Less than two months after discovering this picture in the blissful air-conditioned cool of the Etpison Museum in Palau’s main town of Koror, I stood by a south London graveside, teeth chattering in the bitter cold despite my hat, scarf, gloves and multiple layers. The two settings couldn’t be further apart, geographically or in any other sense, yet a common story links the back streets of Rotherhithe on the south bank of the Thames with the tiny tropical Pacific island of Palau. That link is Prince Lee Boo.
As so often with a good 18th century adventure, the story begins with a shipwreck. It was 1783 and Captain Henry Wilson and the crew of the East India Company vessel The Antelope found themselves stranded on the small island of Ulong, part of what we now know as Palau. The Antelope had been wrecked on the reef and the men soon set about rebuilding their ship so that they could set sail for Britain.
Captain Wilson and the local chief, Abbe Thulle, quickly struck up a good relationship, mainly on account of Wilson’s men assisting the chief in overpowering his rivals and gaining control of all the neighbouring islands. Abbe Thulle watched the Englishmen building their boat and was so impressed with their skill and craftsmanship that he asked them to take his second son, Lee Boo, with them on their return voyage. The chief wanted Lee Boo to learn the skills that he had been observing before returning to Palau on Wilson’s next Pacific trip.
Lee Boo learned much during his big adventure across the oceans and by the time he reached London in 1784 he had made many friends and admirers. As a 20 year old young man he was accepted into Captain Wilson’s family home in Paradise Row in Rotherhithe, studied at the local academy and attended regular services at St Mary’s Church. He even met with the poet George Keates who spoke highly of Lee Boo’s academic and social skills.
The story ended all too briefly for Lee Boo as he succumbed to small pox, the biggest killer of the time, in December 1784 – barely five months after his arrival in London. He was buried in the courtyard of St Mary’s Church within a stone’s throw of the Thames and his grave stands there still.
The inscription reads:
“To the memory of
Prince Lee Boo,
a native of the Pelew or Palaos Islands
and Son of Abba Thulle,
Rupack or King of the Island Cooroora,
Who departed this Life
on the 27th 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,
Captain Wilson, which was
Wrecked off that island on the
Night of 9th August 1783.
Stop, reader, Stop!
Let Nature Claim a tear.
A prince of Mine, Lee Boo,
Lies Buried Here.”
Having read about the story in the museum in Palau I was determined to find the grave of this young man who died far from home, probably on a similar bitterly cold day in his first winter away from the endless heat and humidity of his native island. While I was satisfying my own curiosity I had also promised to come here as a result of meeting a thoroughly modern descendant of Prince Lee Boo while out on a snorkelling excursion.
The young lad, who went by the rather cool name of Fonzie, was the guide on our trip to Palau’s famous Jellyfish Lake and as he got chatting to us he revealed a strong desire to come to England. It’s quite common to hear young men mention such a dream but it’s usually linked to wanting to watch a Man United or Liverpool game. In Fonzie’s case, he told us he wanted to visit his distant illustrious relative’s grave in London; having read about Prince Lee Boo the day before I knew immediately who he was talking about.
Fonzie, if by some chance you read this, I hope you make it over here one day and have the chance to stand by Prince Lee Boo’s peaceful resting place.