Recently, I was invited to give the Dr. George Irish Lecture at the 17th Montserrat Calabash Festival. I used it as an opportunity to speak on one of my recent discoveries, specifically, the life of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, known as The Queen of Demerara.
The title of my lecture was: “Lessons from the life story of Montserratian Entrepreneur Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, also known as Queen of Demerara.” From this lecture, attended virtually by over 150 people in Montserrat and across the globe, I’ve put together the blog post below.
Before discussing the life and lessons learned from The Queen of Demerara, it is important to outline where exactly Demerara is located.
Where is Demerara?
Demerara (deh·muh·reuh·ruh) is a historical region on the north coast of South America. It became a Dutch colony in 1745 and was considered one of the most dangerous in the Caribbean. Demerara was known to be dangerous as it was a place of disease and the life expectancy of the White planters was the same as the enslaved Africans. Plus, with poor defense by the Dutch, each new wave of migrant arrivals from Europe and other parts of the Americas made it politically and socially insecure. The British seized Demarara in 1796, and it became part of British Guiana in 1815. Today, it is part of the country of Guyana, which gained complete independence from Britain on May 26, 1966.
Who was The Queen of Demerara?
Dorothy “Doll, Dolly” Kirwan Thomas was an entrepreneur from the Caribbean island of Montserrat during the 18th century who became known as The Queen Of Demerara. She was among the wealthiest women in all of the Caribbean colonies. Let me tell you her story!
Dorothy was born into slavery on the island of Montserrat in 1756. This was 78 years before the British abolished slavery in the Caribbean in 1834. Her mother was an enslaved woman named Betty (or Betsy), and her father is believed to be Irish planter Andrew Kirwan or John Kirwan. Via her mother, Dorothy had a younger sister, Katherine (Kitty), also believed to be fathered by the same Kirwan family member.
The Kirwan family was one of the twelve prominent merchant families known as the “the tribes of Galway” deported by Oliver Cromwell to the island in the 1650s. They had land holdings in Montserrat plus Antigua, St Kitts and Nevis. They also had business interests across the Caribbean region.
There are no known pictures or portraits of Dorothy, but she is described as a beautiful dark-skinned Black (mulatto) woman who is often flamboyantly dressed! Also, Dorothy did not keep a diary. So much of what we know about her is via government documents, legal documents (marriage contracts, wills, etc.), newspaper articles, and published anecdotal accounts.
Where in the Caribbean did The Queen of Demerara live?
Based on historical records, Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, The Queen of Demerara, is believed to have lived in five different Caribbean islands/countries. Below are approximate dates of when Dorothy first arrived on each new island/country based on historical mentions:
- Montserrat: From birth in 1756
- Demerara (Guyana): 1770/71 (after the famine on Monsterrat, which caused the death of 1,200 enslaved Black and poorer White people)
- Dominica: Spring 1784 (Dorothy was brought here by William Foden, a White planter and estate manager on the plantation owned by Lancaster merchant William Barrow. She is mentioned in various legal documents petitioning for her freedom)
- Grenada: Spring 1787 (most likely to be with her partner and eventual husband Joseph Thomas)
- Barbados: ??? (sometime after the 1795/6 Fedon Rebellion in Grenada)
- Demerara (Guyana): 1797 until her death on August 5, 1846
NOTE: The timeframes above are approximate based on a variety of sources. Also, when Dorothy Kirwan Thomas died in Demerara, aged 90 years, she outlasted most of her children, which was quite a feat considering all the health crises like the 1837 yellow fever outbreak, which killed over 900 alone in Georgetown, Guyana!
How did Dorothy Kirwan Thomas become known as The Queen of Demerara?
Dorothy Kirwan Thomas was given the moniker The Queen of Demerara by Marianne Pemberton Holmes. Marianne, a White resident of the colony and wife to prominent barrister Joseph Henry Holmes makes mention of this in her diary Notes on Demerara, Accession No. 14748.
Dorothy Kirwan Thomas was given The Queen of Demerara moniker because:
- After returning to Demerara circa 1797, Dorothy used a network of employees and enslaved Africans to build her various businesses.
- Within a few years, she was the preeminent controller of luxuries and services for the colony and closely connected to merchant companies who transported them.
- Dorothy often provided her patronage and dispensed advice plus gold coins to others on the streets of Georgetown.
- She had an engaging personality and met most people of stature who visited the colony, often holding welcoming dinners/receptions for them (i.e., Governor of Barbados, etc.).
- She was flamboyant in her dress – often wearing expensive dresses, hats with feathers, gold, and jewels from Europe.
Why did Dorothy Kirwan Thomas become an entrepreneur / How did she make money?
Dorothy Kirwan Thomas became an entrepreneur out of necessity. Specifically, she needed money to purchase her freedom and that of her family members. Initially, she was a huckster selling goods to other plantation workers door to door and via market stall.
As her business expanded (starting in Dominica), she hired other women to become hucksters and housemaids to the planters. Items for sale by hucksters included fashion and other trinkets purchased from merchants on credit. She invested her money into one or more shops, eventually purchasing rental properties, boarding houses, and hotels. One of her hotels in Grenada even had a fine dining French restaurant. She also became a plantation owner with Kensington Estate in Demerara.
She owned many enslaved Africans who worked on her plantation or were hired out to other planters. When slavery was abolished by the British in 1843, via the Legacies of British Slavery, we know that Dorothy submitted a claim for the compensation of 67 enslaved Black people. She was awarded £3,375 in 1835, and her payment from the British government was one of the highest in the colony of Demerara. In today’s money, that £3,375 would be valued at £439,869.04 (roughly US$ 607,817.10).
How many children did Dorothy Kirwan Thomas have?
Much of what we know about The Queen of Demarara comes from documents connected to her children. So how many children did Dorothy Kirwan Thomas have? According to various sources, it is believed she had ten children with five different White men.
As gleaned from various sources, Dorothy Kirwan Thomas had ten children with five different White men. Dorothy’s first two children were with a member of the Kirwan family in Montserrat. There are suggestions that it may have been her half-brother Nicholas Kirwan.
- Elizabeth “Betsy” Kirwan (Year Born: ???)
- Charlotte Kirwan (Year Born: ???)
Her third child was with Irish planter Ellis Iles in Montserrat.
- Edward Iles (Year Born: 1783)
Her fourth child was with planter John Coosveldt Cells in Demerara.
Catherine Cells (Year Born: 1784)
Her fifth child was with Captain Joseph Thomas in Grenada.
- Ann “Nan” Thomas (Year Born: ??? 1785)
Her sixth child was with Captain John Owen in Grenada.
- Frances Owens (Year Born: 1786)
Her last four children were also with Captain Joseph Thomas in Grenada.
- Eliza Thomas (Year Born: 1787
- Joseph Thomas Jr. (Year Born: 1789)
- Harry Thomas (Year Born: 1790)
- Dorethea Christina “Crissy” Thomas (Year Born: 1796)
Dorothy had her longest romantic relationship with Joseph Thomas; for all intended purposes, they were husband and wife. However, during their day, it was not acceptable for a White man and free Black woman to publicly exchange vows in a church. So they most likely just entered into a marriage contract as was prevalent in England before the Clandestine Marriages Act of 1753.
Joseph Thomas is listed in the merchant records as being from Grenada but also spent time in St Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat due to his inter-island trade activities. He owned a quarter of the trading vessel, the Mary out of Lancaster. Thus, he could have met Dorothy in Grenada or elsewhere in the Caribbean; this is not entirely clear.
That said, Joseph Thomas disappeared from the records during the late 1790s, and it does not appear that Dorothy remarried after her husband died. I’m sure that was not for lack of choice because a woman of beauty, wealth, and power would have no shortage of male admirers.
Did Dorothy Kirwan Thomas have a romantic liaison with a member of the British Royal Family?
One of the rumors is that Dorothy Kirwan Thomas met and even had a romantic liaison with a member of the British Royal Family. Specifically, while at a “mulatto ball” in Roseau, Dominica, circa 1786, Dorothy is said to have met Prince William Henry, the Duke of Clarence, who later became King William IV (Fourth). It is believed that she danced and even visited other islands with Prince William, who was known as a bit of a playboy on one of his tours, commanding the HMS Pegasus and HMS Andromedia around the Caribbean.
We get a glimpse of what Dorothy Kirwan Thomas may have looked like because of her royal friendship. It is a 1788 caricature by British artist James Gillray. This cartoon shows Prince Henry lovingly embracing a Black woman in a hammock on board his ship, HMS Pegasus.
Surprisingly, the drawing is beautiful and loving – not subservient or garish as many other caricatures of Black women during this time. So is the rumor true? We will never know as Dorothy left no diaries, and Prince Henry’s diaries were destroyed in a fire. Talk about bad luck!
What are the main lessons based on the life story of The Queen of Demerara?
There are many life lessons based on the life story of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, aka The Queen of Demerara. The top six life lessons:
- Not letting your circumstances at birth define your entire life
- Surround yourself with supportive people and make the necessary investment
- Timing is everything, so play the long game
- Diversify your income/revenue streams
- Form strategic alliances to help achieve your goals
- Document your life story in written / digital formats
1. Not letting your circumstances at birth define your entire life
Dorothy Kirwan Thomas was born into slavery and, against all the odds, became one of the wealthiest women in the Caribbean. She was not superhuman, but worked hard, spotted opportunities, and made strategic moves when others just saw adversity. She was an extraordinary woman as very few (enslaved or free) achieved what she did under such adversity.
Modern Business Take:
- Push past your starting limitations – whether they be a lack of professional education, material wealth, and connections.
- Define your goals and always be doing something to advance these goals.
- Consistency is the name of the game, and in this modern era, leverage technology to build your professional network and business beyond your own country’s borders.
- You (we) can play and do business with the big boys!
2. Surround yourself with supportive people and make the necessary investment
Dorothy’s support was her extended family; they meant the world to her. So as she advanced, she brought them along, ultimately becoming her family’s financial center and social lynchpin. Thus, as her wealth increased after leaving Montserrat, Dorothy purchased her freedom and her three eldest children. The purchase was made by William Foden (using Dorothy’s money) from Andrew Kirwan. She later purchased the release of her sister and mother, all during sixteen years.
Dorothy invested in her family through education, as her wealth was not enough to open doors and gain legitimacy for her family. She viewed education as the key to her family’s advancement personally and professionally. Thus for sons and grandsons, the goal was obtaining positions of expertise and authority. For her daughters and granddaughters, the goal was to marry men within society and of higher stature than her own.
Dorothy used her fortune to send several children and grandchildren to school in England and Scotland. The girls went to the Kensington House academy and the prestigious Marylebone school in London. The boys went to a few schools in Scotland, including Inverness Royal Academy and Dollar Academy near Edinburgh.
She also provided financial support to the men that her daughters married so that they could advance their business interests. She left very little of her wealth in her will for those children or grandchildren who didn’t live up to her standards. For example, her daughter Catherina whose husband was a disappointment and required significant financial support during her lifetime, only received apparel and table linen.
In life and death, Dorothy protected her children, especially the women. For example, she left to her granddaughter Ann Garraway a plot of land in Cummingsburg – including its buildings, the silverware, and the furniture plus 4400 guilders and a golden chain. This was a considerable sum of money, and Dorothy added an explicit proviso that these assets could never be transferred to the control of any husband or used to pay any debt contracted by the same.
NOTE: Some have argued that Dorothy recognized the benefits of white association and pursued it to advance her family and businesses. All her romantic relationships were with White men. Plus, three of her daughters married White men, and she invested in their companies. But was it just whiteness? I argue no. Dorothy traveled and did business with both Black and White people after gaining her freedom. At the core, she was an entrepreneur dedicated to expanding her network and wealth. Thus she aligned herself with powerful men and women who could not just help advance her business endeavors but also provide protection.
Modern Business Take:
- Once you pick your team, ensure that all know the plan and expectations.
- Invest in your team by providing training and opportunities for professional advancement.
- Reward those who meet and exceed the business goals.
- Give those who don’t achieve the defined goals an opportunity to self-correct and cut if needed. Harsh, but necessary as underperforming staff drags down the team – whether in business or government!
3. Timing is everything, so play the long game
Dorothy’s main goal was securing her freedom and that of her children and extended family members. She made this goal known but realized that she couldn’t entirely rely on others to make it happen, not her White father or the men she had relationships with.
Dorothy started her first business while still an enslaved young girl to earn money to purchase her freedom.
She had the capital to purchase her freedom when market conditions were right. So after Montserrat’s plantation economy was in ruins due to famine-like conditions, waterborne diseases, and the 1780 Hurricane.
Modern Business Take:
- Have a plan of the goals you want to achieve and proactively work to make them happen.
- Make some of your moves right away (i.e., acquiring new skills, building up your savings, etc.), and others advance when the timing is advantageous (i.e., launching your business with a website, expanding product/service line, launching into a new market, etc.).
- Think about the big picture and adeptly anticipate several moves in advance. Essentially, play chess, not checkers!
4. Diversify your income/revenue streams
Dorothy never rested on her laurels and routinely sought new business opportunities and ways to make money. She had 7/8 different revenue streams, including:
- Huckstering – selling goods door-to-door or at the market
- Retail stores
- Boarding houses
- Hotels with restaurants
- Farming / Plantation
- Hiring out enslaved Black people who worked as housekeepers, seamstresses, nursemaids, boatmen, painters, carpenters, etc.
- Madam / Prostitution (??? possible slander)
- Investments including government bonds and other securities
Sadly, not all Dorothy’s revenue streams were ethical. Here, I’m not referring to her possibly being a Madam, which may have just been idle gossip and slander about her housekeepers. More referring to the discovery that Dorothy would turn around and own enslaved people after gaining her freedom. But can we judge her by modern standards? Perhaps this is a bit too harsh.
That said, not only did she have these varied revenue streams, but she didn’t just operate in one market. She had many ventures all across the Caribbean region. This was necessary for survival as rebellions were continually happening with destroyed properties and businesses. Also, new laws were continually passed to oppress free Black people and remove advancements.
For example, shortly after the Demerara rebellion of 1823, the Demerara Council passed a law placing a tax of ten guilders on free women of color. This tax was in addition to implementing licenses for hucksters. These new government revenue streams were implemented to raise funds to pay for the damages during the rebellion.
Deeming the ten guilder tax excessive and unfair since it only applied to free women of color, Dorothy then took it upon herself to visit London in 1824. While there, she successfully petitioned Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State For War & The Colonies, to repeal the discriminatory tax. Via an article in the Demerara Gazette, we know that she returned to Demerara to cheers and was publicly thanked by other free women of color who commissioned a silver later and ewer as a memorial to her efforts.
NOTE: According to the Demerara slave registers, by 1826, Dorothy owned eighty-two enslaved people, and her daughter Charlotte Fullerton owned another seventeen.
Modern Business Take:
- Never rely upon one job, client, product, or industry for income.
- Income/revenue can drop due to political changes (i.e., new government), natural disasters (i.e., hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes), health crises (i.e., COVID-19 pandemic), new business rules (i.e., new laws, increase in taxes), or economic downturns (i.e., 2008 banking crisis).
- Always look to diversify by adding a side hustle if you have a corporate job. For business owners, add new products and services or enter new markets.
- Here too, leverage Internet technology and social media platforms as it is now much easier to do business on a global level.
5. Form strategic alliances to help achieve your goals
Dorothy Kirwan Thomas realized that she needed help to get ahead with her personal and professional goals. Thus, she was strategic with her personal and business relationships. She built up her circle of contacts with people from all walks of life.
Plus, she married three of her daughters to prominent merchants who had their networks and were able to advance her business interest further. And as interracial relationships during that time had unequal power dynamics, she insisted on marriage contracts to protect her daughters and their wealth.
Dorothy developed professional contacts far beyond the Caribbean region and often traveled to Europe to advance her business interest. She is said to have curried favors by sending expensive gifts to powerful men in her professional network and even lent one £1,000 for his wedding.
Modern Business Take:
- No man or woman is an island, and you always need others to get ahead.
- Don’t be elitist and associate with certain people.
- Regarding business, do appropriate due diligence and form mutually beneficial strategic partnerships.
- Don’t just form partnerships with the flash celebrities or companies – pick solid ones that you can grow with.
- Have a written contract for each partnership with clearly defined goals.
6. Document your life story in written / digital formats
Dorothy Kirwan Thomas’ life is inspiring and a powerful example of what can be achieved after freeing oneself from slavery and fighting against institutional racism.
However, do we have the whole story? No, there are considerable gaps in the story as, despite her vast wealth, Dorothy left no diary or collection of correspondences. She was functionally illiterate for much of her life, though she often had a scribe in her entourage.
Much of what we know about Dorothy Kirwan Thomas comes from colonial files, newspaper articles, and legal documents. And some of the information presented by academic researchers is conflicting. I am sure this is not intentional, but it is difficult to trust some analyses fully.
Academic books that provide insight on The Queen of Demerara
Two academic books that provide a great deal of insight into the life of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, aka The Queen of Demerara, are:
- 2012: The Last Caribbean Frontier, 1795-1815
- 2015: Enterprising Women: Gender, Race, and Power in the Revolutionary Atlantic
These books are written by two academic researchers/historians from Australia, and they have conflicting information starting with Dorothy’s birth year. The 2012 book list her birth year as 1763. The 2015 book list her birth year as 1756. This may seem minor, but difficult to progress to the analysis phase if stuck fact-checking. Nonetheless grateful for their efforts as the books are a great starting point, plus there are lots of additional sources referenced.
Historical novels that provide insight on The Queen of Demerara
Another important book that provides insight into the life of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas is the historical fiction novel Island Queen written by Vanessa Riley, a Black woman with Trinidad & Tobago heritage. It took her six years to research and write the 575-page book once she uncovered the name, Dorothy Kirwan Thomas.
Island Queen covers sixty-three years of Dorothy’s life, from 1761 when she is a young girl in Montserrat to 1824 when she returns to Demerara after a triumphant visit from London, where she got a tax on free women of color repealed.
As it is a novel, Riley took some liberties, but she indicated it is 75% true, and along with Dorothy, there is mention of thirty-nine other real persons who lived during her time.
Sadly, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Riley did not get to visit Montserrat before publication, so it is missing references to specific places that could have helped to bring her story more to life!
NOTE: Island Queen has been optioned and will be made into a TV Series (involved are some of the same people behind the Bridgerton Series).
Modern Business Take:
- There is danger in not writing down our life stories as they will be forgotten, whitewashed, or unintentionally presented with incorrect information.
- Documenting our life stories and having them correctly repeated time and time is a power move. We will control the narrative, not outsiders who most likely don’t fully understand your culture and way of life.
- We should document our life stories as there is economic value in our stories, and right now, primarily outsiders are benefiting. For example, the Montserrat Soufriere Hill Volcano eruption – our pain but most of the academic journals, books, documentaries, and advanced degrees, including PhDs on the subject, have been done by outsiders!
NOTE: Life stories relate not just to one’s personal history but that of our governments, businesses, schools, organizations, etc. They should be curated so future generations, teachers, and historians can quickly discover them.
How To Preserve Our Life Stories
Using the Montserrat Volcanic Eruption or a significant event like the Calabash Festival or even Montserrat St. Patrick’s Day Festival as examples, we should expect to see content from different sources to help document and preserve their history:
- From the Official Body: website with background and updates via press releases, blog posts, videos, and photos on social media
- From Locals Attendees: blog posts, photos, and videos via social media, books, etc.
- From Local Businesses and Press: articles, photos, and videos via social media
- From Regional and International Attendees: blog posts, photos, and videos via social media
- From Regional Press, Bloggers & Content Creators: articles, photos, and videos via social media
- From International Press, Bloggers & Content Creators: articles, photos, and videos via social media
- From Academic Researchers / Historians: articles and books
NOTE: There is nothing wrong with outsiders contributing. In fact, it is an important part of preserving the history and legacy of these events. However, it is essential that the Official Body lead with producing and curating content. Also, with content from local citizens, businesses, and the press, it’s best if they don’t just regurgitate what is distributed by the Official Body but provide insight and analysis from different angles.
With a festival, one would expect to read stories from the businesses involved in the festival, from young people, content focused on the food and party scene of the festival, and older folks might contribute content pertaining history of the festival and the island. Failure to do so and we will lose control of the narrative and economic opportunities for our own people and country!
Reclaiming the Narrative
So is it possible to reclaim the narrative after misleading information has been written by outsiders and then regurgitated in prominent publications? Dr. Howard Fergus published an excellent book detailing the history of the St Patrick’s Day Celebration In Montserrat. He provides insight on how the festival started and why Montserratians celebrate; no, it is not because of the Black Irish. Far from it! So is it enough to reclaim the narrative about the history and reason for St Patrick’s Festival in Montserrat? Only time will tell.
Sadly, false/incomplete narratives told by outsiders are not just a recent occurrence. One of the most egregious is Irish anthropologist John C. Messenger, who visited Montserrat in 1965/6 and then published a series of articles in academic journals (Caribbean Quarterly, African Arts, etc.). Still heavily quoted, they over exaggerate the cultural influence of the Irish on Montserrat. To prevent this from happening again in the future, Montserrat needs a new generation of Montserratian academic researchers and historians to continue the work done by Dr. George Irish and Dr. Howard Fergus.
In Sum: Seize The Day
Dorothy Kirwan Thomas lived an extraordinary life under challenging circumstances, and there is much we can learn from her. She may have left Montserrat at a young age, but she is very much one of our own! Known as The Queen of Demerara, there is more to be discovered about her life story and other successful Montserratians and Caribbean persons, businesses, organizations, governments, etc. It is our job to tell these stories in written and digital formats.