In July, I visited Colonial Williamsburg over Independence Day weekend. Given the roiled state of American politics, I hoped that taking a step back and looking at America’s past might lend insights into how to navigate today’s turmoil.
But how we choose to remember the past is just as telling as the facts themselves. What gets commemorated? What is left out of the story, and why? Whose stories are being told, and whose are not?
In September 1815 a London newspaper carried a report that one William Brown, an able seaman with more than a decade of service in the Royal Navy, “was a female African.”
Her true name, sadly, is not known. Neither is the actual length of her service. She certainly was aboard HMS Queen Charlotte, a ship that had played a role in suppressing the African slave trade, possibly while Brown was among the crew. With 104 guns, Queen Charlotte belonged to the largest class of naval warships, impressive first rates capable of carrying nearly a thousand officers and crew.
Women disguising themselves as men and joining the crews of fighting ships was certainly unusual in 19th-century Britain, but not unprecedented. Brown’s exact role remain unknown. Some scholars discount the newspaper report and believe that she served less than a month before her gender was discovered and she was discharged, as shown on the Queen Charlotte’s muster list. Others, like Suzanne J. Stark, believe that Brown had successfully served for many years, eventually earning an appointment as “captain of the foretop” – and even re-enlisted after her discharge.
While interpretations differ, one thing is clear: William Brown is the first known black woman to serve in the Royal Navy. I like to imagine that she had a longer tenure on the Queen Charlotte as the ship sailed along the African coast, and that maybe Brown herself witnessed the capture of slave ships and had a hand in the liberation of their human cargo. Perhaps someday we will know.
Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, Suzanne J. Stark. Naval Institute Press, 1996.
My political commentary generally relates to events two centuries ago, and in other countries. However, this week’s events have compelled me to break with precedent and write something about the 2016 presidential election.
My parents grew up in the 1960s. They were college students in Ohio during the Kent State shootings; they had classmates who went to Vietnam and never came home. I asked my mother once what she thought of the social protests, if she had ever joined the marches for civil rights, for women’s rights, for peace. She said no. She kept her head down and stayed out of it. She was afraid of being expelled from school. I remember being disappointed in her answer, ashamed of her fear.
Forty-six years later, I can’t sit this one out.
Let me start by saying that I wish our president-elect the best of success. Ready or not, he must lead. I hope that he is able to step up to that great responsibility and lead well. Though I have – often – disagreed with the policies of presidents of both parties, I have always respected the office.
His job will not be an easy one. There are many Americas. We are a fractured country – and have been fracturing in ways visible and not-so-visible for a long time. In 2010 I spent nearly a month driving through the America those on the coasts call the “fly-over states.” Even then I saw towns all but abandoned, empty store after empty store along empty streets. I come from an Appalachian state with pockets of deep and documented poverty, poverty that is mocked and misunderstood, poverty that the people living there can’t simply drive through.
But these trends only show statistics, and this election was won on emotion. Anger, fear, hope, uncertainty. The voting block with more anger than hope spoke, and though they do not speak for all Americans, they decided for all of us who the next president will be.
Some of their anger, I understand. These are the people I come from, and like the author of Hillybilly Elegy J.D. Vance, I’ve moved away but I cannot forget. And yet not all poverty is treated as innocent poverty, and whites may disproportionately use it as an extenuating circumstance for other ills. As an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail noted, “You may have noticed that, the story goes, white people are on drugs because they have no jobs, but black people have no jobs because they are on drugs.”
Economics is a factor but it is not the only factor. Gender is a factor but it is not the only factor. Race is a factor but it is not the only factor. We desperately want an explanation for the unexplainable, but seizing on a simple one only places more blinders around truths that we struggle to acknowledge.
This election, perhaps more than any presidential election in recent memory, is at the intersection of the personal and the political. Now we are all reckoning with the aftermath. Some are feeling joyful and affirmed, others are mourning. We are coming to terms with this new America in our different ways, some with vigils and protests, some by writing, some by carrying signs, some by seeking solidarity. Some methods take us out of ourselves, and others drive us inward.
I hope that none drive us to hate. I confess that this America is a country that I struggle to recognize. I woke up on the morning of November 9 feeling as if I’d been hit with a very ugly family secret. I had believed that the American people had learned from our past mistakes, that we could do better than our institutions, which I will be among the first to admit are flawed.
The path to creating a more perfect union is not merely feeling, but acting. Voting is a small act, but it is a powerful one. Why else would those who had it put in decades of efforts and intimidation and brutality to keep it out of the hands of minorities and out of the hands of women? For many the opportunity to vote was won the hard way. Though it is your right to abstain, please don’t. Too many people sat out this election. We as a nation lost their voices.
Last night I was at the vigil-turned-march in downtown Washington, DC. I left the house with a warm coat and a fresh coat of lipstick. Someone handed me a safety pin and I pinned it onto my jacket. Though some commentators have derided this action, I disagree. Wearing a safety pin doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me feel worse. It reminds me that too many of my fellow citizens cannot feel safe in the country that they call their own, that they have as much of a right to as I do.
Wearing a safety pin reminds me that I should be prepared to keep the promise that the pin signifies. My world has many kinds of people in it, and some may need my help. Mr. Trump has made vicious comments about women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ community members, people of non-Christian faiths, veterans. Those comments have emboldened an ideology that I cannot and will not ever tolerate. I cannot ever think that this is not my battle. I’m reminded of the Muslim photographer who made me laugh during three days of long photoshoots in DC, of the woman at my gym who works out in a headscarf. Of my sister and her wife. Of my husband, born overseas, and a naturalized citizen who gave over a decade of service to the United Stated Navy.
I think of the time I was on my way to meet a black friend after work and one of my car tires blew out. Someone stopped almost immediately to help – but if our places have been reversed, would someone have stopped for her? Would the helpfulness I encountered in the Midwest have extended to me had my face been a different color?
I don’t know and I cannot know the answer to these questions. I can only try to let the America that I grew up believing in not slip away, and I can only be humble, to not think that by trying to do the right thing that I am righteous.
And I can hope. I can hope America will indeed be great again, but not in the way that Mr. Trump imagines.
Yellow roses blooming at Culross village - in October! Fife, Scotland.
Blooms from the garden of Keats' House, London.
Arthur's Seat Summit
View near the summit of Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Pathway leading up Arthur's Seat. Edinburgh, Scotland.
View through one of the gunports at Edinburgh Castle. Edinburgh, Scotland.
Bust of Thomas Cochrane
Bust of Thomas Cochrane at Culross village, his birthplace and boyhood home.
Culross Abbey House
Culross Abbey House, boyhood home of Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane. Culross, Scotland.
Ancient church of Culross Abbey, partially in ruins yet still a working church. Village of Culross, Fife, Scotland.
Sunlight over the Firth of Forth at Culross. Fife, Scotland.
Street in the village of Culross, Fife, Scotland.
Tomb with anchor
Tomb with a carved anchor at Dunfermline Abbey. Dunfermline, Scotland.
Dunfermline Abbey, burial place of Robert the Bruce. Dunfermline, Scotland.
The city of Edinburgh, Scotland.
View from the train window, traveling north from London to Edinburgh.
Regents Park Canal on a quiet autumn morning.
Cochrane Street, London...perhaps named for Thomas Cochrane, who did represent Westminster in Parliament?
Keats House Garden
Garden behind the home of the poet John Keats. London.
One year ago I packed my bag and my laptop and hopped a plane to London, and from there, traveled by train to Edinburgh, Scotland. My journey allowed me to retrace the footsteps of Katherine Cochrane, whose story is at the center of my forthcoming novel, The Admiral’s Wife. I walked in Regents’ Park, the London neighborhood where she lived for a time, read her letters at the National Records of Scotland, and visited Culross Abbey House, the Scottish estate where her husband had lived as a boy and which she visited with him many years later. These pictures capture the places I visited and provided a thrilling opportunity to step into Kate and Thomas’ world.
This week – October 12, to be precise – is Kate Cochrane’s birthday (on the evidence of a greeting her husband sent to her in one of their many letters.) What better time to introduce the lady herself and some of her exploits?
A secret elopement. Intrigues in South America. A knife fight with a would-be assassin. Crawls across rope bridges in the Andes. A four-month sea voyage with a teething infant.
Such adventures, one might think, would make a woman famous, especially if she undertook them all 200 years ago, when a woman’s chances of attempting even one such feat were considerably more circumscribed. Kate Cochrane did them all.
I came across her accidentally – and admittedly, through reading about her husband. (Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane served as a model for the literary exploits of Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, and several instances in the film Master and Commander were inspired by Thomas Cochrane’s naval actions.)
Kate and Thomas’ relationship likewise rarely lacked for dramatic flair. He was a dashing war hero, aged 37, of an illustrious but poor Scottish family – and he would someday be an earl. Kate was approximately 20 years his junior, a beautiful orphan living in the care of her relatives. They chanced across each other in London, and Thomas was smitten. After multiple proposals and multiple refusals, Kate eventually agree to marry him. The couple hurried off to Scotland by coach and were wed in a hasty ceremony that Thomas tried, but failed, to keep secret from his family. When Thomas’ father and uncle learned of the elopement, they withdrew a sizable inheritance. Kate went back to live with her aunt – it was many months before the couple set up their own establishment and Thomas acknowledged Kate as his wife.
From this rocky yet romantic start, Kate’s adventures began. Little is known of her early life due to a dearth of historical records. It is uncertain what year she was born, although 1795 or 1796 seems likely, given that she was said to be 69 at the time of her death in January of 1865. She was born the daughter of Thomas Barnes. There is some ambiguity surrounding her mother; some sources identify her as Frances Corbett, while a number of Cochrane biographers speculate that Kate was illegitimate. Kate’s father died while she was young, and she spent her later childhood and teen years being raised by relatives. She was living with a widowed aunt in a fashionable area of London when she met Thomas.
After their elopement, Kate and Thomas eventually set up house together and soon welcomed the birth of the first of their six children. It was a difficult birth for Kate – she had been gravely ill with scarlet fever, and her survival and the child’s were in question. But Kate, not yet twenty, came through the ordeal, and the little boy, christened Thomas Barnes Cochrane, lived as well.
Kate’s troubles, however, were only beginning. Two months after the birth of the couple’s son, Thomas was convicted in a financial scandal and sentenced to serve a term in the King’s Bench Prison. He had had no commission for several years, and with the prize money he’d won in his earlier career not being replenished, Kate and the child were left in straitened circumstances. Kate visited Thomas as she could, and the couple exchanged regular letters. Upon his release, Thomas accepted an offer to lead the fledging Chilean Navy in the nation’s fight for independence from Spain.
Kate set sail with Thomas for South American in early autumn of 1818, with four-year-old Tom and his infant brother Horace in tow. While Thomas waged audacious attacks on Spanish ships and fortifications, Kate traveled on horseback through the Andes, visiting Mayan ruins and paying visits to the regional gentry. On one of these occasions, she crawled across a rope bridge with the newest addition to the family, a daughter named Elizabeth, strapped to her chest.
The family kept a house in the port city of Valparaiso, as well as an estate in the Quintero Valley gifted to them from the Chilean government. While there, an assassin sent by the Spanish chanced upon Kate. The man threatened her with a knife, but Kate gamely held him off until her shouts brought some of the servants to her aid. There is some suggestion that Kate was more than a bystander to the revolution, and that she carried messages and dispatches on behalf of Bernardo O’Higgins, Chile’s Supreme Director. However, the assassin was likely seeking information on Thomas’ orders rather than attempting to thwart Kate’s intrigues.
By the mid-1830s the family had returned to London. After several decades of unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Admiralty and the British crown to grant Thomas a pardon for his earlier conviction, Kate’s efforts – which included personal meetings with the prime minister – eventually carried the day. Thomas had also inherited the title of 10th Earl of Dundonald, and Kate rose to the rank of countess. With the money from Thomas’ exploits in South America, the family purchased an elegant villa, Hanover Lodge, in Regents Park. There Kate entertained in style, and for the first time in many, many years, the Cochranes had a settled residence where they could live in comfort.
Sadly, not all of their children survived to benefit from the family’s improved circumstances. Little Elizabeth died in Chile around her first birthday, and Kate later lost another infant who was stillborn. Five children did live to adulthood: Tom, Horace, Arthur, Katherine Elizabeth (aka “Lizzie”) and Ernest.
Disparities in age and temperament, which had previously strained the Cochrane’s marriage, now led to irreconcilable differences that resulted in Kate living in France. The couple remained cordial – and never divorced – with Thomas sending financial support and paying occasional visits. They continued to exchange letters. When Thomas penned his autobiography late in life with the help of a ghostwriter, Kate’s actions in South America feature in it, and he writes admiringly of his wife’s courage.
Kate did not cross the Channel to attend her husband’s funeral when Thomas died in 1860, though she spoke warmly of his memory afterwards. She spent her final years in the French seaside town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, suffering from bouts of ill health, and died in 1865. She is buried at St. Mary the Virgin, Kent, beneath a simple headstone. Thomas Cochrane was interred at Westminster Abbey.
With a larger-than-life figure like Thomas Cochrane for a husband – radical MP, eventual Earl of Dundonald, and contemporary of men such as Napoleon and Lord Nelson – it is understandable, though unfortunate, that Kate’s story had been subsumed within her husband’s colorful career. Now at last, she is figuring as the heroine of her own story – The Admiral’s Wife.
Narrative of Services in the Liberation of Chili, Peru and Brazil, from Spanish and Portuguese Domination, Volume 1, by Thomas Cochrane, Tenth Earl of Dundonald. The Project Gutenberg eBook.
Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander, David Cordingly. Bloomsbury USA, 2007.
Cochrane: The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain, Robert Harvey. Carroll & Graf, 2000.
Correspondence. GD233: Cochrane Family, Earls of Dundonald (Dundonald Muniments.) National Records of Scotland.
Carnton Plantation stands 20 miles south of Nashville. Its proportions are elegant, its gardens filled with rare varieties of heirloom flowers, and its wide porch is stately and inviting. Visitors can wander the rooms and gaze at family portraits, look in awe at the family silver enshrined in a glass case and stamped with elegant monograms, and climb the stairs that lead to rooms whose windows offer views of sweeping lawns and boxwood hedges.
The slave cabins stood in the back, alongside the woods. And in the opposite direction, you will find the largest military cemetery in private hands in the Unites States. Nearly 1,500 graves hold the remains of men who fought and died at the Battle of Franklin. They are Confederates.
I visited Carnton earlier this spring. It was not the first time I had come to the site, but I was back again with more questions and an uneasy curiosity.
Carnton had been home to Carrie McGavock, a local legend whose story gained a wider audience with the release of the New York Times bestseller, The Widow of the South. During the Battle of Franklin and for months afterward, Carnton served as a field hospital where hundreds of wounded and dying men either succumbed or made slow recovery. Bloodstains mark the floors of makeshift operating rooms set up in the childrens’ bedrooms – tracing them will show where piles of amputated limbs were likely stacked, or where the cans of ether had been placed for primitive anesthesia.
The story goes that Carrie tore her petticoats into bandages after the household linens had been depleted. She personally nursed casualties and after the war, she and her husband arranged for bodies to be interred on family land –a book containing handwritten records of the names and information for each man can still be seen.
The place has the feel of a shrine, and walking through it on that bright spring morning, I bristled. Our tour guide noted that most of the household slaves had been sent to the Deep South once the war started to prevent their running away to Union lines. The McGavocks wanted to “protect their investment.” Lives and labor could be owned and bought and sold – and even now, in 2016, this was explained in terms that would have been perfectly at home in 1865. It was a matter of finance, and not morality – and the fact that the moral side of it was never addressed during that talk hangs with me even now.
For in the story we were given, Carrie’s compassion extended only to those who looked like her, and not to those whose endless servitude made her existence possible. The lost cause of the South still controls the Carnton narrative, making Carrie a heroine and leaving the uncomfortable questions unasked.
I left Carnton that day unsettled, and that feeling stays with me now. What do we make of Carrie McGavock? What do we make of the teenage soldiers who died on her porch that cold November night? Slavery is a hideous institution. The racism that was used to justify it equally ugly. I wonder if I can see the people in the Carnton story apart from their cause. Can I separate “good” behavior – compassion on the suffering – from a “bad” motivation – supporting a war justified by bigotry and exploitation? Can an act be judged apart from its context? Can I even truly know what drove Carrie and her family and the soldiers whose pieces lay scattered across the grounds?
Grass grows over the graves and the McGavocks are long gone, but it is still Carrie’s story that drives the place. It is one we should know, but it is not the only one. And at least for me, it is not all of the truth.