Sometimes when I write I’ll look for real, historical characters or events to base my own characters and plots around. Other times I’ll throw caution to the wind and write whatever the hell I want because it sounds good and excites me. Little Queen falls under that latter category. But lo and behold that my fictitious Little Queen may not be so far off from reality.
In his book Seafaring Women, author David Cordingly talks about a certain “fellow” name William Brown who was, in fact, a black woman who passed off as a man and had quite the remarkable naval career:
The most impressive naval career of all the female sailors is that of William Brown, a black woman who spent at least twelve years on British warships, much of this time in the extremely demanding role of captain of the foretop. A good description of her appeared in London’s Annual Register in September 1815: “She is a smart, well-formed figure, about five feet four inches in height, possessed of considerable strength and great activity; her features are rather handsome for a black, and she appears to be about twenty-six years of age.” The article also noted that “in her manner she exhibits all the traits of a British tar and takes her grog with her late messmates with the greatest gaiety.”
Brown was a married woman and had joined the navy around 1804 following a quarrel with her husband. For several years she served on the Queen Charlotte, a three-decker with 104 guns and one of the largest ships in the Royal Navy. Brown must have had nerve, strength, and unusual ability to have been made captain of the foretop on such a ship. The topmen were responsible for going aloft in all weathers and furling or setting the highest sails (the topsails and topgallants). The captain of the foretop had to lead a team of seamen up the shrouds of the foremast, and then up the shrouds of the fore-topmast and out along the yards a hundred feet or more above the deck. With their feet on a swaying foot-rope, the men had to heave up or let go of the heavy canvas sails, difficult enough in fine weather but a hard and dangerous job in driving rain and rough seas.
At some point in 1815, it was discovered that Brown was a woman and her story was published in the papers, but this does not seem to have affected her naval career. She had by this stage earned a large sum of prize money, and she visited the pay office on Somerset Place to collect this. Her husband attempted to cheat her out of the money, though whether he was successful in this is not known. What is certain is that Brown returned to the Queen Charlotte and rejoined the crew. The entry in the ship’s muster book for the period December 31, 1815, to February 1, 1816 reason, “William Brown, AB, entered 31 December, 1815, 1st Warrt., place of origin, Edinburgh, age 32.” This indicates that she was rated as able seaman and confirms her age as thirty-two, not twenty-six as recorded in the newspapers. In January 1816, she was made captain of the forecastle, which was a more senior role but did not usually entail going aloft. In the summer of 1816, she and several other seamen were transferred from the Queen’s Charlotte to the Bombay, a 74-gun ship; according to the Bombay’s muster book, William Brown joined the ship on June 29. The muster books for the succeeding years are missing, so we do not know what happened to her after that date.
Add a few inches and send her back a hundred years and you almost have Little Queen. Pretty cool to stumble across something like that after the fact. I wasn’t trying to find a historical figure to base her off of, but found one anyways. William Brown lived quite the exciting life. Add her to the long list of black seaman and pirates, and women sailors/pirates, who have been lost to history…