Thursday, October 27, 2011

Women at Sea

I was asked about my research on cross-dressing women sailors during our Sizzling Book Club chat of Sea Change last night at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  It was co-sponsored by All Romance eBooks and we had a lot of fun, so I want to thank Sarah at Smart Bitches and the folks at All Romance for pulling it together.  If you missed the chat, click on the link and you can replay it at your leisure.

First of all, I owe a debt to Suzanne Stark for her wonderful history, Female Tars.  It is fascinating and entertaining.  As I point out in the introduction to Sea Change, Stark says there were 20 known cases of women serving in the Royal Navy and Marines at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries.  There were likely more whose identities were never discovered.

One of those women was the seaman known as "William Brown", a black woman who served for at least 12 years during the Napoleonic Wars.  According to Stark, a London newspaper account of 1815 had this to say about Brown:

"Among the crew of the Queen Charlotte, 110 guns,...a female the name of William Brown. [She] has served for some time as the captain of the foretop, highly to the satisfaction of the officers."

Being captain of the foretop was no small thing.  She had to be agile, unafraid of heights, able to work in all weather, leading the other sailors in the crew.  The topmen's job was one of the most dangerous aboard ship since they took in the sails high above while the deck pitched below them.  It was especially hazardous during storms, and many topmen fell to their death.

After her sex was discovered, Brown re-entered the service aboard her old ship.  A good topman was a treasure to a captain, regardless of sex.  In 1816 Brown was transferred to the Bombay, and lost to history.

Other books readers may find interesting:

Women Sailors and Sailors' Women, an Untold Maritime History by David Cordingly.

She Captains--Heroines and Hellions of the Sea--Joan Druett

Hen Frigate--Joan Druett

Petticoat Whalers--Whaling Wives at Sea--Joan Druett

Flying Cloud--The True Story of America's Most Famous Sailing Ship and the Woman who Navigated Her--by David Shaw

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