While women weren’t officially allowed to fully serve in England’s Royal Navy until 1993, there are reports of women dressing as men long before. These women worked alongside male sailors for months, years, and sometimes lifetimes without revealing their gender to their shipmates. Some recognizable women who worked as sailors under these conditions were Anne Jane Thornton (1817-1877) and Mary Lacy (1740-1795).
While it’s unclear exactly how many women dressed as men to go venturing on the high seas, some sources say that the first woman of African descent to serve for the Royal Navy was Miss William Brown, birth name unknown. It’s asserted by many historians that William Brown joined the navy after a bitter argument with her husband.
Now there’s two possibilities as to how long she served the navy. A muster list, or a list that shows the duties of each sailor and crewhand in the event of an emergency, from the Queen Charlotte shows that a William Brown joined the crew on May 23, 1815. However, she was discharged not even a month later on June 19th when it was discovered she was a woman. The list gives her place of birth as Grenada, an island in the Caribbean, and that she was 21. Not a very exciting story.
However, there is another version of events that other historians advocate. This version states that she served for eleven years, her gender undetected all that time. She started as a landsman, the lowest rank on a ship, and rose to be Captain of the Foretop. If this series of events is true, then she likely joined the Royal Navy around 1804 while an adolescent.
Eventually, she was found out. There is an article that appeared in London’s Annual Register in September 1815 describing her career and the discovery of her gender:
“Amongst the crew of the Queen Charlotte, 110 guns, recently paid off, is now discovered, was a female African, who served as a seaman in the Royal Navy for upwards of eleven years, several of which she has been rated able on the books of the above ship by the name of William Brown, and has served for some time as the captain of the fore-top, highly to the satisfaction of the officers. She is a smart well formed-figure, about five feet four inches in height, possessed of considerable strength and grat activity; her features are rather handsome for a black, and she appears to be about 26 years of age. Her share of prize money is said to be considerable, respecting which she has been several times within the last few days at Somerset-place. In her manner she exhibits all the traits of a British tar, and takes her grog with her late mess-mates with the greatest gaiety. She says she is a married woman; and went to sea in consequence of a quarrel with her husband, who, it is said, has entered a caveat against her receiving her prize money. She declares her intention of again entering the service as a volunteer.”
Personally, I like to think the account given in the Annual Register is true. If this more exciting and sparkling account is the historical reality, then Miss William Brown lived an adventurous life on the seas. She was a strong, able-bodied sailor who rose through the ranks to become a captain of a British warship, earning large sums of prize money during the Napoleonic Wars. Sadly, not much is known about her life after 1816.
Black People in The Regency by Vanessa Riley, article on the author’s personal website
‘A Female Sailor bold’: How disguise and daring helped women run away to sea by Victoria Syrett, Archives Assistant, Royal Museums Greenwich
HIDDEN HEROINE: THE FIRST BLACK WOMAN TO SERVE IN THE ROYAL NAVY by Megan Piper, The Historic Dockyard Chatham
Strategic Cross-Dressing on Historic England
William Brown, ‘a female African’ on The National Archives