Posted by: beachchairandabook | April 29, 2016

Black History: 17th & 19th Century Britain and Brown Women in Disguise


To paraphrase a popular potato chip commercial, I’ll bet you can’t click just once. I certainly can’t, especially when I’m caught up in the world wide web of information. A search for Africans in India led me to links on Britain’s East India Company, its Royal African Company and then to John Brown – not the warrior abolitionist who took his personal sword to slavery, but the 17th century black woman who sailed from England back to Africa. Although her real name is a mystery and her reasons never made clear, this woman disguised herself as a man, took the name “John Brown” and enlisted as a soldier in the Royal African Company.

Was Brown’s story true? Instead of relying on the University of Facebook and its many posts, shares, and likes disguised as truth, I conducted my own research. The author of the first article I discovered is the  unimpeachable Dr. Steve Murdoch, a professor of history at the UK’s University of St. Andrew. In addition (to make sure none of my words would come back to bite me),  I followed the advice of a friend who makes her living from research. I  went straight to the source – the 17th century journals of Captain Thomas Phillips, commander of The Hannibal, the ship on which Brown made her voyage.

Here’s some background on how Brown was able to enter the service. In the 16th century, England’s black population was substantial, populated by enslaved and free blacks as well as those from the empire’s colonies. Queen Elizabeth became alarmed at the growing numbers of “blackamores.” Since, in her opinion too many of them had “crept into the land”, the Queen issued an edict for their deportation. It was an empty threat, however. Too much of English society depended on their labor and the  slave trade. The importation of Africans continued, supported in part by the slave ships of the Royal African Company. King Charles II granted to the Company “…the whole entire and only trade for buying and selling, bartering and exchange of, for or with any Negroes slaves, good, wares, merchandise whatsoever between Africa and the West Indies.” The Hannibal was part of the fleet that sailed from Bristol and Liverpool to the West African coast and the Caribbean.

Brown raised no curiosity. According to Captain Phillips’ diary, she served “without the least suspicion, and had been three months on board without any mistrust, lying always among the other passengers, and being as handy and ready to do any work as any of them.”

On Saturday November 18, 1693, when Brown became ill, Captain Phillips made a shocking discovery. “This morning we found out that one of the Royal African Company’s soldiers for their castles in Guiney (now part of Ghana) was a woman.” When she was examined by the ship’s surgeon, Captain Phillips notes “he was surpriz’d to find more sally-ports than he expected.” According to the Captain’s detailed journal, “in charity as well as respect to her sex” he set up private quarters for Brown, had the ship’s tailor fashion women’s clothes for her and re-assigned her duties from those of sailor to laundress.

When the Hannibal anchored in Africa, instead of forcing her back to England or on to certain slavery in Barbados, Captain Phillips left John Brown at a Cape Coast castle. Did she take back her name? Did she remain on the West African coast ? Was she eventually enslaved and sent back to England or the Caribbean? Unless some diligent, dedicated historian uncovers more about her, the fate of John Brown, black female soldier, will remain a mystery.

John Brown was not the only Brown woman to take to the high seas. In 1815 a black woman who called herself William Brown joined the Royal Navy as a sailor on the HMS Queen Charlotte. Her birthplace was listed as Grenada, and her rank was landsman, the lowest rank for a crew member. One source dates her enlistment as May 1815 and her discharge “for being a woman” in June of 1815. Another version of William Brown’s career on board the Queen Charlotte gives her credit for 11 years as a higher ranked seaman, describes her with “features rather handsome for a black” and as a strong, “smart, well-formed woman” who could handle her duties and her grog. In this version of her story, this Brown woman had freedom on her mind as well – her reason for going to sea was a quarrel with her husband!

Although her duties and length of service (and its reasons) have been debated, her presence on board HMS Queen Charlotte is undisputed.

When I think of John Brown and William Brown – their  physical and mental strength, and resolve to make their own way in world that could  prove  challenging for the best of men at sea, I’m reminded of Sojourner Truth’s words:  “I could work as much and eat as much as a man….And ain’t I a woman?”



  1. Great post.

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