Friday, August 21, 2009

Lady Pirates: And We Don't Even Know Her Name

I always get a kick out of "experts" who insist that because the pirate codes put together by the more famous Captains of the Golden Age outlined the rules pretty clearly everything ran like clockwork. Guys were marooned for looking at boys and lost hands for pilfering a few pesos. Uh-huh. Last time I checked these were pirates and let me tell you, it stands to reason that if it went on in the greatest navy the world had seen so far - the Royal Navy - it went on aboard pirates and privateers. Do not misunderstand me. I'm not saying that punishments didn't occur. They did on both sides of the coin and with the kind of ferocity that makes us modern softies wince. What I'm saying is that what was good for the goose was good for the gander. For the most part, pirates had experienced naval - or at least merchant - service, and we all know that an orca doesn't change its spots (much less its underwear).

That brings me to the bizarre and chuckle-worthy myth that nary a damsel ever set foot aboard a pirate sloop because some pirate code said that smuggling a girl on board was a hanging offense. Honestly. Mary Reade and Anne Bonny were not the first - nor I might add the last - ladies of fortune to join a pirate crew. Being the most famous doesn't make you the best. It just means you have a fabulous publicist.

So, the lady of the day. We know her only as William Brown, her girly name being lost to the sea foam. She sailed for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars and her exploits illustrate that, if you could get away with it in an outfit like Nelson's Navy, you could get away with it anywhere.

William Brown was described in the September 1815 addition of London's Annual Register as follows:

She is a smart, well-formed figure, about five feet four inches in height, possessed of considerable strength and great activity; her features are rather handsome for a black, and she appears to be about twenty-six years of age.

The entry in and of itself is telling. Brown is referred to as "she" throughout. There is no apologia for her sex whatever. In fact, the writer seems more surprised at her ability to put away the grog than he is at her gender. Interesting.

Brown must have been a hearty, capable lady because at the time of the Annual Register's blurb she was a captain of the foretop aboard the three decker, 104 gun man of war Queen Charlotte. The ship carried a compliment of 850 men so it wasn't like Brown was the only body they could find to keep the reefers in line.

By way of explanation, a captain of the foretop was in charge of the men and boys who went aloft to tend the uppermost sails on the foremast. These included topsails and topgallants ordinarily but in special circumstances royals and skysails would be added as well. The men (and women) climbed up a hundred feet or more and then worked their way out onto the crosstrees to stand barefoot on a sturdy rope and work the sheets. Think about it. Picture it in your mind, on a nice day. Now imagine a squall at night. That, my Brethren, took guts and our lady Brown did it for some twelve years.

Little is known about William Brown aside from her place aboard ship and the fact that her gender was discovered in 1815 (which led to her mention in the Register). The fact that she was a woman didn't stop her from collecting prize money owed her and returning to her ship after a disagreement with her unnamed husband. In 1816, Brown was transferred from Queen Charlotte to the frigate Bombay. The ship's only existing muster book rates her as an able seaman and lists her as 32 years old, not the 26 years mentioned in the Register. Even more impressive, if you ask me.

There is no further written record of William Brown after that simple line in a Royal Navy frigate's muster. The entry lists her as captain of the forecastle, which would have meant a promotion and less time away aloft. I like to think that the lady Brown made warrant man, perhaps as gunner's or bosun's mate. More pay and more prize money there. Who knows? It's fun to contemplate though, isn't it?

All in all the story of William Brown proves one thing to me at least: the world is more than we know. In an organized, well documented service like the Royal Navy, women like Brown not only survived but succeeded. So just imagine what went on aboard a pirate sloop and how no one will ever be the wiser.

Fair winds, Brethren. It's Friday at last.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Interesting post... And good background for the folks who may eventually read your historical fiction (not just the actual historical facts you post here). I always learn something new here with each post. Well done, indeed.

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy and thankee! It just makes my teeth grind when I read about the impossible nature of women aboard ship. Nothing is impossible. Not even historical fiction!

Daggar said...

The Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars was more practical, less hidebound, and probably more effective than it would be later on in the Rule Britannia days. Nelson's navy would promote officers from common sailors-- not often, but not unheard of either. It would turn a blind eye toward effective personnel who played loose with the rules.

Later on, the rulebook became more important, spit and polish went from Nelson-era obsessiveness to Victorian dysfunction, and promotion from below decks impossible. I believe the number of times it happened during Victoria's reign could be counted on one hand. In that time, I could believe that women on RN ships would be almost unheard of.

So if someone was unaware of the change in attitude between the two eras, they might be casting Victorian-era mores back further than they should.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Daggar! And thankee for the insight once again. I agree with you completely. Men like James Cook and Horatio Nelson were capable of going from humble beginnings to brilliant Commanders because of the more egalitarian attitudes of the Royal Navy during (and before - look at Morgan and Drake) the Napoleonic era. Logically, that extended to the situation with William Brown and other ladies who did a good job at sea and were rewarded for it.

Thanks again. I very much enjoy your input.