Prince Lee Boo and Rotherhithe
Prince Lee Boo was born in one of the Pacific Islands and is buried in St Mary's churchyard. When he lived the world was still being discovered, and the Pacific Islands were no easy exercise for an explorer of that time. The Islands themselves are very difficult to plot and even more difficult to sail around.
"None but a seaman can realise how terrible was the sound of the waves breaking on the coral reef, mingling with the shouting of operations our dangerous situation made necessary."
The story of how a Pacific Island prince came to be buried at St Mary's begins in September 1782, when three Rotherhithe men sailed out of Falmouth aboard the East India Company's packet the Antelope. They were, in addition to Captain Wilson his son Henry and his brother Mathias. Theirs was a secret voyage, perhaps the first voyage of an East India Company Ship to round the Horn and cross the Pacific from east to west.
Less than three weeks after departing the coast of China, on the stormy night of 9th August 1783, The Antelope, was blown off course was wrecked on the reefs of a group of islands Captain Wilson named the "Pelews". Later these became known as the Palau Islands and more recently, the Republic of Belau.
Carving from Belau, depicting the wrecked sailors and their island hosts
Although he lost his ship, Captain Wilson and all but one of his men saved themselves by using the ships two boats and an improvised raft to traverse the reef. They took refuge on Ulong, (which the English spelled Oroolong), a nearby island which was at that time uninhabited. It was in the southern portion of a chain of islands ruled by chiefs whose highest-ranking member was titled Ibedul. The English came to know the chief as Abba Thulle. Two of Abba Thulle's brothers were among the first to visit the shipwrecked Englishmen. They had with them a Malay, and, by good fortune, Captain Wilson had with him a man from Macao who could converse with the Malayan. Thus communication was possible from the very beginning and a friendly relationship was initiated.
It was soon agreed that Oroolong could be regarded as a sanctuary for the men of the Antelope, and that trees on the island could be felled for the construction of a vessel in which they could return to China. After a visit from Abba Thulle, whom the English regarded as a King, it was requested that in exchange for this hospitality the English would help in subduing rival island villagers who were causing problems for the king.
With their firearms, the English were able to assist the king's forces without suffering any casualties themselves and with very little loss to the king. Captain Wilson, busy on Oroolong overseeing the construction of the vessel, did not participate. The few men he sent to accompany the king's expeditions were able to quell the "enemy" with a few well aimed shots.
Abba Thulle often visited the Englishmen's shipyard on Oroolong bringing food, without which the men of the Antelope might not have survived. In so doing he had the opportunity to observe Captain Wilson and his men at work. He had seen the English sawing felled trees into timbers. He had seen wood salvaged from the Antelope applied as planking for the new vessel and the Antelope's boom converted into a mast. He had observed the Englishmen using their tools: the grindstone, the forge, bellows and anvil. He had seen the cooper at work skilfully repairing water casks. Perhaps because Abba Thulle was an expert wood carver himself and carried an adze on his shoulder, almost as a badge of honour, he greatly admired the craftsmanship and the diligence of the English. He explained to the Captain that he was humbled by what he had seen; that, in short, he hoped his son could learn what the English knew and requested that his second son, Lee Boo, travel with them and become an Englishman.
When the English were ready to launch their vessel, she was named the Oroolong. This was at the suggestion of the king who gave them paint and had his artisans paint and decorate her in the local manner. Upon departure, and after tearful farewells, the Pelew islanders surrounded the Oroolong in their canoes and offered more food than could be carried, pleading, "take only this from me - only this from me."
The voyage to China took just eighteen days. Lee Boo was seasick at first and perhaps a little homesick too. But he was well cared for by the ship's surgeon, Mr Sharp, and Captain Wilson gave him a sailor's outfit that he could wear to protect himself from the cool November weather. By the time the Oroolong reached Macao, Lee Boo had tied several knots in the cord he carried, with him as a kind of journal on which to record those things he wanted to remember to tell his father when he returned to Pelew.
At Macao, and then at Canton, Lee Boo received his grounding in things European. He saw, for example, his first mirror and stood transfixed, viewing himself as if by magic. He was shown his first cows, sheep, goats and, best of all, a horse that he could ride even though it refused his gift of an orange!Â Lee Boo in turn won the admiration of the men of many ships by his skill at throwing a spear. But, more than anything else, he endeared himself to his companions and to all who met him by his warm and friendly manner and the sincere regard he expressed for the Englishmen he came to know.
Lee Boo in England
After the long voyage to England aboard the company's Indiaman, the Morse, the ship arrived at Portsmouth on 14 July 1784. By then Lee Boo was already able to provide his own description of his ride by coach to London saying that he had been put into "a little house which was run away with by horses - that he slept, but still was going on: and whilst he went one way, the fields, houses, and trees, all went another.
Upon arrival in London Lee Boo was taken to the home of Captain Wilson in Paradise Row in Rotherhithe.Here he was given his own bed-chamber and lived with the Wilsons as one of the family. He went with them to church services at St Mary's here; it was said he understood the intent of the people at prayer even if he did not comprehend all that he saw.
During his visit to England Lee Boo met with the London poet George Keates and witnessed Vincenzo Lunardi's first balloon flight. For most of the five months and thirteen days that Lee Boo spent in England he attended school at an academy in Rotherhithe, where according to Keate's " his application was equal to his great desire of learning; and he conducted himself there with such propriety, and in a manner so engaging, that he gained not only the esteem of the gentleman under whose tuition he was placed, but also the affection of his young companions."
In mid-December of 1784 it was discovered that Lee Boo had the smallpox. Captain Wilson called in Dr James Carmichael Smyth, who was later appointed "Physician extra-ordinary to the King". But even so Lee Boo could not be saved from the illness that claimed more lives in London at that time than any other disease.
Before he died on 27 December, Lee Boo spoke to his surgeon friend from the voyage of the Oroolong, Mr Sharp. "Good Friend, when you go to Pelew, tell Abba Thulle that Lee Boo take much drink to make smallpox go away, but he die: that the Captain and Mother very kind - all English very good men; was much sorry he could not speak to the King (his father) the number of fine things the English had got."
Lee Boo was buried where he now lies - in the churchyard to the left of the entrance to St Mary's, in Captain Wilson's family grave. The entry in the parish register for 29 December 1784, reads: Prince Lee Boo buried from Captain Wilson's Paradise Row 20 (The "20" refers to his age.)
In 1892 a memorial plaque was placed in St Mary's to keep alive the memory of Lee Boo and the people of Pelew who, under their "Rupack or King", showed "no little kindness" in their treatment of the men of the Antelope.
Finally in 1912, the London County Council accepted a recommendation from the them Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey and renamed that portion of Neptune Street that lay closest to St Mary's "Rupack Street". Thus in symbolism at least, Lee Boo is not alone in London, and Rotherhithe has not forgotten that distant royal family who earned a place in British history.
Captain Wilson died at the age of 70 years and was buried at Colyton, Devonshire in 1810.
Commemorative stamp issue:-