A LEGEND IS OFTEN a wonderful story of a hero or a heroine who surmounts impossible odds. At the root, there is generally some basis of fact which over time evolves into a grander story. One comparatively recent legend tells of William Brown, a black female sailor in the early 19th-century navy. Books herald her with amazement and admiration. Ships' records, however, reveal this pioneering woman to have been a landlubber who was on board ship for just a month.
The legend appears to originate in The Times of September 2nd, 1815:
Amongst the crew of the Queen Charlotte, 110 guns, recently paid off, ...
was a female African, who has served as a seaman in the Royal Navy for
upwards of 11 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 foretop, highly to the satisfaction of the
officers. She is a smart well-formed figure, about 5 feet 4 inches in
height, possessed of considerable strength and great activity; her features
are rather handsome for a black, [their italics] 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
In her manner she exhibits all the traits of a British tar, and takes
her grog with her late messmates 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
The same report appears verbatim in the Annual Register of 1815. Charles Culliford Dickens, editing his late father's journal All the Year Round, picks up the story for the April 6th, 1872 edition. Starting the article disapprovingly:
Amazonian dames, be it said rejoicingly, are not common products of British
He repeats then the copy from the Annual Registar.
A black British sailor, `William Brown', left her husband for the sea and
became as famous for her agility in climbing the rigging as she did for her
partiality for prize-money and grog.
Dickens knew that William Brown's story made good reading: she was female, black and had romance. She appeared patriotic, fighting for king and country and yet she was full of swashbuckling derring-do as she climbed `the rigging' and collected her `prize-money'. She bore all the qualities of a legendary heroine.
The small kernel of truth in all this is that a William Brown is listed in Queen Charlotte's muster book for 1815. Muster books are official lists of a ship's complement of men and amount to diaries of a ship's naval life over a two-month period. They register when a man entered the boat, the date of his appearance, his country of birth, age, name and rank. In addition, a muster also registers whether the sailor was either `prest' or volunteered and whether he was discharged or reserved.
Brown's record appears in two muster books, dating between May 8th and August 23rd, 1815. …