacole sought faded quickly after her death, interest in her work was rekindled in the late twentieth century when scholars investigated her unusual position in British colonial society, her role on the medical front lines during the Crimean War, and her importance as an autobiographer whose writing reflects the prejudices of her era while demonstrating her ability to overcome the obstacles convention set in her path. As Seacole biographer William L. Andrews writes in his introduction to the Oxford edition of Wonderful Adventures, the narrative is “a special kind of success story in which a woman tries to reconcile her desire for economic independence and worldly recognition with a more socially acceptable role of being properly selfless and useful to men.” Cheryl Fish views Seacole's desire for travel and adventure as the desire to forge for herself a meaningful path in the world. While Catherine Judd focuses on Seacole's fashioning of herself as a Homeric epic hero, Paul Baggett discusses the conflict between the author's British and Creole identities, and Ivette Romero-Cesareo ponders her use of the maternal identity in her medical and entrepreneurial efforts.

Principal Works

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (autobiography) 1857


Sandra Pouchet Paquet (essay date winter 1992)

SOURCE: Paquet, Sandra Pouchet. “The Enigma of Arrival: The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.African American Review 26, no. 4 (winter 1992): 651-63.

[In the following essay, Paquet explores Seacole's relationship to colonial England in the aftermath of slavery and how she positions herself in that society.]

The republication of The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave (1831) and The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857) in 1987 and 1988, respectively, provides a new understanding of the constitutive relationship of autobiography to the cultural inheritance of the colonial and postcolonial...

(The entire section is 7514 words.)

Amy Robinson (essay date fall 1994)

SOURCE: Robinson, Amy. “Authority and the Public Display of Identity: Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.Feminist Studies 20, no. 3 (fall 1994): 537-57.

[In the following essay, Robinson discusses how Seacole negotiates her marginal identity as a Creole woman and describes the maneuvers necessary to become a prominent member of society in Victorian England.]

Only twenty-four years after the “official” abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, Mary Seacole, “the yellow woman from Jamaica with the cholera medicine,”1 published Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. This engaging autobiography,...

(The entire section is 9347 words.)

Cheryl Fish (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Fish, Cheryl.“Voices of Restless (Dis)continuity: The Significance of Travel for Free Black Women in the Antebellum Americas.” Women's Studies 26 (1997): 475-95.

[In the following essay, Fish explores how the mobility of Nancy Prince and Seacole, two free-born black women, helped to shape their identities and impacted the travel-narrative genre.]

Travel, with its many bourgeois associations, might be a loaded term for African Americans in that it cannot be easily evoked to talk about the experience of the Middle Passage; for that reason, bell hooks often uses the term “journey” when she writes of the geographical and psychic mobility of African...

(The entire section is 6939 words.)

Bernard McKenna (essay date spring 1997)

SOURCE: McKenna, Bernard. “‘Fancies of Exclusive Possession’: Validation and Dissociation in Mary Seacole's England and Caribbean.” Philological Quarterly 76, no. 2 (spring 1997): 219-39.

[In the following essay, McKenna analyzes the hegemony that colonizing cultures have over their conquests and the dynamic created when the colonized both accept and reject the new culture.]

The English essayist William Hazlitt spoke without optimism of travel and its potential consequences.

I am one of those who do not think that much is to be gained in point either of temper or understanding by travelling abroad. Give me the true,...

(The entire section is 8296 words.)

Catherine Judd (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Judd, Catherine. “‘A Female Ulysses’: Mary Seacole, Homeric Epic and the Trope of Heroic Nursing (1854-1857).” In Bedside Seductions: Nursing and the Victorian Imagination, 1830-1880, pp. 101-21. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Judd criticizes Seacole's narrative for accepting her subject status from England. She explores Seacole's text as a Homeric epic and discusses how Seacole creates a heroic self.]

Mary Seacole's Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857) is a crucial and problematic text in the canon of both Caribbean autobiography and nineteenth-century black women writers. Unlike Mary Prince's...

(The entire section is 11170 words.)

Paul Baggett (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Baggett, Paul. “Caught between Homes: Mary Seacole and the Question of Cultural Identity.” MaComère 3 (2000): 45-56.

[In the following essay, Baggett discusses the contradiction between Seacole's desire to be a part of British culture and her natural tendency toward her native Jamaican heritage.]

Recent attention paid to Caribbean literary works has highlighted the complex relationship between home and identity for the Caribbean subject. Researchers in (post)colonial and cultural studies find many of these texts especially appealing because they refuse any simple equation between cultural identification and national homeland. Antonio Benitez-Rojo's...

(The entire section is 5542 words.)

Evelyn J. Hawthorne (essay date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Hawthorne, Evelyn J. “Self-Writing, Literary Traditions, and Post-Emancipation Identity: The Case of Mary Seacole.” Biography 23, no. 2 (spring 2000): 309-31.

[In the following essay, Hawthorne explores first-generation emancipated Caribbean subjects. Focusing on Mary Seacole's autobiography, she places the work within the ideological and literary contexts of Victorian England as well as the context of Caribbean history.]

“… unless I am allowed to tell the story of my life in my own way, I cannot tell it at all.”

Written at the height of the Victorian period, The Wonderful Adventures of...

(The entire section is 8590 words.)

Sandra Gunning (essay date summer 2001)

SOURCE: Gunning, Sandra. “Traveling with Her Mother's Tastes: The Negotiation of Gender, Race, and Location in Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.Signs 26, no. 4 (summer 2001): 949-81.

[In the following essay, Gunning discusses Seacole's ability to successfully integrate herself into a wide variety of communities, as reflected in her autobiography. The critic also evaluates the different ways in which Wonderful Adventures has been appropriated by British and American scholars.]

The autobiography Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands ([1857] 1984) by Jamaican mixed-race “Creole” Mary Jane Grant Seacole...

(The entire section is 12969 words.)

Ivette Romero-Cesareo (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Romero-Cesareo, Ivette. “Women Adrift: Madwomen, Matriarchs, and the Caribbean.” In Women at Sea: Travel Writing and the Margins of Caribbean Discourse, edited by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Ivette Romero-Cesareo, pp. 135-60. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Romero-Cesareo examines Seacole's use of the role of motherhood as an ennobling and legitimizing tool in her autobiography.]

The sea, alas! It is the only place to which we can be faithful.1

—Adèle Hugo

Travel is an enterprise requiring a certain degree of camouflage. Travelers prepare for...

(The entire section is 6329 words.)

Further Reading


Alexander, Ziggi and Audrey Dewjee. Introduction to Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, pp. 9-45. Bristol, England: Falling Wall Press, 1984.

Provides a lengthy biographical overview of Seacole's life with an emphasis on her influences and writings.


Andrews, William L. Introduction to Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, pp. xxvii-xxxiv. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

While providing biographical background to Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, compares the autobiographies of Mary Seacole and Mary Prince, a...

(The entire section is 301 words.)