top of page

Unexpected Hero Rises Above His History

Updated: Aug 5, 2023

When I was writing Nelson’s Lost Son I had a moment, best described as ‘serendipitous’. One of the heroes in my novel is a former slave called John Jefferson. As sometimes happens to a writer, he emerged from the ether to become one of the leading characters in my Novel.

Image: The Slave Ship by J. M. W. Turner. Turner was inspired to paint this picture after reading about the Zong massacre, in which a captain of a slave ship ordered 133 slaves to be thrown overboard in 1781 so that insurance payments could be collected.

From Plymouth to Africa

At the start of the novel, Josiah Nisbet, Nelson’s Step Son and my ancestor, is working at the Plymouth Dockyard as an undercover agent for The Admiral, Earl St Vincent. The Admiral was dedicated to rooting out corruption and as Josiah set about on his dangerous mission, he discovered the dangers were not the ones he expected. The results of the ‘witch hunt’, based on historical fact, were bad news for the Royal Navy, but not in the way anyone expected. It left the Navy short of ships when the war with Napoleon recommenced. In my novel, Josiah’s dilemma on how to handle these unwelcome findings to the people in power, leads to him being “shanghaied” to a ship - which later turns out to be a slaver.

A Revolt Leads to a Pivotal Friendship

Josiah becomes a valued member of the crew and is called on to deal with a revolt below decks. The possibility of horrendous slaughter is prevented after a successful negotiation between Josiah and a representative of the enslaved Africans. This is John Jefferson and he speaks English with an American drawl.

The imaginary figure is a former slave of Thomas Jefferson – he of the Declaration of Independence and future President.

My character, like many other enslaved people took the surname of their “owner.”Like many others - perhaps as many as fifty thousand – he escaped the plantation and accepted the King’s Shilling during the Revolutionary War in return for his freedom. In my story John leaves New York for Nova Scotia and freedom after the British surrender.

It is a fact of history that Americans tried to recover their “property” from the departing British. The terms of the surrender included a proviso that the British restore property they had taken or destroyed, but the British General supervising the evacuation, said he “would be damned if his soldiers were to be re-enslaved by the Americans” and shipped them to Canada. History records that among the many planters who demanded the return of escaped slaves were two distinguished American leaders – Washington and Jefferson. John Jefferson is loosely modelled on what we know of “Harry Washington.”

Light and Dark

Writing these novels has led me to examine America during and after the Revolution. The new United States was a compound of the light and dark, contradicting popularly held myths that it was all “good”. They say the victor always writes the history. There are various theories on why the United States not only maintained slavery but expanded it greatly in the eighty years after the Revolution – despite the words in the Declaration of Independence. The virtue of the American Republic was thus stained – from the beginning.

In my novel Josiah and John unite in battles of war and wits against both the English and the French to try to build a brighter future for their new island home. Historical fiction can play a small part in both helping to remember the stains of the past and the unlikely heroes who tried to rise above them.

For more information on the controversy surrounding Thomas Jefferson and slavery, see the website of his Plantation Mansion Monticello, a World Heritage Site, open to the public (pictured above):

To enjoy John Jefferson in action, get your copy of Nelson’s Lost Son from your favourite online store – see options at:

Find about more about the backstory - Join me for a delicious lunch at one of Sydney’s glorious historic gems on Monday August 28. I will be sharing some of my research and insights into the disappearance of British naval hero Horatio Nelson’s estranged son and their Caribbean naval adventures at the next literary lunch at the Royal Automobile Club of Australia (RACA) in Sydney. More details at:

17 views0 comments


bottom of page