This article contains book spoilers for Island Queen and a trigger warning for racism and sexual assault.
Caribbean history is often ignored in US discussions of the era, despite myself and many other Americans having ancestry from this part of the world. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park has extended references to Caribbean slavery but many adaptations sidestep these implications or briefly address them before moving back to the white main characters. In addition, the focus is often on male leaders of rebellions such as Toussaint L’Overture leading the Haitian rebellion, or on women with island ancestry such as Dido Elizabeth from the movie Belle living in England. All are written by white novelists and screenwriters who miss cultural nuances and are unaware of subconscious bias. Island Queen, Vanessa Riley’s latest foray into Black historical fiction reveals a hidden figure of Caribbean history. Dorothy Kirwan was born into slavery in Montserrat, but secured her own freedom by becoming an astute businesswoman.
Riley’s novel takes readers on a complex but emotionally fufilling journey which brings up serious historical questions on slavery, class, gender, and business ethics during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Riley’s novel is the answer for fans who feel recent historical dramas prioritize varying levels of whitewashing or escapism over featuring real Black history.
Kirwan’s story has incredible relevance today as many look to understand the enduring legacies of British colonialism and the slave trade in the late 18th and early 19th Century. Her diary does not exist but Riley assembled birth records and other primary sources to trace her life. This is in contrast to sources such as the anonymously published novel The Woman Of Colour which historians are still looking to corroborate authorship and connections to real Caribbean figures. Kirwan at times the mirror image of the fictionalized story of July from The Long Song, but there are also flash points of difference along class and timeframe context. July was born roughly 50 years later than Kirwan in Jamaica. In addition, Dorothy’s life journey takes the reader from Montserrat to Demerara (off the coast of modern day Guyana), Grenada, and Dominica. Most importantly, Riley is an Caribbean-American writer while Andrea Levy wrote The Long Song for Black British readers.
Dorothy’s in-character first person narration is the glue that holds the story together through frequent flashbacks to her childhood and young adulthood to her life in 1824 as a grandmother. The main theme of self-determination in a world where rich white men decide the rules everyone must play keeps the reader engaged even when it is not clear where the plot is heading. In the present plot, Dorothy has returned to London after many years away to petition colonial leaders to retain hard-won rights for Black and biracial women in Demerara. These unequal laws threaten Dorothy’s children and grandchildren and could even take away the freedom and inheritance she has spent her whole life to build.
Bridgerton’s critics will find solace in Island Queen. Those who wanted the Black aristocracy of Haiti and other Caribbean islands featured in the series will find this history at the center. Kirwan navigates a world with inherent inequality, despite how much she has achieved in property ownership and savings. When she interacts with British and colonial elites, they never treat her as if she has power over them. The racial caste system in existence influences all of her interactions. After a breakup, she takes up an offer from Prince William (Queen Victoria’s uncle who died with no legitimate heirs) to travel with him on his ship. In Dorothy’s story, he provides a temporary emotional distraction but also a recognition that she would never fit into the British elite because of her skin color and island background. Unlike Queen Charlotte in Bridgerton, the real prejudices of the era held Dorothy back from ascending completely into the highest levels of royal society. Riley’s narrative, especially, ignores what could have been and shows readers the truth.
These rich white men who placed artificial limits on Dorothy were also the source for young Alexander Hamilton’s childhood poverty. However, his solution as featured in the opening song of Hamilton was to leave the islands to pursue his education in America. This was an option steeped in male and to an extent white privilege as women at this point in history were not allowed to attend college. In addition, American society had already enacted severe restrictions in the rights of free people of color. Hamilton also was an orphan. Dorothy’s parents and her children kept her rooted to the Caribbean.
The road to Dorothy acquiring a thriving business and heirs was lengthy and arduous, and Riley does not sugar coat the dynamics at play in her life. Kirwan’s mother was a slave and her father owned a plantation. The more percentage of white ancestry you have in your blood, the more freedom and rights you have. In her teenage years, Dorothy’s white half-brother Nicholas rapes her and she ends up giving birth to a daughter. Dorothy is forced to run away with a trusted friend to another island and has to leave her daughter behind. This is the beginning of many sacrifices she makes in order to protect her family.
Although many readers may object to Riley portraying incest and sexual assault, the historical research makes this clear that this was the reality for women in slave societies. Dorothy’s narration is carefully crafted to show not only the trauma of the event, but her processing the trauma. For Dorothy, healing comes in the form of survival. The objective isn’t exploitation or the male gaze, but to illuminate ignored history and the intersection of race and gender in sexual power dynamics. Dorothy has to repeatedly establish consent and trust in a world where her partners can and will refuse to agree to those terms. The debate over rape culture in historical fiction revolves around characters that are fictional facing fictionalized situations, especially in the TV adaptations of Outlander and Bridgerton. Additionally, Outlander has sidestepped any serious contemplation of exploitation dynamics in slave societies despite plots featuring 8th Century Jamaica and North Carolina. It is difficult to apply this same critique to Riley’s novel as her intention is historical recreation and reconstruction of Kirwan’s life story.
Riley’s explanation and contextualization of race and gender dynamics is something many viewers wanted the first season of British historical drama Sanditon to address, past the show alluding to Georgiana’s ancestry and £100,000 inheritance. In fact, Riley explains in the Author’s Note that the journey to finding Dorothy Kirwan began with figuring out who the real Miss Lambe could have been over a decade ago. For Georgiana to have that kind of wealth, she would have had to have a white male ancestor willing and able to use the law to secure her freedom. Sidney’s connection to Georgiana as her legal ward isn’t clear, representing a missed opportunity that erodes the story’s worldbuilding. Dorothy’s explanation of social rankings and her own background means it is highly likely Georgiana is the product of a relationship between a white planter and an enslaved or indentured woman. Georgiana isn’t the only example of an fictional heir from the islands around this time period. Rhoda Swartz from Vanity Fair has Black and Jewish ancestry along with thousands of pounds. Island Queen has the space and interest to completely center the story of women like Georgiana and Rhoda position from the perspective of a Black writer and historian.
Dorothy also reveals through her life experiences that interracial relationships with unequal power dynamics were often one of the only ways enslaved Black and biracial women could gain their freedom. In stark contrast to America during the late 18th Century, interracial relationships were never officially outlawed, but it was very rare for white men to officially marry women of color. More often, these women were mistresses and concubines, and any children from these relationships legally belonged to the father. Any relationship an enslaved woman undertook carried the risk of losing her children, with her past often used as a weapon of misogynoir, or simultaneous racist and sexist discrimination.
One plot line unites Island Queen and The Long Song: both July and Dorothy lose a daughter to their white slave holding father who wanted to raise them in England. This trauma drives July to poverty while Dorothy had to wrestle the trauma alongside her mission to to fight to secure manumission papers for her children and also to develop a source of income that cannot be controlled by the men in her life.
At one point, she engages in survival sex work, then finds work as a housekeeper. Eventually, she is able to start her own housekeeping and domestic worker agency. She was well aware that some of her employees would choose to have relations with their bosses, but she made sure that she was not seen as a brothel owner for legal reasons. This is in stark contrast to some of the characters from Harlots on Hulu where brothel ownership or their sex worker status was an open secret.This is another area where Black women would suffer worse consequences for perceived immorality in society compared to white women. In fact, rumors of sex work follow her Dorothy doesn’t intefere if her housekeepers decide to engage in sex work but she insists on mutual consent. Riley does not apply any modern notions of slut-shaming or anti-sex-worker rhetoric. The reader understands that options for women’s employment outside of domestic service in these island colonies were severely limited.
Dorothy’s narrative exposes both vulnerability in her relationships with her children and her significant others and also in her resolve to maintain her status. Far too often, Black women in historical fiction are reduced to tropes such as the “strong Black woman” that are not realistic to historical or modern readers. Or even worse, authors who completely erase the presence of Black women in the late Georgian and Regency Era by only featuring white women.
The challenge in reading Island Queen for those uninitiated in Caribbean history of this era is to separate our modern historical knowledge from the reality Dorothy faces. Although Riley’s narrative does not make excuses for her questionable decisions, the narration makes clear that Dortothy is navigating a racist, sexist and classist society. Part of Dorothy’s later wealth comes from owning slaves. This was not a decision based on wanting to inflict cruelty, but due to the power dynamics in colonial society which punished those who refused to participate in the slave trade. Dorothy opposes slavery but also realize that open rebellion will cost her life or the lives of those around her. She is not isolated from the violence of slave rebellions and of the consequences of suppression. Riley in the Author’s Note says Kirwan freed all of her slaves in 1833 when slavery in Demerara was officially outlawed.
Dorothy’s narrative may have the background makings of a tragedy, but Riley reveals that her life was ultimately a success. Kirwan built her business and eventually reunited most members of her family. She even saw her children marry successfully and met several of her grandchildren. None of her children lived in poverty and she prevented all of them from working as slaves. While some may wish her various relationships could have created a permanent happy ever after, the real satisfaction comes from seeing Kirwan preserve her legacy for the next generation. Real Black historical stories such as Kirwan’s are incredibly rare in US and UK media as wholly fictional composite characters dominate existing period dramas and historical fiction novels. Island Queen, if enough people read it, could become a TV or movie adaptation that would give viewers the real truths of late 18th Century/Regency Era Caribbean history. The genre is overdue for a biography adaptation led by Black writers without the white gaze.
Island Queen will be available in bookstores July 6th. You can order the book here.