Friday, 15 February 2013

The Innocent Imposture of the Pretend Princess

                    On the afternoon of Thursday April 3rd 1817, the overseer of the parish of Almondsbury, Gloucestershire brought a young woman to Knole Park, the home of the local magistrate, Samuel Worall Esq. She had wandered into one of the cottages in the village but no one could understand a word she said. Worall had a Greek valet, who spoke several languages, but he couldn’t understand her either. She was slim, not exactly pretty but there was intelligence in her dark eyes, she stood about five feet two inches tall, seemed about twenty-five years old, with black hair and neat, well-cared--for hands that seemed unaccustomed to hard work. She was dressed poorly but quaintly, in a black muslin dress, shawl and a sort of turban, she had a few coins in a pocket, a small piece of soap wrapped in linen and wore worsted stockings and black leather shoes. 

Princess Caraboo

Mrs Worall arranged for her maid and a footman to take the stranger to the village inn, where she was to be given food and a clean bed, but when she was taken into the room she made to lie down on the mat to sleep and had to be shown how to use the bed. Early on the next morning, Mrs Worall went to the inn and found the girl staring dejectedly into the fire but when she was shown some picture books, she became very excited in illustrations on China and the Chinese. Through pointing and repetition, Mrs Worall was made to understand that the girl’s name was Caraboo. 

Princess Caraboo

She was taken back to Knole and then to Bristol, where she was placed at St Peter’s Hospital but she refused all food and would only drink water. Mrs Worall took her back to Knole and eventually a gentleman who had travelled in the East managed to make some small communication with Caraboo. She was the daughter of a high-ranking Chinese father and a Malay mother, and had been kidnapped by a pirate called Chee-ming, who had sold her to the captain of a brig called the Tappa-Boo, who took her to Batavia where she was put on a ship to England, which was reached after eleven weeks at sea. 

She escaped from the abusive crew by jumping overboard and swimming ashore, where she swapped her embroidered silk dress for the dark clothes she was found wearing in a cottage with green painted doors, but she didn’t know where this was. She had wandered in England for six weeks before arriving at Almondsbury. Over the next ten weeks, more information was revealed; she preferred to eat rice and vegetables and refused meat, other than a bird which she killed and cooked herself, sprinkling its blood on the ground and covering it with earth. She fasted on Tuesdays, when she would make her way onto the roof and pray to the sun. She was never heard to utter a syllable that even slightly resembled a European word. 

The Wonder of the West - Caraboo

And then, on June 6th, she disappeared, taking nothing with her other than what she had been given. Mrs Worall eventually received word that Caraboo was in Bath, so she went there immediately and found her in the sitting room of a lady of high fashion, attended by servants and dressed in silks and feathers. The Princess of Javasu, as she was now called, returned again to Knole but the story of Caraboo had spread throughout the West of England. 

During the following week, a Mrs Neale sent word to Knole, claiming that the Princess had lodged with her at Bristol, and a wheel-wright’s son from Westbury arrived with the tale that he had seen Caraboo sitting at the roadside to Almondsbury, when a gentleman had taken pity on her and treated her to beefsteaks and rum and hot water in an inn. Mrs Worall took Caraboo to Bristol, on the pretence that she would have a portrait painted, but instead went to Mrs Neale and her daughter, who told her that they knew the Princess very well. When faced with the evidence, Caraboo broke down and the true story was revealed. 

The Princess of Javasu

Her name was Mary Baker, she had been born in 1791 at Witheridge, Dorsetshire, to poor parents, and she had spent her early summers weeding the cornfields and her early winters spinning wool. At sixteen, she went as a servant to a Mr Moon and stayed for two years, leaving when her request that her wages should be raised from ten pence to one shilling a week was refused. She ran away and made her way via Exeter, Bristol and Taunton to London, where she begged from door to door. She fell ill and was sent to St Giles Hospital, where a dissenting clergyman took pity on her and found her a position with Mrs Matthews, a strict Calvinist lady, who taught Mary to read. 

She stayed with Mrs Matthews for three years but following an argument about her behaviour, Mary ran away again and resolved to return to Devon, and spent years drifting with a variety of low-life characters. She married a sailor in London, and went with him to Brighton and Dover until she became pregnant, when he ran away and left her. The child was placed in the Foundlings’ Institution and Mary took a servant’s job nearby, visiting it every week until it died, whereupon she took up with a band of gypsies, telling fortunes, and eventually making her way back to Witheridge. 

Caraboo - A Narrative of a Singular Imposition - 1817

Mary Baker may have been an impostor but she hadn’t really done anything wrong – she never asked for anything, she did not steal anything, she didn’t take anything that wasn’t freely given. Her sole motivation, it appeared, was simply to be Caraboo. Her fame spread – the Earl of Cork and the Marquess of Salisbury had interviews with her, hearing her story and getting her to speak her ‘lingo’ and, undoubtedly, pressing a coin or two into her hand. A parody of the stanzas about Lochinvar (from Scott’s Marmion) was circulated, the first verse reading, 
Oh ! young Caraboo is come out of theWest, 
In Frenchified tatters the damsel is drest; 
And, save one pair of worsted, she stockings had none, 
She tramped half unshod, and she walked all alone: 
But how to bamboozle the doxy well knew; 
You ne'er heard of gypsey like young Caraboo.” 
Much sport was had in the popular press on the gullibility of the rural middle classes. Eventually it was decided that she would emigrate to America, and with Mrs Worall’s help she booked passage in the name of Burgess, her mother’s maiden name, on the Robert and Anne out of Bristol bound for Philadelphia. In 1824, Princess Caraboo was back in London and if you paid a shilling, you could visit her on New Bond Street, although the novelty had worn thin by then and there were few subscribers. She was later said to have made a living selling medicinal leeches to the Bristol Infirmary, to have remarried and borne a daughter, before she died in her seventies and was buried in an unmarked grave. 

Napoleon Bonaparte

There is an unsubstantiated rumour that when the Robert and Anne was sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, a storm forced it off course and so far south that it was close to the island of St Helena. Princess Caraboo took a boat and rowed herself ashore, where she met Napoleon Bonaparte, who was imprisoned there by the British following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. It is said that the exiled Emperor was so taken by the Princess of Javasu that he offered to divorce Maria Louisa and marry her instead.

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