In 1817, Princess Caraboo’s story captivated the British public. She told a dramatic tale of her capture by pirates, and how they had stolen her away from her home on Javasu, an island in the Indian Ocean. After some time at sea, she managed to jump ship in the Bristol Channel and swim ashore. For ten weeks, the princess was an exotic curiosity and her story an instant sensation. An artist, Edward Bird, was commissioned to paint her portrait.
Princess Caraboo by Edward Bird
Bristol Museums & Art Gallery
If you're thinking that Princess Caraboo’s story sounds far-fetched, you'd be right! The truth was much different. The princess was Mary Wilcocks, a 25-year-old cobbler’s daughter and former servant from Witheridge in Devon. Eccentric and always given to telling tall tales, Mary turned out to be a highly skilled impostor. She was only caught because her description appeared in the newspapers, and a former landlady recognised her.
Before her portrait had been completed, Mary had been exposed as a fraud, but Edward Bird finished it anyway. It is held in the collection of the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
In the newspapers, after being unmasked, her name was given as Mary Baker. She had, a year or so earlier, supposedly married a foreign man whose name she suggested was Bakerstendht or Beckerstein, but he had left her. In a letter to her parents, dated 1 July 1816 and written from London, Mary had told them her husband was John Edward Francis Baker, of Norwich. To others, she told different stories. What does appear to be true is that she had a son who died in the Foundling Hospital.
Mary wasn't prosecuted but instead put on board a ship leaving Bristol for Philadelphia, listed as Mary Burgess, her mother's maiden name. Just over a decade later, Mary (still using Burgess as her surname) was back in England, where she married a man named Richard Baker.
If you’d like to read all about Mary, an account of her life and deception was published in 1817 and can be read for free here.
Cover image: A picturesque voyage to India, by the way of China / by Thomas Daniell, R.A., and William Daniell, A.R.A, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.