When you think about Blacks throughout history, the narrative is usually African kings and queens or slaves in America.
Vanessa Riley’s new book “Island Queen” shows another narrative of Black wealth during the Georgian and Regency era (1750 – 1830). Riley’s new book is about the life of a Black woman, Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, a free woman who rose from slavery to become a powerful landowner in the colonial West Indies.
Inspired by a sketch cartoon that was originally printed in Rambler Magazine in 1788 of Prince William Henry (future King William IV) and an unidentified Black woman, Riley looks into the story behind this rare and unique photo. After six years of research, Riley was able to tell this story, a story that demonstrates how Thomas defeated all stereotypes, as she was very famous, powerful, and influential during her time.
Thomas’ will is even archived in the United Kingdom according to Riley.
Riley, and Atlanta native, has a doctorate in mechanical engineering and a master’s in industrial engineering, and wants people to understand Black history, to know that there is a whole world of accomplishments that Blacks have made that people simply just do not know about. Riley has been writing Regency romances for years and hopes that in her 22nd book people will learn about the history that has been missed and stories that have not been told. Growing up as a child, she loved math and writing.
“I loved to write growing up. My father would tell me stories about Trinidad where he is from,” Riley said. “Dorothy Kirwan Thomas was important, but she is not in the history books. Women in history are not recorded the same way as men. You rarely find documents about Blacks. People should read this book because it’s going to present the history you should know.”
Thomas was born a slave, but she was a self-taught businesswoman who saved money to free herself and her family. It took Thomas 14 years to pay for herself, her mother, and her children’s freedom. During this time, the world was in chaos according to Riley, as everybody was searching for freedom.
The sugar trade in the West Indies was running the world, according to Riley. Thomas dealt with racism, enslavement, marriage, politics, taxation, and women’s rights. She was a business-minded woman who struggled with functional illiteracy and would go from doing business in the West Indies to mingling with London’s elite.
“Sugar changed the world. People needed a free labor force. People were fighting for freedom, but were denying people like Thomas freedom,” Riley said. “Thomas had the ‘it’ factor. She had people’s attention and she commanded attention. I would love to have her courage and boldness when it came to business. She made it happen by focusing on her dreams. I dedicate this book to every little Black girl who has been told no.”
Riley started as a writer with humble beginnings, as she use to self-publish her books. Today, publishers and even production companies are knocking on her door.
“Longboat Productions is very interested in this story,” Riley said. “I am currently in talks with the production company for them to do a television series of the book. Adjoa Andoh is set to be the Executive Producer for the TV series.”
Riley is currently touring her book and working on her next book “Sister, Mother, Warrior,” which is due to be released next summer. “Island Queen is available everywhere for purchase. For more information, visit VanessaRiley.com.