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18 June 2014
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Myths and Legends
Bristol’s Princess Caraboo

Fantasy

Mary invented her past and present as she went along so it is not easy to separate fact from fiction in her life story. For instance she said that whilst walking back from London to Devon, disguised as a man for safety, she was kidnapped by highwaymen on Salisbury Plain. When they discovered she was a girl they were ready to shoot her as a police spy, but she begged for her life and was released.

She also claimed to have been married to a man named Baker who left her and went abroad.
Princess Caraboo
Princess Caraboo, Princess of Javasu, alias Mary Baker, (detail) MEYER, Henry after BIRD, Edward 1762-1819
© Copyright Bristol Museums & Art Gallery
She certainly gave birth to a son in February 1816 who died in the Foundling Hospital, an institution for receiving and caring for abandoned children, on 27 October of that year.

She said she spent Christmas of 1816 in France, and in February 1817 arrived in Devon by coach – an expensive way of travelling, so she must have had money from somewhere. However, no one knew where. She told her parents that her baby had died and she was coming to say goodbye before she sailed from Bristol for the Indies.

After 10 days at home she sent her trunk on ahead, but rather than going north to Bristol, she ended up begging on the road to Plymouth, in the opposite direction, and apparently, staying with gypsies. She left them and headed back through Exeter to Bristol, where she arrived on 10th March.

She was then looking for a ship to take her to Philadelphia, and found one that was to leave in 15 days; the only problem was that it would cost her £5, which she would have to raise herself. She found lodgings in a house belonging to a Mrs. Neale, and went out during the day begging in the streets with another girl. It was after noticing the attention that French lace-makers from Normandy received wearing high lace headdresses, that Mary decided to use her black shawl as a turban to make her look more interesting.

Words: Brian Haughton

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