William Brown, the first black woman in the Royal Navy

1800s: William Brown (birth name unknown), a married black woman, joins the British Royal Navy after a quarrel with her husband. She poses as a man and stays incognito until 1815, serving on the Queen Charlotte.

How long she had served and where she came from is a matter of debate among historians. Suzanne J Stark, as well as contemporary newspapers, say she served for at least a dozen years, rising to the rank of foretop captain, and hailed from Edinburgh. Later historians assume it more likely that she was picked up in Grenada and only served around a month.

When her story broke in the newspapers, her estranged husband put in a legal claim to her wages. Uncertain if he succeeded, or what became of her. There’s no historical record of her after 1816.

Source: Female Tars by Suzanne J Stark, UK National Archives