As a writer, your travels through the reams of literature takes you on a fantastic journey. Some stories stick in your mind while we consign others to the cerebral waste bin.
I recently stumbled across a story so unbelievably fantastic, I had to double check and recheck the provenance of the story and low and behold; the story is not only true, but the story is also near to where I live in the UK; how is it after fifty times around the sun? This is the first time I’m hearing about it?
Princess Caraboo has become my new hero.
On the morning of 1817, a cobbler in the market town of Almondsbury was going about his chores when a dishevelled young woman was shuffling past his store. Concerned for the woman’s safety, he ushered her indoors. She was dressed odd for the time, and her ankles exposed, wearing only sandals and a loosely fitted dress which was well made but not de-rigour of the day.
‘Where have you come from, child?’ the old cobbler asked; nothing, no reply. Her face was vacant, her eyes inquisitive and yet kind, but she couldn’t understand a word the old man said. The cobbler, not knowing what to do with such poor thing counselled his wife; she took her by the hand to the Overseer of the Poor. A man who held office to make sure no one in the town starved to death by clothing and paying for the basics such as food and lodgings. It was a government-funded program in which its origins are circa 1597. This waif wasn’t your regular poor person. Often, people like this were then handed to the workhouse, where they became a cog in a Dickensian world of abuse and slavery, but the Overseer wasn’t so sure what to do either. This vulnerable person was clearly not an English woman. Only the magistrate had the autonomy to judge things such as these. The Overseer took the young woman to the magistrate, a Samuel Worrell, who was the stately homeowner of Knole Park in the suburbs of Bristol, a city built of the profits of slavery.
Worrell wasn’t your average Etonian landowner looking down on the masses. He was a well-travelled man and had the fortune of marrying an aristocrat from America called Elizabeth.
Worrell, also a gentleman, didn’t want the triviality of having to deal with the details of this vulnerable woman and left the woman in the care of his wife.
Elizabeth tried to communicate with the woman and, like every other person she had encountered; nothing.
Elizabeth gave a caveat to the woman, ‘I am from a position of privilege, it would be in your best interest to make a friend of me, I can give you food, clothing and money if that’s what you need and all I require is the truth. Wrong me and I must tell you, my husband has the power to place you in jail,’ the strange woman offered no emotional tell this. She sat there mesmerised by her surroundings, appearing to not understand the tone of the conversation.
The stately couple took pity on her and allowed her to stay in the house for ten weeks, having determined she called herself Caraboo and had a fascination with anything Chinese in the house, as though she understood what she was seeing. In the house was a painting of a pineapple. Pointing at it, she would say ‘nanas,’ which was a known word for pineapple in some Indonesian dialects.
Staff at the house started keeping a vocabulary of the woman. Her language seemed consistent. Once, Caraboo overheard the house staff whispering, ‘let’s watch her sleep one night, see if she speaks English in her sleep.’
That night, Caraboo pretended to sleep and started saying words in her language, cementing her mysticism.
They gave Princess Caraboo the run of the house and she spent most of her time in the library, reading. This was a novelty in the 1800s, as they considered books a luxury and only for the privileged.
They would also see the princess swimming naked in the estate’s lake; woman of the time didn’t swim, let alone be seen naked, and this would have been something strange to see. Caraboo was a dab hand at culling wildlife with a bow and arrow. One day she curried a pigeon. Curry, something the British hadn’t had the pleasure of in the 1800s. She also prayed to a different God, called Allah-Talla, a form of Islam.
Caraboo also held odd scarring from what appeared to be primitive surgical operations.
Mr Worrell came across a sailor in the city of Bristol. A Portuguese man called Manuel Eynesso. Eynesso had travelled the world, spending much of the time in Asia and could speak many languages. He was brought to the estate, introduced to the princess, and they had a conversation in the princess’s own tongue.
Princess Caraboo was from the small island of Javasu, where she was a princess. Pirates had come to the island and raided the village, taking members of her tribe.
She had travelled the world with the pirates, finally making an escape, jumping overboard into the Bristol sound, and swimming to shore. Where she happened in the village where she met the cobbler.
They sent the language she used to academic houses in Bristol and the nearby city of Bath. The text of her language even made to the professors of Oxford, using Edmund Fry’s Pantographia, confirming it was a Javanese language. The Royal College of Surgeons verified the strange surgical scars as something you find in China.
The story of the mystic Princess Caraboo was written about in the local papers, eventually making the national papers. People took a deep interest, so fantastic was this story. With a drawing and an accurate description of the woman, a boarding housekeeper by the name of Mrs. Neale recognised the picture in the paper in the market town of Witheridge in Devon. Princess Caraboo was none other than a cobbler’s daughter by the name of Mary Willcocks from Witheridge, a servant girl who had been down on her luck with her life.
Caraboo, or Mary Wilcox, was then arrested. Her explanation of things was she developed her language from Romani words, creating this exotic character. The scarring was done via a cupping operation while she was in the poorhouse in London.
After Princess Caraboo had been exposed, the press vilified the middle classes for being so stupid. It was here Mrs. Worrell took pity on the poor girl and offered her passage to the Americas, Philadelphia.
The press in America waited for this duplicitous woman to arrive in the States. She never got off that boat.
There’s an anecdotal story which I discovered but can’t verify to the origins, and if this is true, this is where Mary Wilcox’s genius truly shines through.
13th September 1817, a letter was printed in the Bristol Gazette from Sir Hudson-Lowe, the governor of St Helena. A tiny island of the British Empire which was used for the incarceration of the disgraced Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The ship which contained the beautiful Princess Caraboo drifted close to the island by a storm and the woman jumped into a small boat and cut herself free from the ship, winding up on the island and meeting with Napoleon. It fascinated Napoleon with the woman; he wrote to the Pope for a special dispensation in order to marry this woman.
Here, the trail runs cold. Wilcox travelled the State as Princess Caraboo with little success. The appetite for her escapades didn’t really appeal to the developing America elite.
She wrote to the Worrell’s complaining about her notoriety while living in New York.
On returning to the UK, she tried in vain to act on her pseudonym with little success. The world had moved on somewhat industrially. The world was changing rapidly and finally settling in a Bedminster in Bristol. Here she ran a moderately successful business selling leaches to the Bristol Infirmary, now the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Marrying a man called Richard Baker. They had one child, Mary Ann.
Mary Wilcox died on the 24th December 1864 and was buried in the Hebron Cemetery in Bedminster. Her daughter carried on the business and only living with a house full of cats, passing away a spinster.
How Mary kept this secret for such a long time, creating an entirely fictitious character, conning everyone, even the learned and revered of the time. No wonder the press took these people to task. And what of the sailor? Did she confide in him and told him about the con? And swimming in the Bristol Channel, a stretch of water so dangerous.
I love people who, against all odds, turn the tide of favour in their terms, of course, hurting no one in the process.
My next trip to Bristol, I will visit Hebron cemetery and find the headstone of Mary Wilcox and lay a bouquet of flowers and thank her for the fabulous story which bequeaths her.