B is for Brown

William Brown is recorded as the first black woman to serve in the British Navy. Dates of service range from between 1804 – 1815.

I wish I knew the real name of the woman who went by William Brown. She was by all accounts a real bad ass. She’s also one of my favs when it comes to learning about Black British Herstory because her story takes it back to the 19th century.

Excerpt of the Annual Register 1815
Excerpt of the Annual Register 1815 Excerpt of the Annual Register 1815 – click to see the muster list on the National Archives site

According to the Annual Register, in 1805 Ms Brown was a married woman. Her husband however evidently made her so mad that she secretly decided to join the Royal Navy where she served on the Queen Charlotte, a ship with 110 guns, for 11 years! Now when I say she secretly joined the navy, I mean it was a secret to everyone. Her fellow navy men thought she was one of the guys and apparently, she even made captain! By the time it was discovered that William Brown was a woman she was 26 and the Annual Register describes her as five foot four, possessing considerable strength and “rather handsome for a black” (lest we forget who we are talking about *sigh*). William Brown however was highly rated by her colleagues according to the Annual Register.

I love this story because it just epitomises black women to me. Her strength, her no nonsense I will leave your behind attitude and her fearlessness and courage. All in 1804! It’s not a history you often hear.

Interestingly enough the muster list (a list of each of the functions a crew performs in the event of an emergency), an official document of the ship tells a slightly different story. It lists that on the 23 May 1815 a 21 year old man from Grenada joined the crew of the Queen Charlotte as a landsman (the least experienced class of rating) but was discharged on 19 June 1815 for being a female.

Whichever story is true, William Brown is the first recorded black woman to serve in the Royal Navy!

B is for Brown, William Brown.

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