Monday, 10 April 2017
Black woman cross-dressed seafarer 'William Brown' - exhibition
Seaman William Brown was from Grenada and sailing on the HMS Queen Charlotte in 1815 when she was discovered to be a woman - and dismissed. That was normal. All the known women who disguised themselves as boys at sea were put ashore as soon as possible.
I have found at least 47: she is the only known black woman to sail cross-dressed.
Why was she ejected? Because it was not seemly to have a woman aboard, certainly not if she was mixing - unchaperoned- with all the men below. Because it was feared that men would have sex with any woman unaccompanied by a husband. And sexual relations could bring rivalry and destabilize the ship's company.
So this was not a racial matter. It was a gender matter. And it was related to anxieties about social stability and the operational effectiveness of a war-ready ship, rather than morality.
William's story has been often told (see http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/work_community/docs/service_record.htm ).
But her ejection from sea life, age 27, has come to prominence again because a new exhibition about naval women shows the muster book (ship's register) in which her details appear.
Women and the Royal Navy: From Pioneers to Professionals, at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, UK, shows something I have never seen before: 'Whither or for what reasons [discharged]: Being a Female.
Just after the exhibition opened The One Show featured 'William'. I was filmed talking about her and looking at the muster book. And GG (Gamuchirai Gweza) dressed as William and was filmed on HMS Victory. Here she is jumping for joy at getting ashore, on the quayside afterwards. The show was aired on 10 April.