10 Historical Figures Who Ought to Have a Musical Written About Them

Some historical figures deserve attention because of the incredible things that they achieved, whether that was for a single invention or flash of inspiration, or a lifetime of achievement. Others merit attention simply because they lived fascinating lives, even if ultimately all they contributed to the world was a good story. And some people manage to combine both.
The writer of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, decided to write the musical after reading a biography of Alexander Hamilton in which he was, “swept up by the story. I thought it ‘out-Dickens’ Dickens in the unlikeliness of this man’s rise from his humble beginnings in Nevis in the Caribbean, to changing, helping shape our young nation.” There are plenty more historical figures out there with life stories as unlikely, as inspiring, and as fascinating. Here are ten more astonishing historical figures whose stories would be remarkable on stage.

1. Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)

“I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.”

There can be few biographies as inspirational and moving as Harriet Tubman’s. Born a slave in Maryland, even her year of birth is only a best guess. She endured tremendous hardship including witnessing her mother’s struggle to keep their family together. By 1849, she was married, her master had died and she was in danger of being sold away from her husband and family. She escaped to Pennsylvania, but soon returned to rescue her family and another 50 or 60 other slaves as well in thirteen expeditions, any one of which could have cost her her life.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, she used the skills gained from rescuing slaves to act as a scout and a spy, leading an armed assault that saved over 750 slaves. In later years she faced financial difficulties, but was supported by well-wishers who knew of her remarkable deeds.

2. Aphra Behn (1640-1689)

“Each moment of the happy lover’s hour is worth an age of dull and common life.”

Aphra Behn came from a humble background, the daughter of a barber and a wet-nurse, and much of the detail of her early life is lost – it may well be that she obscured it deliberately. She was an ardent monarchist and supporter of the Stuart line, and by 1666 she had married, left her husband and become a spy for Charles II in Antwerp during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. But Charles failed to pay her for her efforts, and returning to London she became a scribe for different theatre companies to make ends meet.
It soon became clear that she had literary talents of her own beyond transcribing the works of others. She began writing plays that captured the public mood in the turbulent times of the late 17th century: comic, satirical, racy and political by turn. Her unusual status as a professional female writer and advocate of gender and racial equality made her a celebrity, and her 18 plays made her one the era’s foremost playwrights.

3. Dr James Barry (1789-1865)

“I had been intimately acquainted with the doctor for good many years, both in London and the West Indies and I never had any suspicion that Dr Barry was a woman.”

James Barry lived a full and varied life that would be of interest even were it not for his remarkable secret. Living as a woman until the age of 18, he then enrolled at Edinburgh University under his uncle’s name. Given his height and high-pitched voice, the university suspected him of being much younger than he claimed to be, but with pressure applied by Barry’s powerful friends, allowed him to sit the examination for Medicine all the same.
He graduated as a doctor in 1812, and went on to practise as an army doctor across the British Empire in the Cape, Canada, St Helena, and Trinidad and Tobago. He had quite a reputation: as a doctor he was skilled and patient, but in his personal life he had a reputation as a seducer of women and as bad-tempered and violent towards men. He was often teased about his high-pitched voice and his height, and on more than one occasion challenged his tormentor to a duel. It was only on his death that it was discovered that he was biologically female, though his death certificate, written by a friend and colleague, respected his wishes by identifying him as a man.

4. Ching Shih (1775-1844)

“The Terror of South China”

Ching Shih’s life has featured in films, graphic novels and TV shows – but to our knowledge, never yet in a musical. That seems like a pity, because imagine a set trying to represent the force of a fleet of 20,000-40,000 pirates in over 300 ships. That was the fleet commanded by pirate queen Ching Shih. She had married the pirate Cheng I in 1801, and following his death six years later, drew on the support of her husband’s family and her own keen political skills to take over leadership of his fleet.
Ching Shih was not just an admiral to her fleet. She instituted her own form of government over her pirates, imposing a code of laws and collecting taxes. She was particularly strict when it came to the good treatment of female captives, requiring that any man who married a female captive be faithful to her. Her control was so fierce that the Chinese government, unable to defeat her, offered amnesty instead. By 1810, clashes with the Portuguese navy had brought her fleet close to defeat, so she accepted the amnesty – and kept her loot.

5. Alfred the Great (849-899)

“I desired to live worthily as long as I lived, and to leave after my life, to the men who should come after me, the memory of me in good works.”

The only English king to earn the title of ‘the Great’, Alfred was king of Wessex from 871 to his death. During that time, he watched as every Anglo-Saxon kingdom but his fell to the Vikings – then reformed the military, inflicted crushing defeats on his Viking foes, and enabling the signing of a peace that enlarged his kingdom but allowed the Vikings space to settle as well.
It’s for these military successes that Alfred is best known. But his passion was not for war; he was much more concerned about promoting education, making the legal system more just, and above all living up to the moral commands of his Christian faith. In particular he promoted education in English – rather than Latin – so that it could be more easily accessible to a wider group of people, to undo the damage to the education system done by Viking raids. His own personal translations are still read today.

6. Benjamin Lay (1682-1759)

“The Quaker Comet”

A dwarf, Quaker, vegetarian and eccentric, Benjamin Lay is most notable now for his impassioned opposition to slavery at a time when the abolition movement had barely begun. Having grown up in England where – though people profited from slavery – slaves themselves were rare, he was horrified by what he saw on living in Barbados and later in Pennsylvania.
He was particularly revolted by his fellow Quakers owning slaves, and used eye-catching stunts to make his point, such as addressing a meeting while holding a book secretly filled with red berry juice, then stabbing it with his sword so that juice gushed down his arm, saying, “Thus shall God shed the blood of those persons who enslave their fellow creatures.” On another occasion he temporarily kidnapped the child of slave-owners to demonstrate to them the experience of slaves who had their children taken from them. Such activities made him unpopular, but on his deathbed he was told that a group of Quakers had taken up his cause of abolition; he replied, “I can now die in peace.”

7. Nakano Takeko (1847-1868)

“I am proud of what I am and what I do which is fight for my country.”

Though she lived to be just 21, Nakano Takeko is still remembered today with a procession in the annual Aizu Autumn Festival. She was a rare example of a fully trained female warrior at the time of the Boshin War, a civil war in Japan between the Tokugawa shogunate and the imperial Meiji government. At the time when Nakano was fighting, the shogunate had very nearly lost, the shogun having already surrendered; her region, Aizu, was the last to hold out.
Nakano led a desperate last stand at the Battle of Aizu at the head of a group of 20 women warriors called the Joshitai – including her mother and 16-year-old sister – who had been barred from fighting with the main force on the grounds of their gender. She killed five enemies before taking a bullet to the chest. Her dying wish was for her sister to cut off her head so that the opposing forces could not take it as a trophy.

8. Subutai (1175-1248)

“I will ward off your enemies as felt cloth protects one from the wind.”

The military exploits of Genghis Khan led to the creation of the Mongol Empire, the second-largest empire in history, covering a sixth of the area of the globe. But Genghis didn’t achieve his feats alone. He had his ‘dogs of war’ – his chief lieutenants – of which the most renowned was his military strategist Subutai. The son of a blacksmith, he devised strategies at a level of complexity and sophistication that wouldn’t be seen again until the First World War. Despite the difficulty of communicating over distance at the time, he led a campaign in which his troops defeated the armies of Hungary and Poland within two days of each other, with armies over 300 miles apart.
Unlike many commanders of the time, Subutai valued the lives of his troops, taking measures to minimise casualties. He used scouts and spies, and a particular feature of his strategy was luring his enemy in to believing he had made a mistake – and then springing a trap.

9. Constance Markievicz (1868-1927)

“Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”

Coming from a life of privilege, Irish independence fighter Constance Markievicz made for an unlikely revolutionary. When she initially became involved in Irish nationalist politics, Markievicz came to her first meeting direct from a party, wearing a satin ball gown and a tiara. A passionate supporter of Irish independence, socialism and universal suffrage, she was unafraid of taking violent action and facing the consequences; she was sent to jail in 1911 for her role in a protest against George V visiting Ireland. In the Easter Rising, the most significant failed attempt at violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland, she helped set up barricades and was in the thick of the fighting. She was sentenced to death but given mercy because she was a woman. In the end, she spent just a year in prison before being released in a general amnesty.
But it was not only as a freedom fighter that Markievicz was noteworthy. She followed violent struggle with a political career: she was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons (though as a Sinn Fein MP, she didn’t take her seat) and then the first female Irish cabinet minister; the world’s first democratically elected woman cabinet minister.

10. Boudicca (30-61)

“On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory.”

Boudicca, queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe, is a romanticised figure. Much of what we know of her comes from the undoubtedly embroidered and biased writing of the Roman historian Tacitus – but the picture he paints is a remarkable one. Boudicca’s husband Prasutagus was an ally of Rome, and in his Will left his kingdom jointly to his daughters, and to the Roman emperor. But the Romans chose to ignore his wishes, took the property of Boudicca and her daughters, drove their people from their homes, flogged Boudicca and raped her daughters.
According to Tacitus, Boudicca’s aim was not restitution, but revenge. She raised an army and first destroyed the city of Camulodunum (now Colchester) then went onwards to Londinium (now London) and burned the newly-founded settlement to the ground, then to Verulamium (now St Albans), which was similarly destroyed. By then her army had grown to some tens of thousands – the exact numbers are unknown – and the Romans finally mustered forces to defeat her. She led the rebels from her chariot with her daughters by her side, but the Romans were superior fighters despite lesser numbers and Boudicca’s forces were vanquished. The manner and location of her death is lost to history.

Image credit: Harriet Tubman; Aphra Behn; James Barry; Ching Shih; Alfred the Great; Benjamin Lay; Nakano Takeko; Subutai; Constance Markievicz; Boudicca; Hamilton cast.