Black Women in Britain

In honour of Black women who shaped British history I have decided to do my own homage to those ladies who are often overlooked, maybe because of the colour of their skin and also because they aren’t really taught in schools sadly, so let’s begin.


Born Mary Jane Grant in Jamaica in 1805, the daughter of James Grant a Scottish Lieutenant in the British Army and a free Jamaican woman. Her mother was a “doctress”, a healer who used traditional Caribbean and African herbal remedies, who ran Blundell Hall, a boarding house at 7 East Street, considered one of the best hotels in all Kingston. Here Seacole acquired her nursing skills. Seacole’s autobiography says she began experimenting in medicine, based on what she learned from her mother, by ministering to a doll and then progressing to pets before helping her mother treat humans.

She married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole in Kingston on 10 November 1836. Her marriage, from betrothal to widowhood, is described in just nine lines at the conclusion of the first chapter of her autobiography.

Seacole travelled from Navy Bay in Panama to England, initially to deal with her investments in gold-mining businesses. She then attempted to join the second contingent of nurses to the Crimea. She applied to the War Office and other government offices, but arrangements for departure were already underway. In her memoir, she wrote that she brought “ample testimony” of her experience in nursing, but the only example officially cited was that of a former medical officer of the West Granada Gold-Mining Company. She also applied to the Crimean Fund, a fund raised by public subscription to support the wounded in Crimea, for sponsorship to travel there, but she again met with refusal.

Seacole finally resolved to travel to Crimea using her own resources and to open the British Hotel. Business cards were printed and sent ahead to announce her intention to open an establishment, to be called the “British Hotel”, near Balaclava, which would be “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”. Shortly afterwards, her Caribbean acquaintance, Thomas Day, arrived unexpectedly in London, and the two formed a partnership. They assembled a stock of supplies, and Seacole embarked on the Dutch screw-steamer Hollander on 27 January 1855 on its maiden voyage, to Constantinople. The ship called at Malta, where Seacole encountered a doctor who had recently left Scutari. He wrote her a letter of introduction to Nightingale.

Seacole visited Nightingale at the Barrack Hospital in Scutari, where she asked for a bed for the night, because she intended to travel to Balaclava the next day to join her business partner. In her memoirs, she reported that her meeting with Nightingale was friendly, with Nightingale asking “What do you want, Mrs. Seacole? Anything we can do for you? If it lies in my power, I shall be very happy.” Seacole told her of her “dread of the night journey by caique” and the improbability of being able to find the Hollander in the dark. A bed was then found for her and breakfast sent her in the morning, with a “kind message” from Mrs. Bracebridge, Nightingale’s helper. A footnote in the memoir states that Seacole subsequently “saw much of Miss Nightingale at Balaclava,” but no further meetings are recorded in the text.

Despite constant thefts, particularly of livestock, Seacole’s establishment prospered. Chapter XIV of Wonderful Adventuresdescribes the meals and supplies provided to officers. They were closed at 8 pm daily and on Sundays. Seacole did some of the cooking herself: “Whenever I had a few leisure moments, I used to wash my hands, roll up my sleeves, and roll out pastry.” When called to “dispense medications,” she did so. Soyer was a frequent visitor, and praised Seacole’s offerings, noting that she offered him champagne on his first visit. The Special Correspondent ofThe Times newspaper wrote approvingly of her work: “…Mrs. Seacole…doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle-field to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessings.”

To Soyer, near the time of departure, Florence Nightingale acknowledged favourable views of Seacole, consistent with their one known meeting in Scutari. Soyer’s remarks—he knew both women—show pleasantness on both sides. Seacole told him of her encounter with Nightingale at the Barrack Hospital: “You must know, M Soyer, that Miss Nightingale is very fond of me. When I passed through Scutari, she very kindly gave me board and lodging.” When he related Seacole’s inquiries to Nightingale, she replied “with a smile: ‘I should like to see her before she leaves, as I hear she has done a deal of good for the poor soldiers.'” Nightingale, however, did not want her nurses associating with Seacole, as she wrote to her brother-in-law.

Seacole often went out to the troops as a sutler, selling her provisions near the British camp at Kadikoi, and attending to casualties brought out from the trenches around Sevastopol or from the Tchernaya valley. She was widely known to the British Army as “Mother Seacole”.

Apart from serving officers at the British Hotel, Seacole also provided catering for spectators at the battles, and spent time on Cathcart’s Hill, some 3½ miles (5.6 km) north of the British Hotel, as an observer. On one occasion, attending wounded troops under fire, she dislocated her right thumb, an injury which never healed entirely. In a dispatch written on 14 September 1855, William Howard Russell, special correspondent of The Times, wrote that she was a “warm and successful physician, who doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle-field to aid the wounded and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessing.” Russell also wrote that she “redeemed the name of sutler”, and another that she was “both a Miss Nightingale and a [chef]”. Seacole made a point of wearing brightly coloured, and highly conspicuous, clothing—often bright blue, or yellow, with ribbons in contrasting colours. While Lady Alicia Blackwood later recalled that Seacole had “… personally spared no pains and no exertion to visit the field of woe, and minister with her own hands such things as could comfort or alleviate the suffering of those around her; freely giving to such as could not pay …”.

In late August, Seacole was on the route to Cathcart’s Hill for the final assault on Sevastopol on 7 September 1855. French troops led the storming, but the British were beaten back. By dawn on Sunday 9 September, the city was burning out of control, and it was clear that it had fallen: the Russians retreated to fortifications to the north of the harbour. Later in the day, Seacole fulfilled a bet, and became the first British woman to enter Sevastopol after it fell. Having obtained a pass, she toured the broken town, bearing refreshments and visiting the crowded hospital by the docks, containing thousands of dead and dying Russians. Her foreign appearance led to her being stopped by French looters, but she was rescued by a passing officer. She looted some items from the city, including a church bell, an altar candle, and a three-metre (10 ft) long painting of the Madonna.

After the fall of Sevastopol, hostilities continued in a desultory fashion. The business of Seacole and Day prospered in the interim period, with the officers taking the opportunity to enjoy themselves in the quieter days. There were theatrical performances and horse-racing events for which Seacole provided catering.

Seacole was joined by a 14-year-old girl, Sarah, also known as Sally. Soyer described her as “the Egyptian beauty, Mrs Seacole’s daughter Sarah”, with blue eyes and dark hair. Nightingale alleged that Sarah was the illegitimate offspring of Seacole and Colonel Henry Bunbury. However, there is no evidence that Bunbury met Seacole, or even visited Jamaica, at a time when she would have been nursing her ailing husband. Ramdin speculates that Thomas Day could have been Sarah’s father, pointing to the unlikely coincidences of their meeting in Panama and then in England, and their unusual business partnership in Crimea.

Peace talks began in Paris in early 1856, and friendly relations opened between the Allies and the Russians, with a lively trade across the River Tchernaya. The Treaty of Paris was signed on 30 March 1856, after which the soldiers left Crimea. Seacole was in a difficult financial position, her business was full of unsalable provisions, new goods were arriving daily, and creditors were demanding payment. She attempted to sell as much as possible before the soldiers left, but she was forced to auction many expensive goods for lower-than-expected prices to the Russians who were returning to their homes. The evacuation of the Allied armies was formally completed at Balaclava on 9 July 1856, with Seacole “… conspicuous in the foreground … dressed in a plaid riding-habit …”. Seacole was one of the last to leave Crimea, returning to England “poorer than [she] left it”.

Her contribution to the welfare of the British troops in the Crimea is summed up by sociology professor Lynn McDonald:

“Mary Seacole, although never the ‘black British nurse’ she is claimed to have been, was a successful mixed-race immigrant to Britain. She led an adventurous life, and her memoir of 1857 is still a lively read. She was kind and generous. She made friends of her customers, army and navy officers, who came to her rescue with a fund when she was declared bankrupt. While her cures have been vastly exaggerated, she doubtless did what she could to ease suffering, when no effective cures existed. In epidemics pre-Crimea, she said a comforting word to the dying and closed the eyes of the dead. During the Crimean War, probably her greatest kindness was to serve hot tea and lemonade to cold, suffering soldiers awaiting transport to hospital on the wharf at Balaclava. She deserves much credit for rising to the occasion, but her tea and lemonade did not save lives, pioneer nursing or advance health care.


Sara Forbes Bonetta 

Born in 1843 in Oke Odan Ogun State an Egbado village. In 1848, Oke-Odan was raided by a Dahomean army; during the attack Sara lost her parents and ended up in the court of King Ghezo as a slave. Intended by her Dahomeyan captors to be a human sacrifice, she was rescued by Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy, who convinced King Ghezo of Dahomey to give her to Queen Victoria; “She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites,” Forbes wrote later. He named her Sara Forbes Bonetta, Bonetta after his ship the HMS Bonetta. Victoria was impressed by the young princess’s exceptional intelligence, and had Sara raised as her goddaughter in the British middle class. In 1851 Sara gained a long-lasting cough, believed to be caused by the climate of Great Britain. She was sent to school in Africa in May of that year, at the age of eight, but was unhappy and returned to England in 1855 at the age of 12. In January 1862 she was invited to and attended the wedding of the daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Alice.

She was later sanctioned by the Queen to marry Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies at St Nicholas’ Church in Brighton in August 1862, after a period that was to be spent in the town in preparation for the wedding. During her subsequent time in Brighton, she lived at 17 Clifton Hill in the Montpelier area. Captain Davies was a Yoruba businessman of considerable wealth and the couple moved back to their native Africa after their wedding where they had three children: Victoria Davies (1863), Arthur Davies (1871), and Stella (1873). Sarah Bonetta continued to enjoy a close relationship with Queen Victoria such that she and Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowtherwere the only Lagos indigenes under standing order by the Royal Navy to evacuate in the event of an uprising in Lagos. Victoria Davis was also goddaughter of the Queen of the British Empire. Victoria Matilda Davies married the successful Lagos doctor John K. Randle.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta died on 15 August 1880 of tuberculosis in Funchal, the capital of Madeira, a Portuguese island. Her husband Captain Davies erected an over eight-foot-high granite obelisk-shaped monument in memory of Sarah Forbes Bonetta at Ijon in Western Lagos, where he started a cocoa farm.

Abomah the African Giantess was an entertainer in 1900s Britain.

Jane Roberts

The British census of 1901 lists at 125 Holland Road, Kensington, west London, five women including the boarding house keeper Jane Mills. Another resident, “Jane Roberts” aged 79, born Virginia, America “occupation: own means”  and foreign subject, was the widow of the first president of the Republic of Liberia.

Jane Rose Waring had been born, daughter of a Baptist minister, in Virginia in 1818 and they had migrated to West Africa in 1824. In 1836 she became the second wife of Joseph Jenkins Roberts, who had migrated from Virginia with his first wife Sarah in 1829. Roberts was a successful businessman and active in local politics, where the “Americo-Liberians” dominated the Africans. Liberia was the result of a cooperation between the American Colonization Society, formed in 1816, and the U.S. government to put down Africans rescued from slave ships and make a home for black settlers from America. The land they occupied was named Liberia in 1824. Roberts pressed for self-government, achieving British and French recognition in 1847 (and American in 1862). Some 15,000 immigrants settled between 1820 and 1865. Roberts was president 1848-1856, and 1872-1876. Jane Roberts travelled with him on state visits to Europe, and settled in England after his death in 1876.

Jane Roberts was with the 76-year-old Martha Anne Rix or Ricks whose ambition to meet Queen Victoria had inspired her to come from Liberia in 1892 and took them to Windsor Castle on 16 July 1892. That ambition was reported in The Times 13 July 1892, the visit on 18 July (“Martha Anna Rick”), a public meeting with General Booth of the Salvation Army (25 July), and the visitor’s present of a signed photograph of the queen (5 September) and the gift of a shawl to the wife of the Lord Mayor of London (18 October). Kyra E. Hicks, authority on black quilt makers, author ofBlack Threads (2003) and the novel Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria (2007) says Mrs Roberts and Liberia’s representative in England, Edward Wilmot Blyden, accompanied the visitor who gave Victoria a quilt, and has traced documentation.

Dido Elizabeth Belle was born into slavery as the natural daughter of Maria Belle in 1761, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, and Sir John Lindsay, a British career naval officer who was stationed there. He was later knighted and promoted to admiral.

Lindsay took Belle with him when he returned to England in 1765, entrusting her raising to his uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and his wife Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Mansfield. The Murrays educated Belle, bringing her up as a free gentlewoman at their Kenwood House, together with their niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died. Belle lived there for 30 years. In his will of 1793, Lord Mansfield confirmed her freedom and provided an outright sum and an annuity to her, making her an heiress.

After her great-uncle’s death in March 1793, Belle married John Davinier, a Frenchman who worked as a gentleman’s steward, on 5 December 1793 at St George’s, Hanover Square. They were both then residents of the parish. The Daviniers had at least three sons: twins Charles and John, both baptized at St George’s on 8 May 1795; and William Thomas, baptized there on 26 January 1802.

She died in 1804 at the age of 43, and was interred in July of that year at St George’s Fields, Westminster, a burial-ground close to what is now Bayswater Road. In the 1970s, the site was redeveloped and her grave was moved. She was survived by her husband, who later remarried and had two more children with his second wife.




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