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John Brown: A Black Female Soldier in the Royal African Company

Dr. Steve Murdoch
University of St Andrews


    John Brown was the chosen name of a young black woman who disguised herself as a man and enlisted herself in London as a soldier in the Royal African Company of England, a company renowned for exploiting the slave trade between West Africa and Barbados.1 Her subsequent passage from England to Guinea on board the ship The Hannibal of London in 1693 is of interest to historians from many disciplines.2 However, for those with an interest in race, gender, or ethnicity in the Atlantic World, the ship's journal left to us by her commander, Thomas Phillips, is of particular importance.3 Indeed, although his journal entries actually tell us more about Commander Phillips than they do about John Brown, both figures provide fascinating glimpses into seventeenth-century attitudes toward these topics. Among Phillips's entries for November 1693 are the following:

Friday the 17th. These twenty-four hours we have had the wind various, at S. and S. by W. Yesterday we tack'd to the W. lying W. by S. and at two this morning it blowing a hard gale, we handed both our top-sails. Latitude, by reckoning, 32Á 47Ç N. Total westing 698Ç.

Saturday the 18th. These twenty-four hours we have had very squally weather, and many heavy showers of rain, wind shuffling between the W.S.W. and S.S.W. hard gale and great sea, course various, made difference of latitude seventy-three miles S. Departure 15 EÇ. Latitude, by reckoning, 31Á 34Ç N. Total westing 683 miles. This morning we found out that one of the Royal African Company's soldiers, for their castles in Guiney, was a woman, who had enter'd herself into their service under the name of John Brown, without the least suspicion, and had been three months on board without any mistrust, lying always among the other passengers, and being as handy and ready to do any work as any of them: and I believe she had continu'd undiscover'd till our arrival in Africa, had not she fallen very sick, which occasion'd our surgeon to visit her, and ordered her a glister:4 which when his mate went to administer, he was surpriz'd to find more sally-ports than he expected, which occasion'd him to make a farther inquiry, which, as well as her confession, manifesting the truth of her sex, he came to acquaint me of it, whereupon, in charity, as well as in respect to her sex, I ordered her a private lodging apart from the men, and gave the taylor some ordinary stuffs to make her woman's cloaths; in recompence for which she prov'd very useful in washing my linen, and doing what else she could, till we deliver'd her with the rest at Cape-Coast castle. She was about twenty years old, and a likely black girl.5

Sunday the 19th. From noon yesterday we have had the wind from S.W. to W. by S. lying up for the most part S. by W. fine top sail gale, and smooth water. Distance run per log is 132Ç. Had good observation of the latitude, which was 29Á 58Ç Total westing 669 miles.6

As can be seen by the journal entries for the days before and after the discovery of John Brown's gender, Phillips generally kept his journal entries to the basics of navigation; however, the events of Sunday, 18 November, obviously proved of enough interest for the author himself to return to the entry to update it after the voyage was complete. The entry in question cannot simply be a daily entry like the others, otherwise Phillips could not inform us of the good services John Brown performed up until her departure at Cape Coast Castle several months after the date of the journal entry. What interested the commander, and indeed what he knew would interest his reader, was the fact that a woman had been able to conceal her gender, enlist in a private army, and function on board a ship for a period of three months without detection.7
    What seems to have been of only passing interest to Phillips was that John Brown was also black.  The lack of interest in John Brown's racial identity was no doubt due to the increasing presence of black mariners in European maritime service by that time.8 Indeed, Phillips does not mention Brown's race until the last sentence, and then only in a casual aside in which he may have chosen as easily to tell us she had brown eyes or dark hair. However, while Phillips's concern was that Brown was female, the fact that she was also black is of equal interest to the historian, not least due to the circumstances of her enlistment in 1690s London.
    By the time John Brown enlisted in the Royal African Company, black slaves and free people were a common sight in European towns like Seville, Lisbon, and Valencia.9 Black Africans had first been brought to London in the mid 1550s, and the black population grew to such an extent that, following a five-year debate on the issue, Elizabeth I of England issued a proclamation in 1601 for the deportation of "Blackamoores."10 However, England increasingly relied on African trade for profit, and the immigration of Africans continued, either directly from Africa or from the growing black populations in the American colonies. Many of the British nobility purchased black slaves as though they were fashion accessories, a fad that grew after Charles II and his wife, Catherine of Braganza, both bought black servants.11 While many blacks remained enslaved, others were free, attended Christian churches, and, in limited numbers, bought property. Examples of free black communities were those in London at Wapping and near St Giles.12 While this general background for the black community in Britain is well known to historians, we are still left with a variety of questions concerning John Brown. Indeed the account begs a whole series of questions that the journal of Captain Phillips simply does not answer: What was John Brown's real name? Where had she come from originally? What had she hoped to achieve by enlisting in the private army of the Royal Africa Company? 3
    The answers to some of these questions can only be speculative based on the scant information we have in the scattered surviving correspondence concerning the Company. It is almost certain that we will never know John Brown's real name. That Phillips never mentioned it is probably due to the fact that he never knew what it was. Perhaps John Brown had been called that for so long that she identified herself by it. Or perhaps her given name was of African origin and hard for Europeans to pronounce or remember and so Phillips simply opted to continue to call her by the name by which he first knew her.13 We do know that the recorded names of many Africans at that time were those they copied from influential Europeans they had met, such as slavers or traders. This was the case with Dick Lumley, the leader of a small village on the Guinea Coast who, Phillips informs us, had taken the name after one "captain Lumley, an old commander that us'd the Guiney trade formerly."14 Alternatively, some Africans took for themselves the names of Europeans who had taught them a trade or profession, or they were given their European names by these men, such as was the case with "Black Tom, the cooper" in Cape Coast.15 It is through this practice of adopting names of Europeans with whom Africans had been connected that we may speculate (with the emphasis heavily on "speculate") as to John Brown's origin and try to conceptualize the world in which she lived.
    In February 1686 James Nightingale in Annamoboe noted the arrival of Captain John Brown and a cargo of corn.16 By March, Brown had left Accra on the Gold Coast with twenty-five men and twenty women described as "very good slaves," which, adding to those he had collected in Cabo Corso (Cape Coast), brought Brown's total to 217 males and females.17 In searching the published letters and other sources relating to the English in West Africa, John Brown (the slaver) is the only person by that name to come to light. Our female John Brown would have been around thirteen years old at the time he operated in Africa. If she had been one of Captain Brown's slaves, or one he picked up in Barbados, this would have given her plenty of time to learn English and contemplate a strategy to return to her home (in Africa or the Caribbean) as well as to choose a name to use when dealing with Europeans.
    The Royal African Company did not have the prestige of the East India Company, with the result that recruits for land and sea service were more difficult to find. Indeed, by 1692 "three-quarters of the men at Cape Coast were said to be foreigners [not English]. The Company's failure to send out adequate reinforcements forced its officers on the Coast to recruit from the human driftwood of many nationalities that found its way to West Africa."18 Among these were the Irish, Dutch, French, and Portuguese. The "English" garrisons at the forts in Africa were never large, usually between fifty and ninety men in total, and were designed to dissuade European rivals rather than assert any dominance over African localities.19
    What we do not know is how many black volunteers were included among these garrisons. In the early seventeenth century, British colonists had welcomed slaves and "free blacks" into provincial militias in the American colonies.20 Fear of slave revolts later curbed black recruitment, although the former position was revived in times of war or in extraordinary circumstances. However, the Spanish continued to employ many free blacks in governmental, military, and religious bureaucracies, and, by the end of the seventeenth century, blacks were again enjoying similar positions in a British context; the black clerk in the English Admiralty employed by Samuel Pepys is one such example.21 The Royal African Company, too, employed and trained free indigenous artisans, and several such are named in Company records. Slaves were also taken on to assist the soldiers in several locations.22
    Despite the employment of such auxiliaries, the existing forces of the Company were not considered sufficient for their requirements, and during September 1693 they received permission to raise in Britain some "400 seamen, besides land men, to enable them to carry on their trade in those parts."23 Thus the Company's need for soldiers presented John Brown with the opportunity to begin her career in their army and escape her previous life, whether that was as a slave or in some other form of "custodial confinement" enforced by parents, a husband, or an employer.24 She was apparently one of the first "men" enlisted in anticipation of admiralty approval. Phillips is explicit when he tells us that she joined the Royal African Company's service "without the least suspicion."25 This statement, coupled with her obvious ability to communicate with the crew, further confirms her fluency in English and that the sight of a twenty-year-old black "man" in a British port was a common sight by the 1690s.26 Phillips's journal presents another noteworthy point: that there was no segregation between the soldiers of the Company and the other passengers bound for Africa--the merchants and traders. The fact that John Brown lay with them also tells us both that there was no racial segregation and that the other passengers were all men. If that were not the case, she would surely have been lodged with other women passengers once discovered, rather than been given "a private lodging" on a ship where space was usually at a premium.27
    We know from contemporary sources that black slaves commanded a premium price, particularly in Barbados to where some 2,412 were shipped in the period 1693-1694.28 Indeed, Governor Francis Russell noted, "As to the Royal African Company, negroes were never at such high price and extravagant rates as at present, since the island was planted."29 Given that John Brown had gained entry into the Company under false pretences, it is heartening that Phillips chose to discharge her in Guinea rather than enslave her for work in the plantations. Noting that his cargo from Africa to Barbados consisted of slaves, we have to consider whether his actions were due to empathy for this particular individual rather than repugnance for the concept of slavery per se.
     On this last question, however, the author chose to give us a detailed answer in his journal. When writing about Europeans' perceptions of  black people, he added this telling observation:

We had about 12 negroes who did wilfully drown themselves, and others starv'd themselves to death, for 'tis their belief that when they die they return home to their own country and friends again.  I have been inform'd that some commanders have cut off the legs or arms of the most wilful, to terrify the rest, for they believe if they lose a member, they cannot return home again: I was advised by some of my officers to do the same, but I could not be perswaded to entertain the least thoughts of it, much less to put in practice such barbarity and cruelty to poor creatures, who, excepting their want of Christianity and true religion, (their misfortune more than fault) are as much the works of God's hands, and no doubt as dear to him as ourselves; nor can I imagine why they should be despised for their colour, being what they cannot help, and the effect of the climate it has pleased God to appoint them. I can't think there is any intrinsick value in one colour more than another, nor that white is better than black, only we think it so because we are so, and are prone to judge favourably in our own case, as well as the blacks, who in odium of the colour, say, the devil is white, and so paint him.30

Apart from his very enlightened reasoning of the equality of all human kind, the other strong point of this passage is his view on Christianity, a point he returned to several times in his journal. For example, he complained often about black parents who, he believed, were so foolish as to refuse to allow their children schooling because it meant Christianization; he was repelled that they would rather stick to their own "fetishes and pagan worship."31 And it is here that the dichotomy between a healthy respect for his fellow human being and his (and other Europeans' and Africans') distasteful participation in the slave trade might be explained.
     Among those Britons who had contact with indigenous Africans, Phillips was not unique in his apparent indifference to skin color. Writing in 1705, John Snow appeared to propose racial tolerance when he wrote:

            That which challenges the first place is the perpetuall force and constraints put on the blacks to trade no where but with the forts, & this prosecuted to such a height as panjarding of their goods, killing people from the forts, and brandering their persons.

            To remedy these evills it may be thought necessary to order that no manner of violence should be offered the blacks, but that they may be left free as to our molesting them to goe as they would themselves; but then, not to seem supinely to neglect the trade, that proper methods should be taken [ƒ] that they might oblige their people to come first to the forts with their slaves, & that what should be refused there the black should be left to his liberty to seeke his markett.

            The advantages that would arise to your servants by this method are first a handle to remove all the odium and aversion that the blacks have contracted to your trade by being ill used by your servants & what they now will complaine of their from their masters.32

An insidious motive behind Snow's letter reveals itself, however, when he adds in the very next sentence that, by this method, "you will become more masters of them than ever"--the "informal empire" often described by historians of the Royal African Company.33 There is also the question of distinction between "blacks" as opposed to the slaves. The latter were the poor unfortunates whom Snow's "blacks" sold to the Europeans or were forced to work in their coastal "forts." This distinction must have been one that preyed on Phillips, who showed the ability both to respect the Africans as human beings equal in the eyes of God to himself and yet to treat some of them as "commodity" as exemplified by his participation as a slaver.34 Thus, despite his admission that there was essentially no difference between black and white, near the end of his voyage he recorded that:

But what the smallpox spar'd [of the slaves], the flux swept off, to our great regret, after all our pains and care to give them their messes in due order and season, keeping their lodgings as clean and sweet as possible, and enduring so much misery and stench so long among a parcel of creatures nastier than swine; and after all our expectations to be defeated by their mortality. No gold-finders can endure so much noisome slavery as they do who carry negroes; for those have some respite and satisfaction, but we endure twice the misery; and yet by their mortality our voyages are ruin'd, and we pine and fret ourselves to death, to think that we should undergo so much misery, and take so much pains to so little purpose.35

Though he does not state it directly, and bearing in mind his other expressed beliefs, Phillips seemed to have viewed slaving as acceptable because slaves were, in his perspective, of the lowest caste of humanity and pagan in belief. This attitude was reflected elsewhere by the enslavement of Christian Europeans by African Corsairs who felt Christians to be of a lower status than themselves.36 Indeed, race seems not to have been the main issue in the seventeenth-century slave trade so much as religion, social status, and the human capacity for dehumanizing those perceived to be different.37 Black Africans enslaved other black Africans and sold them on to Europeans. Corsairs from North Africa enslaved black Africans, white Europeans, and eventually fellow Muslims, working most to death and ransoming those whose families, friends, and communities could afford it. And, indeed, many white men--as many as 15,000, including half the Corsair captains--enslaved their fellow white men on behalf of the North African potentates.38 Once the black slave population had largely become Christianized, they remained enslaved by fellow Christians who had to seek other justifications for their captivity.
    These brief journal entries of Thomas Phillips provide an interesting insight into the mind and values of a seventeenth-century English slaver. In his attitude toward women„exemplified by putting Miss Brown to work as his laundress, reclothing her, and offering her separate quarters„Phillips demonstrated adherence to seventeenth-century notions of appropriate gender roles. In contrast, his stated belief in the equality of race, no matter how uncomfortably it seems to sit with his occupation, is of great significance to the understanding of his time. As an uncompromising Christian he would have been aware of interpretations of the Bible that appeared to sanction slavery. Certainly in comparison to others in his profession, Phillips appears to have been remarkably progressive.
    As to what became of John Brown once she left The Hannibal at Cape Coast, we may never know. Although she had ultimately failed to secure her place as a soldier, that may not have been the main reason for her enlistment in the first place.39 Yet, as an English speaker with knowledge of the world beyond Africa, she may have been in an advantageous position compared to other women of her age. And we can speculate that she perhaps ended up as one of the many black women married to Europeans along the Guinea Coast. But, unless further documentation is uncovered, we will simply never know her fate. However, if the motive suggested above for her enlistment is correct--the desire to return to Cape Coast or simply to escape some form of "custodial confinement"--her journey proved ultimately to be a success.







Biographical Note: Steve Murdoch received his Ph.D. in History at the University of Aberdeen in 1998. He is currently directing a project on British and Irish migration and mobility within Northern Europe at the Research Institute for Irish and Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen. He has written and edited numerous books, which include Britain, Denmark-Norway and the House of Stuart, 1603-1660 (2000), Scotland and the Thirty Years' War, 1618-1648 (2001), and as coeditor with Andrew Mackillop, Fighting for Identity: Scottish Military Experiences c.1550-1900 (2002) and Scottish Governors and Imperial Frontiers, c.1600-1800 (2003). He has also recently taken a position as lecturer in history at the University of St. Andrews.


1 Kenneth Gordan Davies, The Royal African Company (London: Longmans, Green, 1957); James A. Rawley, The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History (New York: Norton, 1981); and Robin Law, ed., The English in West Africa: The Local Correspondence of the Royal African Company of England, 1681-1699, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997-2001).

2 The Hannibal of London was unusual in that she was actually owned by the Royal African Company. Usually the Company preferred to hire vessels to reduce costs. For more on hiring practices, see Rawley, The Transatlantic Slave Trade, 154; for more on The Hannibal in particular, see 274-75.

3 Thomas Phillips, "A Journal of a Voyage Made in the HANNIBAL of London, Ann. 1693, 1694 From England, to Cape MONSERADOE, in AFRICA; And thence along the Coast of Guiney to Whidaw, the Island of St. Thomas, And so forward to BARBADOES. WITH A Cursory ACCOUNT of the COUNTRY, the PEOPLE, Their MANNERS, FORTS, TRADE. &c.,"  in vol. 6 of A COLLECTION of Voyages and Travels, some Now first Printed  from Original Manuscripts, others Now first Published in English. In SIX VOLUMES (London, 1746), 187-255. The edition consulted for this article is in the private collection of Alison Duncan and Will Joy in Edinburgh. The author is deeply grateful to them for the free access to their library and permission to reproduce pages from this important document.

4 The definition of this word is obscure, though from the context it must relate to some form of enema or rectal poultice.

5 The usual modern meaning of the word "likely" is "probable" and may throw up a red herring in this context as to whether she was "probably black." However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the seventeenth century the more usual meanings were "strong and capable looking" or "comely and handsome." Today the use of the word to mean "spirited" still retains currency in Britain.

6 Phillips, "A Journal of a Voyage," 195.

7 On women who dressed as men to serve as soldiers or sailors, see Julie Wheelwright, Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in Pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness (Boston: Pandora, 1989), 7-8. Wheelwright notes that the issue of gender disguise was one that found expression on the London stage in the seventeenth century. No less that eighty-nine out of three hundred plays performed in London between 1660 and 1700 contained roles in which women disguised as men to pursue a profession. Wheelwright also observes that the majority of actual recorded cases usually involved women disguised to serve as soldiers or sailors. See also Dianne Dugaw, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). While concentrating on the representation of female warriors in popular ballads, this volume contains interesting information on actual cases of women serving as soldiers and sailors (see particularly 30-31 and 128-134). Some women of the period were more overt in their military aspirations, such as Marchioness Anna Hamilton who served as a colonel of a regiment she herself raised for the "Army of the Covenant" in Scotland in 1639. Her main purpose was to challenge her own son, General James Hamilton, who commanded the opposing British Army of Charles I. When his fleet sailed into the Firth of Forth (between Edinburgh and Fife), she is reported to have ridden "forth armed with a pistol, which she vowed to discharge upon her own son, if he offered to come ashore--a notable virago." See Edward M. Furgol, A Regimental History of the Covenanting Armies, 1639-1651 (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, 1990), 26.

8 On black sailors, see W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997); and James Clyde Sellman, "Military, Blacks in the American," in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999), 1304.

9 Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, "Women, Black, in the Colonial Hispanic Caribbean," in Appiah and Gates, Africana, 2013.

10 James Walvin, The Black Presence: A Documentary History of the Negro in England, 1555-1860 (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 12-14, 61-62; and V. G. Kiernan, "Britons Old and New," in Immigrants and Minorities in British Society, ed. Colin Holmes (London: Allen and Unwin, 1978), 31-32.

11 James Walvin, Black and White: The Negro and English Society, 1555-1945 (London: Penguin Press, 1973), 10-11; and Kiernan, "Britons Old and New," 42.

12 Walvin, The Black Presence, 14, and Black and White, 10.

13 We may never know if she was African, West Indian, or born in Europe. It is surprising she did not confess her given name once her true gender was revealed. While only speculation, if Phillips did not use her given name because it was not of European origin, that points to an African origin for her. Alternatively, he may simply not have remembered her given name having known her as John Brown for so long.

14 Phillips, diary entry for 11 January 1694, near Cape Baxos, "A Journal of a Voyage," 211. This entry reads, "On the point going into the river, about a cable's length from it, is a negro town of about thirty or forty houses, the captain of which is Dick Lumley, as he calls himself, having taken that name from captain Lumley, an old commander that us'd the Guiney trade formerly."

15 Davies, The Royal African Company, 242.

16 James Nightingale to Royal African Company, Annamoboe, 21 February 1686, in Law, The English in West Africa, vol. 2, 157.

17 James Forte to Royal African Company, Accra, 16 March 1686, in Law, The English in West Africa, vol. 2, 271.

18 Davies, The Royal African Company, 254.

19 P. E. H. Hair and Robin Law, "The English in Western Africa to 1700,"  in The Origins of Empire, ed. Nicholas Canny, vol. 1 of The Oxford History of the British Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 261.

20 Sellman, "Military, Blacks in the American," 1304.

21 Matos Rodriguez, "Women, Black, in the Colonial Hispanic Caribbean," 2013; and Walvin, Black and White, 10.

22 Davies, The Royal African Company, 242-44; and Law, The English in West Africa, passim.

23 "Report by the Lords of the Admiralty upon the Demands of the Merchants for Convoys and Cruisers," point no. 5, 4 September 1693, Calendar of State Papers Domestic, vol. 1693, 311.

24 The escape from non-enslaved "custodial confinement" through gender disguise is proposed in Dugaw, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 185.

25 Phillips, "A Journal of a Voyage," 195.

26 See Walvin, The Black Presence, 13.

27 Interestingly, Phillips does not record any comments from the rest of the crew that their erstwhile crewmate turned out to be a woman, nor any sort of unrest among the crew as a result of it.

28 For the numbers of slaves shipped, see Davies, The Royal African Company, 363. In 1687, John Carter at Whydaw on the Slave Coast noted that a slave commanded a price of some £21 sterling. See John Carter to Royal African Company, 6 January 1686/87, reprinted in Law, The English in West Africa, vol. 2, 337.

29 Governor [Francis] Russell to Lords of Trade and Plantations, 23 March 1695, Calendar of State Papers, Africa and West Indies, vol. 1693-1696, 447.

30 Phillips, diary entry for 21 May 1694, "A Journal of a Voyage," 235.

31 It is worthy of note here that the charge of "paganism" was one of the causes that led to the English seeking to expel the "Blackmoores" from England in 1601 rather than their color. See Kiernan, "Britons Old and New," 32.

32 John Snow's letter to the Royal African Company, 31 July 1705, reprinted in Davies, The Royal African Company, 367.

33  For reference to the "informal empire," see Hair and Law, "The English in Western Africa," 262.

34 Phillips, "A Journal of a Voyage," 253.

35 Phillips, diary entry for [?] November 1694, "A Journal of a Voyage," 253.

36 Some 850,000 European Christians are thought to have been enslaved by African Corsairs between 1580 and 1680. For more on this trade, see Stephen Clissold, The Barbary Slaves (Totowa N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1977); and Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coat, and Italy, 1500-1800 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

37 In the 1990s this was also horrifically demonstrated in Bosnia where three religious groups of people (Orthodox Christian "Serbs," Roman Catholic "Croatians," and Muslim "Bosnians"), all of the same Slavic Indo-European ethnic background, were bent on destroying each other's communities in a show of barbarity unequalled in Europe since World War II.

38 Robert Davis, "British Slaves on the Barbary Coast," BBC History Homepage, accessed 7 January 2003.

39 Dugaw suggests that the desire of women to serve in a martial capacity was not because they sought the "freedom" of men or for the sake of soldiering, but rather because they desired to "do and get what they want." See Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 158.



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