Above: A plaque inside the church of St Mary, Rotherhithe.
This is a story about far-away islands and how remote it must have felt to be sailing around the world in the 18th century. It also concerns the East India Company whose large fleet of ships sailed to all parts of the world. The story arises because of an impressive memorial on the north wall of the church of St Mary Rotherhithe.
In 1782 three men – Captain Henry Wilson 1750-1810) from Rotherhithe, his son (also called Henry) and his brother Mathias Wilson – sailed out of Falmouth Harbour aboard the ‘Antelope’, owned by the East India Company. The voyage was a secret one, possibly the first voyage of an East India Company ship to round the Horn and cross the Pacific Ocean from east to west. They were carrying vital dispatches – messages for the Company’s agents at Canton, China, and wartime intelligence concerning the Company’s shipping operations.
Wilson reached China in 1783 after a voyage of nine months and, having delivered the dispatches, he headed for England on a course north of the Philippine Islands due to the start of the monsoon season. Less than three weeks after leaving China there was a violent storm on the night of 9 August 1783. The ‘Antelope’ was wrecked off what Captain Wilson called the Pelew Islands but only one man was drowned. The Captain and his men had saved themselves in two small boats. They took refuge on a nearby island called Ulong, spelt in English as ‘Oroolong’. They were found by the natives, whose chief was called Abba Thule. One of the ships’ party was a man from Macao and one of the Islanders came from Malay, so, by good fortune, the two parties could converse in Malay, using interpreters, thus establishing a friendly relationship.
The Pelew Islands are now called the Palaus, known by the islanders as the Republic of Belau. Papua New Guinea now encompasses this group of islands, one of which was Coo-Roo-Raa, about 600 miles north of Papua New Guinea and about 600 miles due east of Mindanao, in the Philippine Islands. The men were allowed to stay on the island of Ulong and they cut down trees to make a shelter. They also began to construct a vessel, which they called the ‘Oroolong’, to enable them to return to China. Abba Thule asked Wilson and his men to help in subduing rival islanders which he did by firing a few shots from his guns – the first guns these islanders had ever seen.
The men were well treated during their stay and quite enjoyed the island. They spent three months on the island and set sail, in November 1783, for China, a journey of just eighteen days. Just before they left, the King asked Captain Wilson to take his second son, Lee Boo, back with him to England. Having seen the Englishmen at work salvaging their wrecked ship and building a new one, the king was very impressed with their knowledge and was keen for his son to learn their many skills when back in England. Lee Boo was sea-sick on the voyage and had to be looked after by the ship’s surgeon.
The ship stayed at Macao and then at Canton. Lee Boo impressed everyone with his warm and friendly manner. There were many things he had never seen before – cows, sheep, goats and best of all the horse. He had never seen a mirror before and stood before it in amazement. The return journey to England took about six months. The ship arrived at Portsmouth on 14 July 1784. Lee Boo had studied English during the trip and was able to describe his ride by coach to London as “a little house which was run away with by horses”.
Captain Wilson took Lee Boo to stay in his home which was at Rotherhithe. Sadly, it was only a matter of weeks before Lee Boo caught smallpox and died on 27 December 1784, aged 20. His father, Abba Thule, did not learn of his son’s death until 1791.
On 29 December 1784 Prince Lee Boo was buried in a grave which is just to the left of the path leading to the door of St Mary, Rotherhithe. On top of the tomb is a long inscription ‘To the memory of Prince Lee Boo a native of the Pelew or Palos Islands and son to Abba Thulle Rupack or King of the Island Coo’roo’raa who departed this life on the 27 December 1784, aged 20 years. This stone is inscribed by the Honourable United East India Company as a testimony of esteem for the humane and kind treatment afforded by his father to the crew of their ship the Antelope, Capt Wilson which was wrecked off that island on the night of the 9th August 1783.’
Below the inscription are the lines
‘Stop reader. Stop. Let nature claim a tear.
A prince of mine LEE BOO lies buried here.’
Captain Wilson retired to Colyton, Devon, near Axminster, where he died on 11 May 1810, aged 70 and was buried at the parish church.
That should be the end of the story but there is more. In 1984 a commemoration service was held to mark the 200th anniversary of Lee Boo’s death, to which some of the Islanders came. A gingko tree has been planted beside the tomb in the churchyard.
Inside the church is a plaque on the wall, whose photograph is shown at the top of this article. The memorial was placed inside the church in 1892 and reads
‘In the adjacent churchyard lies the body of Prince Lee Boo, Son of Abba Thule, Rupack or King of the Island of Coorooraa, one of the Pelew or Palos islands who departed this life at the house of Captain Henry Wilson in Paradise Row in this Parish on the 27th day of December, 1784 aged 20 years. This tablet is erected by the Secretary of State for India in Council to keep alive the memory of the humane treatment shewn by the natives to the crew of the Honourable East India Company’s ship Antelope which was wrecked off the island of Coorooraa on the 9th August 1783. The barbarous people showed us no little kindness. Acts XXVII, 2’
Prince Lee Boo is known to the people of Rotherhithe simply as the ‘Black Prince’ – because he was black. Since in English history there is a member of the royal family (the builder of Kennington Palace and resident there) who also acquired that name, be warned, they are two separate people! In their own way, both deserve a place in the history of London.