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Mary Seacole: nurse, businesswoman and Crimean War hero


3 min read

The philosopher Thomas Carlyle suggested history was best understood as the "biography of great men". The House disagrees — and has invited parliamentarians this Black History Month to spotlight inspirational Black women.

October is a very special month in the year.

It is a time when the successes of people from the Black community are celebrated, but it’s disappointing that these successes can feel like they have been relegated to just one month. They should be embedded within the fabric of our country, and Black history should be discussed for 12 months of the year.

I was born and grew up in Britain and was never able to celebrate role models who looked like me. Everywhere I looked, the Black community always seemed to be portrayed in a negative way. When I went into nursing aged 18, in 1980, you only ever heard about Florence Nightingale and her heroic exploits during the Crimean War. But I had no idea until my late 20s that there was also someone who looked like me caring for those same soldiers in Crimea.

Mary Jane Seacole was born on 23 November 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica. No one ever talked about her work whilst I was growing up and, when I discovered that she shares the same birthday as me, I knew she was special!

Mary was a nurse and businesswoman who mastered the skills of folk medicine, including the use of hygiene and herbs, knowledge of which was passed down through generations of enslaved people working on sugar plantations. Mary then acquired her nursing skills at Blundell Hall in Kingston, which served as a convalescent home for injured servicemen.

I had no idea until my late 20s that there was also someone who looked like me caring for those soldiers in Crimea

Mary travelled to England with letters of recommendation from doctors, but her application to join the nursing staff was refused. She even applied directly to the Crimean Fund for financial support, but that was also refused.

It makes me wonder what Mary would make of our modern NHS workforce, 6.1 per cent of which is Black despite the fact that Black people make up only 3.4 per cent of the United Kingdom’s total working population.

Undaunted by the constant rejections, Mary funded her own trip to the Crimea and established the British Hotel with a relative of her husband. She cared for thousands of injured soldiers, and her legacy lives on following the erection of a statue outside St Thomas’ Hospital in 2016.

Mary inspires me because she never gave up, she had vision and passion. Her values and commitment to service reflect who I am. Being the first Black MP in Birmingham was not a goal that I set for myself, but as a parliamentarian I wake up every day feeling driven to do the best I can and stand up for the people I represent. This Black History Month, I would like to thank my ancestors for paving the way before me.  

Paulette Hamilton is the Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington

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