Princess Caraboo of Javasu

If you are worried that your knowledge of geography is lacking because you don’t know where Javasu is, don’t be concerned.  It’s completely made up.  It is the product of an elaborate fiction of a young woman in 19th century England.  This is the amazing story of a girl who faked her way to royalty and how she almost got away with it.

On the evening of April 3, 1817, a strange young woman appeared at the cottage of the local cobbler in the small village of Almondsbury near Bristol.  She indicated to the cobbler’s wife she wanted to sleep there and wandered in uninvited and laid down on the sofa.  The young woman was dressed strangely in a black dress and turban with all her possessions wrapped in a small bundle.  She was a petite young woman in her early twenties and was extremely attractive with dark hair and eyes.  Strangely, she seemed to not understand anything that was said to her and responded in a tongue no one understood.  Not knowing what to do, the cobbler’s wife went to Knole Park, the home of Samuel Worrall, the Magistrate of the County.  It was known that one of the Worrall’s servants spoke many languages, so they hoped that possibly he could understand her.  Unfortunately, none of the languages he tried could be understood by the young lady.  They took her to the local inn and put her up for the night, then took her to St. Peter’s Hospital for the poor and vagrant.  No one could understand her and she could understand no one.  She refused to eat and would not sleep.  Mrs. Worrall naturally pitied the young woman, and removed her from the hospital and took her home to Knole Park.  She figured out through mime that the young lady’s name was Caraboo.

Two weeks later, a Portuguese traveler recently returned from Malaysia heard of the story of Caraboo and paid a visit to the Worrall’s.  He met the young lady and claimed he understood her language.  He chatted animatedly with Caraboo and her story came out.  Caraboo was the daughter of a Chinese noble and a Malaysian mother living in a beautiful mansion on the island of Javasu.  Her mother had been murdered by cannibals when Caraboo was young, and Caraboo was in turn kidnapped from her garden by the evil pirate, Chee-min.  Her father swam after the pirate’s boat and she fought the pirates, but it was to no avail even though their combined efforts killed two of the men.  Caraboo was sold as a slave to another sea captain who was making for England.  When the vessel she was on hit Bristol Channel, she decided to swim for it.  When she made land, she wandered for six weeks until being taken in by the Worrals.  The enchanted Mrs. Worrall proclaimed her a princess and gave her every comfort.  She stayed with them for two months and regaled them with tales of her life in Javasu and the exotic customs and language.  As time passed, the stories got more and more theatrical and her fame spread.  Caraboo would elaborately pray to her god “Allah Tallah” before eating and swim naked in the lake.  People flocked to see her.

The notoriety seemed to be too much, and Caraboo left the Worrall’s and traveled to Bath.  However, while she was there someone recognized her.  A woman named Mrs. Neale recognized a description of Caraboo as a young woman who had been a servant at her house.  There she had entertained the children of the house by speaking a nonsense language that sounded a lot like the one Caraboo was speaking.  Mrs. Neale identified Caraboo as Mary Baker, the daughter of a cobbler in Witheridge, Devonshire.  Caraboo had been exposed.

Reluctantly, the entire story came out, and it was no less outlandish than the one she made up.  Young Mary had left home to be servant at the age of 16, but left when she was not given a raise.  Bouncing from job to job, she ended up on the streets begging.  Making her way to London, she found a job as a maid with a wealthy family, but eventually lost that job as well.  From there, she cut her hair short and worked as a man ending up in a highwayman’s gang.  However, she was a terrible robber as she couldn’t fire a pistol, and they kicked her out.  Mary bounced around a few more times until she married and had a baby son, who she gave up for adoption because she could not care for him.  She went back to take possession of her son a few years later, and found he had died in an orphanage.  Mary attempted to gain passage to America by pretending to be a foreigner, and that was how she landed with the Worralls.  No one is sure this is really the truth, but her name at least was corroborated by her very confused father.  He said that Mary had not been “right in her mind” since a bout of rheumatic fever at age 15.  It had been easy for Mary to make up the character of Caraboo as people would show her pictures in books of other cultures not realizing she could read the text.  She would pick and choose the bits she liked and repeat them back.

Instead of becoming a pariah, Mary was held up as a working class hero who pulled the wool over the eyes of the aristocracy.  Mrs. Worrall paid for her passage to America as she was still charmed by Mary.  There were claims that before she left Europe she ran into Napoleon, who begged her to be his bride and join him in exile on St. Helena.  The story was passed around so often, it’s been enshrined as fact.  She made it to Philadelphia and put on a show at the Washington Hall.  She appeared as “Princess Caraboo” and danced and spoke in her own language.  Unfortunately, Americans did not flock to see the show and it was considered a disaster.  She attempted to give more shows both in America and England, but the interest was not there.  Mary ended her life selling leeches to the Infirmary Hospital in Bristol.  She died on Christmas Eve 1864 at the edge of 75.  She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Hebron Road cemetery in Bristol.  A quiet end for the princess of Javasu.


Eclipses- Historical Harbingers

Total solar eclipse Photo Credit- By I, Luc Viatour

If you’ve been anywhere near the news, you would have seen that a solar eclipse happened in the continental United States yesterday.  I have to admit it was a pretty amazing experience as I was lucky enough to be in the path of totality.  As the sky went dark and the crickets started chirping, I thought about what it must have been like for those in the past.  They didn’t have the benefit of NASA and other scientists telling us that this was normal, the Sun would come back and to wear protective glasses.  How did people through the ages deal with eclipses?

One of the first references we have of an eclipse is from a series of circular and spiral shaped petroglyphs at the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument in County Meath, Ireland.  This is near the passage tomb of New Grange, which is also from around the same time.  (For more on New Grange, please see this post )  These date back to around 3340 BCE, and scientists have calculated that a solar eclipse occurred on November 30, 3340 BCE.  According to Irish archaeoastronomer Paul Griffin, the monument was in the path of totality, meaning the entire solar disc was obscured.  Decoding the carvings on the rock, Griffin was able to deduce they were recording the eclipse, making it one of the first records of such an event.  Inside the monument, the charred remains of 48 humans were found.  It has been hypothesized this was a human sacrifice to “bring back” the Sun from the underworld.  

The Chinese and Babylonian cultures began to predict eclipses with high accuracy.  The Babylonians believed an eclipse was an evil omen for the ruler.  The Chinese believed the Sun was being eaten by a large dragon during an eclipse.  An ancient book of documents called the Shu Ching, described the eclipse in October 22, 2134 BCE.  The emperor charged two astronomers, Hsi and Ho, to predict the eclipse so archers could be stationed to defend the Sun from the dragon.  Unfortunately for Hsi and Ho, they got massively drunk and failed to alert the warriors and were beheaded for dereliction of duty.  Similar mythology describing the Sun as being stolen is found around the world, but it was not always a dragon to blame.  The Vietnamese people believed the Sun was being eaten by a giant frog, and the Norse people blamed a wolf.  In Korea, they believed dogs were stealing the Sun.  Because of this, many cultures gathered together to bang drums or even pots and pans to scare away whatever was trying to steal or eat the Sun.

On the other side of the world, the Inuits believed the Sun goddess Malina walked away after a fight with her brother Anningan, the Moon god.  An eclipse happened when Annigan caught up with his sister.  The Pomo, another Native American tribe, believed a bear got into a fight with the Sun and took a bite out of it. The bear was apparently hungry and went on to take a bite out of the moon two weeks later, explaining why there is a lunar eclipse usually two weeks after a solar one.  In the Africa, the Batammaliba tribe in Benin and Togo, believed the Sun and the moon were at war and the only way to keep them from permanently damaging each other was to end human conflicts.

Eclipse Icon at Loughcrew 3340 BCE Photo Credit-

The ancient Greeks also believed that an eclipse was an omen of evil tidings.  Historian Herodotus tells of an eclipse on May 28, 585 BCE that prompted a cease fire between the Lydians and the Medes.   In the middle of the Battle of Halys, the sky turned dark and the battling armies took this as a sign the gods wanted them to stop.  A truce was negotiated and the battle was renamed the Battle of the Eclipse.  Another eclipse changed the course of Greek history.  At the height of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and eclipse occurred on August 27, 413 BCE.  At that time, the Athenians were attempting to dislodge the Syracusans from Sicily.  Their commander, Nicias, was extremely superstitious and postponed the fleet’s departure because of the eclipse.  This gave the Syracusans enough time to stage another attack in which the Athenians were defeated.  This marks the beginning of the decline of Athenian dominance in the region.

The Christian gospels tell of the sky darkening during the day at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Some archaeoastronomers believe that Jesus’ death coincided with a solar eclipse and have tried to use this to pinpoint the exact date.  There are historical records of solar eclipses in the year 29 and 32, but no one has proof of which date is correct.  Following along with the bad omen belief, another solar eclipse affected the life of Louis the Pious.  He was the third son of Charlemagne and inherited the Holy Roman Empire.  It is reported he witnessed the eclipse on May 5, 840 and was convinced it was a warning of impending punishment from God and died of fright soon after.  This plunged the kingdom into civil war for three years.  There was also said to be an eclipse right before the death of Henry I of England on August 2, 1133, which reinforced the superstition that eclipses were bad omens for rulers.  The solar eclipses on January 8, 1777 and again on June 24, 1778 was bad news for George III.  The one in 1777 proceeded the American victories at Trenton and Princeton, and the one in 1778 proceeded the victory of the Americans at the Battle of Monmouth.

Despite the beliefs and myths, the ancients were able to use information about eclipses to further scientific knowledge.  Aristotle observed the shadow of the Earth on the moon was curved and hypothesized the Earth was round.  Another Greek astronomer named Aristarchus used a lunar eclipse to estimate the distance of the Moon and Sun from the Earth.  Yet other astronomers observed the existence of the Sun’s corona during a total solar eclipse.  Astronomers Liu Hsiang, Plutarch and Leo Diaconus were pioneers in eclipse data.  However, it was not until 1605 that Johannes Kepler gave a scientific description of a total solar eclipse.  The first In modern times, Sir Arthur Eddington tested Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  During the May 29, 19191 solar eclipse he confirmed that starlight bent around the Sun by measuring the position of certain stars.  This was predicted by Einstein’s theory that massive objects caused distortions in space and time.

We no longer have the same superstitions about eclipses, but it is thought to be a time of change.  A nice way to put it is ending patterns that do not serve and beginning new healthy ones.  Enjoy the skies in good health and good spirits!


The Peasants Revolt

Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

The Black Death had swept through England taking out great swaths of the population with terrifying efficiency.  The only silver lining to be found in this great expanse of death is that it left the survivors in the possession of more wealth and power than their forebearers.  Men who had been scratching a living, suddenly became village elites with a bit of money and property as all the other heirs were carried off with plague.  Labor for the harvests was scarce and food was scarcer, so those willing to toil were able to charge a wage and not be tied to land as defined by feudal law.  However, the lords were not on board with that as you can imagine, dear reader.  The Statute of Labor was passed in 1351, which attempted to put wages back to 1346 levels and keep the peasants on their land where they belonged.  The landlords then took the opportunity to start raising the rents on the lands the peasants were once again tied to.  To make matters worse, many peasants were required to work for free on church land, sometimes up to two days a week.  There was a rumbling of discontent.

In the years following the Black Death, both King Edward III and his heir, the Black Prince, died leaving Edward’s grandson, Richard to take the throne.  He was only ten years old when he was crowned.  Because of his young age, most decisions were made by the barons, in particular Richard’s uncle, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.  (For more on John of Gaunt, please see this post: ).  More taxes were raised ostensibly for the Hundred Years War in France.  However, those in the villages of England feared the third Poll Tax passed in 1380 was really to line the pockets of John of Gaunt and the ruling party in Westminster.  The grumbling grew louder until it boiled over into rebellion.  

In the village of Fobbing in Essex, a tax collector arrived to see why no one had paid their poll tax.  He was thrown out on his ear.  The next month, soldiers appeared to enforce law and order and they were thrown out.  The villagers of Fobbing were joined by those in neighboring villages and they began to form a movement.  At Maidstone, they freed a radical priest there named John Ball, who had been imprisoned in Maidstone Castle by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Ball preached the radical sermon which carried the catchphrase of the revolution:  “While Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”  They marched on Canterbury, and after relieving the rich pilgrims of their wealth elected a new Archbishop, a humble monk.  At this point a new name comes to the fore- Wat Tyler.  We don’t know much about him, except that he was able to give the rebels new purpose and hold their cause together. He and Ball suggested they take their case to the king and bypass the thieving nobles. And if the king did not listen…well, they would have to do what they must.  With that, the peasant army turned and marched on London leaving a path of burning tax records, labor duties and manor houses in their wake.

An army of between 5,000 and 10,000 peasants camped on the hills of Blackheath within sight of the spires of London on June 12, 1381.  They were convinced they had justice on their side and the king would see reason once he was free of his evil counselors.  Unfortunately, they lost the moralistic high ground when they marched into London the next day.  They invaded Southwark and freed the prisoners at Marshalsea prison.  From there they crossed London Bridge and torched John of Gaunt’s London home, Savoy Palace.  Everything of value was destroyed or looted.  The king and his counselors retreated to the Tower, the strongest fortress in London, and watched the destruction.  Soon the Tower was under siege from the Peasant Army.  Simon of Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor was not so lucky.  He was seized and executed.  One historian describes the scene:

“In the Chapel of St John the shouting rabble came upon the Archbishop, Sir Robert Hales, the Lord Treasurer, John of Gaunt’s physician, and John Legge who had devised the poll tax. They were all at prayer before the altar. Dragged away from the chapel, down the steps and out of the gates onto Tower Hill, where traitors were executed, they were beheaded one after the other. Their heads were stuck on pikes and carried in triumph around the city.”

Fleet prison was opened and the prisoners there were freed as well.  Foreigners were murdered with thirty-five Flemish merchants were beheaded one after another on the same block.  It was bedlam.

15th-century representation of the cleric John Ball encouraging the rebels; Wat Tyler is shown in red, front left

Although Richard was only 14, he was unafraid to deal with the rebels.  He agreed to meet with the leaders at Smithfield, an open space within the city walls.  The meeting was extraordinary.  Tyler rode over to the king with in the royal party and bowed after getting off his horse.  Then shook the king’s hand and called him “brother”.  The king asked him why they did not go home, and Tyler gave a loud curse and began listing off demands.  The demands were nothing short of revolutionary.  The abolishment of serfdom, liquidation of the lands of the Church and all men equal except under the king and a general pardon for all the peasants.  Surprisingly, Richard agreed and Tyler was taken aback.  Maybe Richard was bluffing, maybe Tyler didn’t think it would be that easy, but it was certainly unexpected.  Tyler called for ale, quaffed it then got back on his horse.  A young squire shouted at Tyler he was a thief, and that was the cue for everything to break down.  The mayor of London attempted to arrest Tyler and they came to blows, and Tyler went down.  He was killed by the king’s men out of view of the rebels.  Now what?

Richard took control and saved a terrible situation.  He rode straight at the rebels, declaring, “You shall have no captain but me.”  This played on the rebels loyalty to the crown and saved their skins after the killing of Tyler.  However, the words were deliberately ambiguous.  The rebels took it as Richard taking their side, but what it ended up being was the beginning of the reassertion of royal authority.  They all followed Richard into London thinking they would get their pardons, while Mayor Woolworth high tailed it back to London and raised troops to quash the rebellion.  A week later when Richard met with another group of rebels in Essex and his tone was decidedly different.  He berated them for their pretension to be equal with lords and told them “you will not remain in bondage as you were before, but incomparably harsher.”

Soon anyone in possession of such a pardon was marked for death as a traitor.  In Kent, 1500 peasants were sent to the gallows and in Hertfordshire and Essex 500 were killed.  However, despite the nominal victory of the land owners, the lords were running scared. The attempts to move the wage levels backward and raise poll taxes ended.  Serfdom died out, and the Peasant’s Revolt marks the breakdown of the feudal system.


The Dreadnought Hoax

Virginia Woolf, left, and the Bloomsbury group hoaxers. Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos for the Observer

The Bloomsbury Group were a band of influential intellectuals who bummed around Bloomsbury, London during the first half of the 20th century.  Some of the members include Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey.  According to historian Ian Ousby, “although its members denied being a group in any formal sense, they were united by an abiding belief in the importance of the arts”.  They also perpetrated one of the biggest pranks in British Military History.

I guess they were sitting around bored one afternoon in 1910 when Horace de Vere Cole got the bright idea to see if they could prank the British Navy.  He sent a telegram to the HMS Dreadnought telling the crew to expect some foreign dignitaries from North Africa.  At that time the HMS Dreadnought was the jewel in the crown of the British Navy.  Six of the Bloomsbury Group appeared in outlandish costume on February 7, 1910 at Paddington station where they received a VIP coach to the peer at Portland Harbor.  They were in black face with fake beards and robes claiming to be a delegation of Abyssinian princes  The group included Duncan Grant, Woolf’s brother Adrian Stephen, Anthony Buxton, Guy Ridley, and Horace de Vere Cole, the instigator.  They were met by the Commander-in-Chief of the Dreadnought with all ceremony and pomp befitting their station, and all the sailors standing at attention on deck.

The Commander himself gave the delegation a tour of the ship, and the “Abyssinians” were much amazed muttering “Bunga, Bunga!” at each new marvel.  In reality, the group spoke in heavily accented Latin, mostly quoting the Aeneid, and plain old gibberish.  There was a tense moment when Buxton sneezed and almost lost his fake beard, but they were able to pull it off.  Virginia Wolfe’s cousin was one of the naval officers on the ship, but did not recognize her under the black face and fake beard.  The company was invited to dine with the officers, but they declined through Adrian Stephen who was acting as interpreter.  In reality, they were afraid the food would smear their make up.  They left to the sounds of God Save the King.

Cole then sent a picture of the group and a three page account of the prank to the Daily Mirror.  By February 12, the newspapers were full of the story and the Navy had a lot of egg on its face. He described it as:

“It was glorious! Shriekingly funny – I nearly howled when introducing the four princes to the admiral and then to the captain, for I made their names up in the train, but I forgot which was which, and introduced them under various names, but it did not matter!  They were tremendously polite and nice – couldn’t have been nicer: one almost regretted the outrage on their hospitality.”

Sailors were greeted with cries of “Bunga! Bunga!” and one newspaper suggested the Dreadnought change its name to the Abyssinian.  The ship was immediately sent out to sea until the story blew over.  The Navy was howling for the group to be arrested, but they had technically broken no laws.  


Dorothy Lawrence-  The Woman in the Trenches

Lawrence in 1915 in her soldier’s disguise. Photo Credit- By Unknown –

History is full of women who disguised themselves and fought along their menfolk for causes they believed in.  A prime example are the women who inspired the legend of Molly Pitcher during the American Revolution.  (For more on this, please see this post: )  According to historian, Elizabeth Shipton, many women made it to the front line as nurses in the trenches or helping those wounded in No Man’s Land.  Some women took up arms and called “she soldiers”, but they had to operate in secret.  Dorothy Lawrence was one of these.  She disguised herself as a man and fought in the trenches along with the men.  

Dorothy was born in Hendon, North London around the late 1880s.  Some sources put her birth as late as 1895.  Not much is known her parents except that she was probably born to an unwed mother.  Her mother died when Dorothy was around 13 or 14, and she was taken in by a guardian of the Church of England.  In her autobiography, Sapper Dorothy, she describes him as very respected, and said if he would not approve her later shenanigans.   She mused,

‘if my highly respectable guardian, living in that dear old Cathedral city, could see me now, they would have forty fits.’  

Dorothy later accused this guardian of sexual abuse, but these allegations were not investigated or taken seriously.

As a young woman, she was attempting to make a living as a journalist in London.  A few of her articles were published by The Times, but she had had no real success.  When World War I broke out in 1914, she was living in Paris and was determined to cover the war from the trenches.  She was laughed out of the office.  She tried to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment, but was rejected. In desperation she tried to walk to the war zone and was arrested by French Police in Senlis.  Dorothy decided to change her tactics.  Befriending two soldiers on leave, whom she referred to as her “khaki accomplices”, she convinced them to smuggle her a uniform by stealing pieces from the army laundry.  Dorothy tried on her ill-gotten gains, and found her figure gave her away as a woman.  She used a homemade corset to flatten her chest and cotton wool padding to broaden her shoulders.  Her two soldier friends cut her hair very short and darkened her skin with Condy’s fluid, usually used as furniture cleaner..  They even had her shave to get a razor burn on her cheeks.  Then they taught her to drill and march with the best of them.  Complete with fake identity papers, Private Denis Smith of the First Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment was ready to report for duty.

Dorothy Lawrence Photo Credit-,

Dorothy cycled to the Somme as her ill fitting uniform got caught in the bike and her fake tan rolled down her face with the rivulets of sweat.  On the way she met sapper Tom Dunn.  A sapper, also called a pioneer or combat engineer, is responsible for breaching, demolitions, bridge-building and the laying and clearing of minefields.  Field defences, road and airfield construction and repair also fell within their purview.  As a former coal miner, Dunn was being used as a tunnel expert.  He became one of her “khaki accomplices” after she admitted who she was and asked for his help.  Dunn helped set her up with a hiding place, an abandoned cottage she called her “private barracks”.  Dunn shared his rations with Dorothy and Dorothy worked alongside him as a sapper with the 179 Company troop.  They laid mines under fire and shrapnel in No Man’s Land and under the German trenches.  Most days she was only 400 yards away from the German lines.

However, after two weeks the high stress, constant fire and poor food and water took their toll  Dorothy became ill and started having fainting fits.  Afraid her illness would inadvertently reveal her identity and get her friends in trouble, she turned herself into the commanding sergeant and told him the whole story.  She was sent to Third Army headquarters in Calais and was closely questioned by three generals.  At first she was treated as a prisoner of war, as high command was shocked a woman could infiltrate that far into the lines.  They were initially afraid she was a German spy.  From Calais she was taken to Saint-Omer, and went before a judge.  He was afraid her story could possibly reveal sensitive information or inspire other women to sneak over and become soldiers.  He had her confined to Convent de Bon Pasteur in France until after the Battle of Loos, and was made to swear she would not write about her experiences, which had to be a blow as that was the entire purpose of why she did this.

On the way back to London, fate took a hand.  Dorothy traveled on the same ferry as noted suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst.  Pankhurst took an interest in Dorothy’s story and at her behest, Dorothy spoke at a suffragette meeting.  Dorothy tried to write articles on her experiences, but the War Office invoked the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act to scrap the project.  Eventually she wrote a book in 1919 called Sapper Dorothy Lawrence:  The Only English Woman Soldier.  Even though the war was over, the book was still heavily censored by the War Office.  It was not a commercial success.

Eventually, Dorothy’s mental health deteriorated and she was committed to London County Mental Hospital at Hanwell.  Later she was permanently institutionalized at Colney Hatch Lunatic asylum in Friern Barnet, where she died in 1964.  She is buried in a pauper’s grave in new Southgate Cemetery.   A sad end for such a brave woman.