Like millions of people worldwide, I watched Shonda Rhimes’s Netflix adaptation of The Duke & I, the first book in the Bridgerton Series written by Julia Quinn. As the story takes place during the Regency Era in London, I was spellbound by the sumptuous visuals, courting rituals, and multicultural casting.
With a Black Queen and Duke as lead characters, I wondered whether there had been many Black aristocrats / wealthy people living or visiting London during this period who had a connection to the Caribbean. I know that Haitian Queen Marie-Louise and her two daughters lived in London for about three years in the 1820s after the death of her husband, King Henry I, and the murder of his successor Prince Victor-Henry. But were there many others? Inquiring on Facebook, a friend suggested I research Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, the inspiration for the upcoming historical fiction novel by Vanessa Riley.
Who is Dorothy Kirwan Thomas?
Dorothy Thomas (née Kirwan) was born on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat (yes, my Montserrat!) in 1756. She was born into a life of slavery, earned enough money to purchase her freedom, and went on to become one of the wealthiest women and most powerful landowners in the Caribbean through a series of ventures. Not only did she live in Montserrat but also in Dominica, Grenada, Barbados, and Demerara, now part of Guyana.
Whatever obstacles were put in her way, Dorothy maneuvered to overcome them. In her early years, she was called Doll or Dolly by family and friends. She sold goods as a young girl in Montserrat to start her entrepreneurial journey and later launched huckstering and housekeeping businesses in Dominica, Grenada, and Demerara. Other revenue streams for Dorothy included retail stores and hotels, including one with a French restaurant.
As her wealth increased, Dorothy purchased the freedom of her mother, sister, and eldest children, born into slavery over a period of sixteen years. Through the decades, she also sent several of her ten children and many grandchildren to schools in the United Kingdom, where she made frequent visits. The boys went to schools in Scotland, and the girls went to school at Kensington House (not to be confused with Kensington Palace) in London.
Dorothy’s prosperity also allowed her to move in elite circles, always beautifully dressed with hats and feathers to symbolize her free woman status. She even had a friendship (and possible romantic entanglement) with Prince William Henry, aka the Duke of Clarence, who in 1830 became William IV, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, also King of Hanover.
The Prince, also known as the Sailor King, and Dorothy first became acquainted in Roseau, the capital of Dominica, at a dance. Their romantic entanglement is thought to have been depicted in a famous cartoon created by British caricaturist James Gillray, which shows the Prince lovingly embracing a Black woman in a hammock on board his ship, HMS Pegasus.
This cartoon, originally published in 1788, was suppressed during the Victorian Era for being both too sexually explicit and too disrespectful of the royal family. Now part of the Reference Collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London, this Gillray cartoon titled King William IV and an unknown woman (‘Wouski’) was discovered by author Vanessa Riley and ultimately led her to uncover the life story of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas.
Hand-colored etching of King William IV and a Black woman by British caricaturist James Gillray. Photo Credit: © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Speaking to Vanessa Riley, a Black woman of Trinidad & Tobago heritage, via Instagram, she indicated she was initially inspired to research successful Black people during the Georgian and Regency Era after reading Jane Austen’s last novel Sandition which includes a character, Miss Lambe, who was a wealthy mulatto West Indian woman highly desired and pursued by many white suitors who wanted to marry her. This plot was contrary to much of the literature written about Black people during this time, as they were mainly depicted as slaves or lower class and poor workers.
Island Queen by Vanessa Riley
Dorothy Kirwan Thomas’s life story is that of zeal, focus, and sheer determination to succeed. As a Black woman, she had many accomplishments during a time when the British and other Europeans in the colonial West Indies were making a fortune through the brutal enslavement of millions of Africans. From buying her freedom to becoming a successful entrepreneur on many different Caribbean islands, her life story is quite different from most Black people who lived in the Americas during her lifetime (1756 to 1864).
Island Queen takes you through Dorothy’s life journey, shedding light on the dark side of colonialism, slavery in the West Indies, and how she managed to remove the shackles of slavery, rising to become a rich and influential public figure known as the Queen of Demerara. The historical novel covers a sixty-three-year period of Dorothy’s life, starting in 1761 when she is a young girl in Montserrat and ending in 1824 when she returns to Demerara after a triumphant visit from London, where she got a tax on free women of color repealed. Intertwining Dorothy’s family saga, romantic entanglements with men (all frustrating!), and historical events, including the 1768 Montserrat Slave Rebellion and the 1795 Fédon Rebellion, aka Brigands’ War in Grenada, the novel Island Queen is gripping and a must-read for fans of the Caribbean and historical fiction novels.
Island Queen a historical fiction novel by Vanessa Riley. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.
By the way, don’t you just love the book cover for Island Queen? It is beautifully designed by Black self-taught artist Tonya Engel and helps to create an image for Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, which is really important as beyond the caricature above, there are no known photographs or paintings attributed to her. Vanessa Riley’s descriptions in the book are quite vivid, and this colorful image helps one imagine how Dorothy’s beauty and colorful clothing could really draw you in.
That said, be warned that Vanessa Riley does not sanitize Dorothy Kirwan Thomas’s life story in Island Queen. She is not portrayed as a superhuman or a saint. Furthermore, as detailed in the book, all of Dorothy’s history during the sixty-three-year period, and as I delved further into this true-life story, I was saddened to discover that some of Dorothy’s wealth was made from owning and renting out enslaved people. Her decision to become a slaveowner and invest in a traditional plantation, Kensington Plantation in Demerara, initially run by her son Joseph Thomas Jr, was surprising as she worked hard to free her family from the bondage of slavery.
Thus to know that she turned around and enslaved others is quite shocking. One can only speculate that she fell in line with the rules and actions of the plantation class as she was ambitious and wanted to increase her fortunes by providing further protection for her family. Thus to judge her by today’s standards is somewhere unfair. But it is all so problematic as it wasn’t just one or two enslaved Africans.
At one point, Dorothy owned over 80 enslaved Africans, and records via the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database indicate that when slavery was abolished by the British, she was paid £3,375 in 1835 for 67 enslaved Black people. Her payment, one of the highest in the colony of Demerara, would be valued today at £439,869.04 (roughly US$ 607,817.10).
Dorothy’s ruthless ambition also seems to influence the matchmaking of her children as the majority of her daughters were concubines or had common-law marriages with white men, including four Scottish merchants who undoubtedly proved helpful in advancing her business enterprise. Dorothy, who also was never without male companionship, doesn’t appear to have had a romantic relationship with a Black man. All her partners, including her common-law husband, Doctor Joseph Thomas, who she met in Grenada, were white. Of course, Dorothy herself was half-white in that her father was John Kirwan, an Irish planter. Though from descriptions in the book, you would not have known she was a mixed-race woman at first glance.
It could be argued that Dorothy’s choices in partners for herself and her children were less about race but upward mobility, so personal and professional advancement to protect and increase her family’s wealth, power, and security. Her traumatic start in life definitely influenced her decisions, and it is understandable that she wanted to be surrounded by men who could help protect her family. Wealth, power, and security were primarily aligned with whiteness during her lifetime.
It should be noted that the novel is classified as historical fiction as Dorothy Kirwan Thomas left no diaries; in fact, she was thought to be functionally illiterate, which makes her accomplishments even more spectacular. That said, as detailed in the Author’s Note at the end of Island Queen, the story is backed up by historical documents, including birth records, legal transactions, newspaper articles, and published anecdotal accounts.
Author Vanessa Riley uncovered these during the spent six years she spent researching and conducting interviews for the book, including email communication with some of Dorothy’s descendants. In a chat via Instagram, Riley states: “I nailed the timeline and players first, then filled in the story to make it relatable and for readers to understand her decisions. So I’d say Island Queen is 75% basically true.”
Vanessa Riley is an author of historical fiction and romance novels (Georgian, Regency, & Victorian). Photo Credit: © VanessaRiley.com
Island Queen, written by Vanessa Riley, is a book to read not once but a few times as while there are a few composite characters to aid plot development, there are thirty-nine characters based on real-life people who were part of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas’s universe. Each of the characters has a history and back story that I would love to see drawn out over multiple seasons in a Netflix-style show. So fingers crossed that this debut historical fiction novel slated for publication in July 2021 gets snapped up by a production company.
In the meantime, I will reread my advance copy to get to know Dorothy better, as she was a complex woman who worked through a range of issues (enslavement, sexual assault, motherhood, marriage, postpartum, entrepreneurship, unfair taxation, women’s rights, etc.) during various stages of her life to become a successful matriarch and provider for her extended family, including some of her white son-inlaws. She was a highly respected social and financial power broker, and considering the historical backdrop, it all reads like fiction, but it is very much a vibrant true-life story.
Now I must confess that I was disappointed that Dorothy Kirwan Thomas didn’t return to Montserrat in later life, but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. I am enthralled by her life journey as presented in Island Queen and have already read some of the scholarly source materials listed in the bibliography at the end of the novel. It is all so fascinating, and I’m sure other successful Black women and men from the Regency era are waiting to be uncovered. In the meantime, you can purchase a copy of Island Queen, written by Vanessa Riley and published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, via your local bookstore or Amazon.
UPDATE (July 16, 2021): Great news! Longboat Pictures, an independent production company based in the United Kingdom, has optioned Vanessa Riley’s Island Queen novel, which will be made into a TV series. How many episodes or seasons? That is not clear from the blog post on their website, but excited as Adjoa Andoh, who portrays Lady Danbury in Netflix’s Bridgerton, is attached to executive produce.
UPDATE (July 26, 2022): I was honored to present the Dr. George Irish Lecture at the 17th Calabash Festival in Montserrat. The title of my lecture was: Lessons from the Life Story of Montserratian Entrepreneur Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, also known as The Queen of Demera. You can listen to the recording or read the accompanying blog post.