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In the Guise of a Man: Defying Female Convention to Serve the Royal Navy

In 1815 a woman boarded the HMS Queen Charlotte, not as an on-board wife, a passenger or a nurse, but as a sailor. 

Following an alleged dispute with her husband, ‘William Brown’ (her birth name unknown) made history by becoming both a cross-dressing sailor and the first black woman to join the Royal Navy, just eight years after the passing of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

Cross-dressing, historically considered a perversion, had seen the involvement of women since the Middle Ages; a strategic decision for some who wanted to participate in the wider world.

Joining the Royal Navy was forbidden to women at the time of Brown’s service, with expectations that they would maintain a home and raise a family while men worked.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, it became more common for women to cross-dress in order to pursue an income, travel and manage their own lives. For women who needed to explore their sexuality or gender identity that did not fit the conventions of the time, it offered a chance to do so without persecution. 

We only know of William Brown’s story because her true identity was discovered. Those who remained undetected appear in historical records as one of the many men serving aboard ship, making it impossible to know how many women did successfully join the Royal Navy.

Brown’s story appears in the Annual Register – an extensive reference released yearly, detailing the major events and developments across the globe – in 1815, where she is described as:
“…a female African, who served as a seaman…for upwards of eleven years…by the name of William Brown, and has served for some time as captain of the fore-top, highly to the satisfaction of the officers. She is a smart well formed-figure, about five feet four inches…possessed of considerable strength…her features are rather handsome for a black, and she appears to be about 26 years of age.”

Annual Register, 1815 – Devonport Naval Heritage Centre

Brown’s case has long been the subject of debate due to conflicting evidence. The muster list for HMS Queen Charlotte records her joining the crew on 23 May 1815, discharged less than a month later “for being female”. She is listed as a “landsman” the lowest rank on account of her lack of experience. 

HMS Queen Charlotte muster list, credit: The National Archives, ref. ADM37/5039

But the report in the Annual Register suggests Brown had been in service for much longer, re-joining the crew after the ship was called back into activity in 1815 following a refit. Some historians firmly believe that Brown enlisted successfully to join the Royal Navy on more than one occasion, even climbing the ranks, while others believe her stories to have been confused with that of a white male sailor going by the same name.

Irrespective of conflicting historical knowledge, the muster list of HMS Queen Charlotte records the female William Brown’s place of origin as Grenada in the Caribbean. Whether she served for eleven years or four weeks, she remains the first black woman to join the Royal Navy.

White BG