Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, Queen of Demerara
One today can never know what it was like to be a Black woman born into slavery in Montserrat in the late 18th century. But author Vanessa Riley gives readers a peek into one woman’s story in her historical novel Island Queen (2021). The story of Dorothy “Dolly” Kirwan Thomas, one of the Caribbean islands’ wealthiest individuals, shatters every stereotype imaginable.
After a prologue of Dolly visiting London in 1824, Island Queen begins in Montserrat in 1761 when Dolly is five. A slave rebellion is underway. Dolly is in hiding with her mother and sister.
As guns explode in the dark of night, “I want to grow big,” she says to her Mamaí when she fears they might die. “I want to protect you until Pa returns. I want everything for us. The dreams I have are good, of houses, big ones. Fine clothes and boots too.”
Mamaí tells Dolly men won’t let her be strong. “You must accept what we have. Suffer the bitterness in silence. It is the way.” Dolly refuses to accept her mother’s advice. Thus begins one incredible woman’s lifelong journey of refusing to be silenced.
Dolly is nothing if not determined. Her father, a white Irish plantation owner, promises to free her and Dolly’s mother and sister. Absent most of the time, he fails to deliver on his promise. Dolly understands early on she can’t count on him. Bright and observant, she quickly sees how the world works and who holds all the power: white men with money. She can’t become a man, and though her father is Irish her skin is dark; she cannot pass for white. But she can make money. To escape her wretched circumstances as a slave, she sets a goal to earn enough money to purchase her manumission—her freedom—and that of her mother and sister.
As a child Dolly starts “huckstering”—selling goods in the village. She works hard, and she finds she is good at it. As is usually the case, success begets more success. In time, as Dolly enters her teens, she becomes a house cleaner. Inside the walls of fine houses, she sees how whites who have inhabited her island leverage assets to their advantage. Ever the entrepreneur, when Dolly’s employers compliment her for her exceptional work, she recognizes an unmet need and sees how she can profit. White colonials need people to cook and clean for them. She starts training other women to clean and hires them out, earning a commission for each placement.
Agostino Brunias painting of a linen market in Domenico during Dolly's era
Dolly’s business grows. She buys her manumission. The rest becomes her storied history. Dolly goes on to own stores and hotels on multiple islands. She eventually buys land and builds her own plantation.
My paperback copy of Island Queen is long at 557 pages. But reading transports you, making you lose all track of time. Vanessa Riley’s shaping of Dolly’s voice through first-person narrative puts you smack in Dolly's orbit, right down to feeling the sizzling heat and rampant humidity of the islands. Dolly’s voice is authentic, razor sharp, and unwavering as she expresses in thought, word, and deed her determination to be free, to become wealthy, to be treated with respect.
Riley reveals many other aspects of Dolly’s life in the novel. Dolly’s commercial success is one thing, but the life she lived as a woman is, to me, the most fascinating part of Dolly, the main essence of her. Family. Enslavement. Poverty. Love. Rejection, betrayal, rebuilding trust. A cast of characters based upon the real people in Dolly’s life and the historic events she lived through come to life. I could easily have enjoyed five hundred more pages about her.
One of the elements that makes Island Queen so memorable for me is Vanessa Riley's masterful storytelling abilities. The writing is superb. In the hands of a lesser writer, the story wouldn't have the same impact on the reader. Riley uses language that ramps up the intensity of Dolly's moments of struggle and triumph. Below is an excerpt I found especially moving, which shows Dolly's fears as well as her remarkable resiliency. Dolly's husband, Thomas, wakes her from a bad dream:
"Doll, it's a nightmare. I have you. I do."
Still couldn't lift my lids. Couldn't take the chance that he wasn't truly there.
"You're safe, Doll. No one will hurt you, not while I'm here."
That was the fear, wasn't it? That the calm and peace we had, our family, would disappear once Thomas stepped aboard his Mary.
"Doll, talk to me."
The sound of rain, rare rain, tapped and danced upon the roof. "Claganach was what my pa called these heavy showers. Our hut leaked sometimes. That brought worms. One-leggers. Mossies, too."
"You're not there, Doll."
"But I could be. There's truth in the rain. It says its thoughts. It cries upon the poor and the wealthy. It can cause a harvest or cut through mountains. It's powerful."
"You want it to rain? Water dries. It goes away."
"We are all rain, Thomas. 'Cause we all go away. Nothing lasts. Maybe I haven't cut through enough mountains."
Poignant moments like this can be found on nearly every page of the book.
Agostino Brunias painting of island dress worn by free Blacks during the slave era in the Caribbean
So who was the real Dorothy “Dolly” Kirwan Thomas?
There are no visual images of Dolly that exist today. And though the historical record surrounding Dolly is limited, Riley stays true to what is available and fills in where needed. According to my brief dip into the research, what Riley has written about Dolly accurately reflects the main events, people, and turning points in Dolly’s life. I love this. It makes Dolly's story all the more dramatic. In her author’s note at the end of the book, Vanessa Riley stated, “She [Dolly] was a passionate woman dealing with the issues of her time: racism, enslavement, incest, sexuality, marriage, entrepreneurialism, land ownership, taxation, and women’s rights.”
These issues are front and center in the novel, as well they should be. Riley’s depiction of Dolly is that of a headstrong, astute, street-smart woman with a keen sense of justice. A survivor. Dolly really did get her start huckstering—selling goods—and later, mercantilism—hiring out housekeepers. As their broker, she paid herself for finding them, training them, and securing them positions.
It took years for Dolly to acquire her fortune. Forced to confront the ugly reality of slavery, racism, sexism, and colonization, she did not waver. Historians characterize her as having no formal education, but there is a question of whether she was literate. Riley, in her author notes, posits that Dolly was learned but may have had reading problems.
Dolly also had a large family, giving birth to ten children, the first two the result of her half-brother (who was white) raping her. During the years of British and French colonization of the West Indies, lineages became mixed. Islander’s skin color took on many shades of Black. By the time Dolly’s children grew up, she had amassed wealth and prestige to educate her children, position them in good marriages, and provide them with beautiful homes. By the time her grandchildren were born, she was sending them to Great Britain’s most prestigious schools.
History remembers Dolly as a beauty. Men loved her, and she loved them in return. During her child-bearing years, Dolly fell in love with the men who fathered the rest of her children. One of them became her beloved husband, Joseph Thomas. Thomas died relatively young, leaving Dolly a widow.
Prior to her marriage, Dolly was believed to be one of Prince William Henry of England’s lovers. William was a member of the Royal Navy and had traveled to the West Indies, where he met and is presumed to have fallen in love with Dolly and have an affair. In the book Dolly gives birth to a child by Prince William. It is interesting to note that Prince William later became England’s King William IV, the noble who eventually signed the order abolishing slavery in England’s colonies. We may never know whether his relationship with Dolly had anything to do with his decision, but it’s nice to think she had some level of influence on a king.
Image: 1798 James Gillray caricature of Prince William Harry and Mulatto Woman
Retrieved from: https://vanessariley.com/blog/2022/06/16/gossip-about-the-duke-2015-reflections/
What is for certain is that Black people were a vibrant part of England during the Recency Era. This article by the BBC illuminates the first Black members of England's upper classes. Sadly, their stories and contributions have been overlooked. In Jane Austen's unfinished Sanditon, the wealthiest woman in the novel is a Black woman. Georgiana Lambe was bi-racial and had traveled to Sanditon from the West Indies. Jane was on to the need to bring their story to light. Or so we hope.
Dorothy Kirwan Thomas died in Demerara in 1846 after living an amazing ninety years. Putting her wealth to good use, she contributed to island schools and schools for girls in England. She is also credited with helping to save the wealth of other free Black island women by going to England and standing up to the Crown, demanding an end to a series of unfair levies placed on them.
Plans are underway for a movie of Island Queen. Julie Anne Robinson, the director of the Bridgerton series on Netflix is teaming up with Adjoa Andoh as executive producer. Andoh plays Lady Danbury in Bridgerton. Andoh also narrates the audio version of Island Queen. I can't think of a better voice for the narration. And I can't wait to see the movie. Dolly's story is, as Vanessa Riley said, an important one that has to be told.
Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here.