Vanessa Riley’s ‘Island Queen’ Is the Powerful, Fictional Retelling of the Life of Dorothy Thomas
There are queens born and there are queens made. In Island Queen, Vanessa Riley tells the story of a real-life, self-made queen of the highest order: Dorothy Kirwan Thomas.
Born into slavery, the daughter of a slave and a plantation owner, Dorothy was barely five years old when she was first introduced to the darker side of life, as the British fought the French on the island of Monserrat for power, as friends died wounded right on the floor of her and her mother’s hut, as bombs exploded in the distance, as her own half-brother’s verbal, physical and sexual abuse promised a life of misery, Dolly, as she liked to be called, swore to defy the odds of her birth.
With one goal in mind, simply to buy her mother’s, her sister’s, and her own freedom, Dolly begins life as a merchant before she’s even 12 years old, buying and selling artifacts at a small profit in order to save up for her family’s manumissions.
When her half-brother, Nicholas, the racist son of her white Irish father, sexually abuses her, impregnates her, and threatens to sell her sister off, a friend and neighboring plantation owner, John Cells, steps up and helps her not only to buy her sister back but also to get away to his plantation in Demerara. Away from her father’s plantation, leaving her mother and newborn daughter behind, taking only her sister with her, Dolly wastes no time getting right back to her plans for freedom. Dolly still tries to buy and sell products, but now she also trains housemaids for other landowners and even undergoes a brief stint selling herself in a brothel – mostly spurred on by the hatred of what Nicholas did with her body. Dolly is a woman of a one-track mind and not the color of her skin or the circumstances of her birth can stop her from going after what she wants.
In Demerara, Dolly works for Cells as well as for a neighboring landowner, Mr. Foden, who takes a liking to her. When she’s old enough, she begins a romance with Cells, who adores her but has dreams of power of his own. As he leaves for England, leaving her behind with their children, Dolly wastes no tears as she moves on to Dominica, where she settles her whole family and opens her first store. It’s there in Dominica that Dolly claims her freedom with the help of a small inheritance that Mr. Foden leaves her, along with the paperwork she needs to prove she paid him her manumission. Soon after moving there, she meets the ship captain Joseph Thomas, embarking on an on-again, off-again romance until he, too, leaves the islands to chase after his dreams.
Strong-willed and unbreakable, Dolly travels across the Caribbean sea, breaking hearts — including that of the future King William IV of England — and enlarging her family and her entrepreneurial empire, eventually owning a hotel in Grenada.
She acquires her own plantation and buys slaves of her own with the idea of saving them from other cruel slave owners. At least, under her jurisdiction, they would be well taken care of and treated with the human dignity they deserve.
In Island Queen, Riley does the story of this majestic figure justice and then some. Dedicated and precise, her depiction of Dolly’s life leaves no unexplored aspects as we witness the hardships of slavery, racism, gender inequality, rape, postpartum depression, abandonment, the never-ending chasing of dreams, and the shattering of glass ceilings. Dolly overcomes every obstacle with admirable fortitude. Though standing at 557 pages, Island Queen is an engaging, compelling, and easy read — Riley at every moment ensuring that the prose remains captivating but never overpowering Dolly’s own story. It will have you turning page after page, as Dolly achieves literally the impossible, growing with such power that she arrives even at the offices of Lord Bathurst in London to plead with him to overturn the unjust taxation imposed on free women of color in Demerara.
I don’t know why I’d never heard of such a formidable female figure in history before, but I thank Riley for her interest in her, her vision, as well as the people who provided her with the platform to tell us about Dorothy. Island Queen is a story that is more than just engaging and inspiring – it is necessary, especially in this day and age. It is the story of not just a woman who defied the limits imposed on her gender, but who also defied the limits imposed on her race. While our shelves have always been proudly filled with volumes covering iconic women from Joan of Arc to Catherine the Great, Island Queen will be a much-treasured addition as Dorothy Thomas makes a claim for her place in history just as she claimed her righteous place in the world when she was alive.
Dorothy Kirwan Thomas was a queen in all her right, not by blood but by her fierce determination — a true inspirational icon to be revered and admired.