William Brown, 'a female African'


The Annual Register for 1815 reveals that a Black sailor, William Brown, 'recently' paid off from HMS Queen Charlotte with the rest of the crew, was a woman. It was not unheard of in the 18th and 19th centuries for women to disguise themselves as men and join the Royal Navy - and some even managed to serve in this way for many years.

According to the Annual Register, Brown was an experienced sailor. She had served on the Queen Charlotte for a number of years as an able seaman and had been promoted to 'captain of the fore-top', in charge of other sailors assigned to that particular part of the ship.

However, the muster lists for the crew of the Queen Charlotte tell a different story. When its crew was 'paid off' on 23 August 1815, only one of them was called William Brown; but he was a 32-year-old Scot who had joined the Queen Charlotte little more than a month earlier from HMS Cumberland. No reference has been found to the appointment of any William Brown to 'captain of the fore-top' on the Queen Charlotte. There is, however, one intriguing reference in the muster lists that supports part of the of the Annual Register's report. It is recorded, in the extract reproduced here, that 21-year-old William Brown from Grenada joined the crew of the Queen Charlotte on 23 May 1815 as a landsman (the least experienced class of rating) and was discharged on 19 June 1815, 'being a female.'

Neither the muster lists nor the Annual Register record the real names of their female sailors.

ADM 37/5039, Annual Register, September 1815, Chronicle, p. 64

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