ROYALS ON HORSEBACK:
A watercolour depicting the visit by Prince George and Prince Albert to the West Indies in 1880.
There was an unlikely moment in Trinidad's 19th century history when an old African man born before Emancipation and an Indian woman who came to replace him in the fields caught the eye of the future King of England.
It happened on an unnamed street in San Fernando the morning of January 30, 1880.
Prince George was travelling through the town on his way to check out the Ste Madeleine sugar works that helped fund his family's kingdom when, he says, these two peasants chased after him.
They would hand the Prince some treasured possessions, — a silver bangle and a “knobbed stick”, and his entourage stowed away the items.
It would later be recorded that the old man's stick, having travelled around the world on His Majesty's ship, was presented to the Queen and kept at her favourite castle in England...forevermore.
At least that's the story as told by Prince George in his travelogue before he became King. Whether there is truth to it, well, we decided to find out.
It meant searching through 100-year-old inventories, digging up some old photographs, and making contact with those in charge of archiving the thousands of things the Monarchy had been gifted, stolen or plundered from its colonies over the years.
And when that search attempt was exhausted, we made the trip over to the United Kingdom's Isle of Wight in search of – a stick.
The future King George V, and his brother Prince Albert.
Here's what we discovered: In 1877, the two grandsons of Great Britain's Queen Victoria joined the Royal Navy as cadets.
Two years later, dad decided it was time for his boys Prince Albert Victor and Prince George to push off on a cruise to see the world, learn the art of seamanship, visit the colonies and consider the might of a British Empire that one of them would later rule over.
So as midshipmen, and against the wishes of the Cabinet and their grandmother worried they would drown in a sinking, the Monarchy's future set off on the HMS Bacchante, and spent three years globe-trotting.
Among the first places to be visited was the British West Indies, where the brothers, 15 and 17 years old at the time, did us the eternal favour of taking careful and copious notes of their travels around Trinidad and elsewhere.
The diary entries would later be compiled by their tutor, Rev John Dalton, in two volumes titled The Cruise of the HMS Bacchante 1879-1882.
And in these pages, we get a description, albeit through the eyes and experiences of the pampered, of the island's people and places so many years ago.
And while much has changed since that visit, it looks like some had been shamelessly chasing after celebrity even then.
Everywhere the princes went — by horse, train, tram, carriage, steam ship — their subjects were sure to follow. The princes wrote:
All the negroes and coolies of the villages on the road had hung out flags and made arches of crotons, bamboos and hibiscus (a trumpet-shaped crimson flower), and stepped out in twos or threes to offer oranges or other trifles to us both as we rode along.
But it's their trip to San Fernando, arriving by boat after a lime in La Brea, that appeared to have stirred a particularly raucous crowd of town and country folk, who lined the road as their royal highnesses were carried along by horse-drawn carriage, to catch a tram to the Ste Madeleine sugar works and then on to the place that would come to be known as Princes Town.
There are no known images of the ordinary folk. The royal photographer apparently liked to takes photos of landscape and buildings.
But the princes would record this January visit thusly: “Left the ship at 9.30 a.m. in the Arthur (Turnbull's steamer), which has been placed at our disposal, and landed at the pier of San Fernando a large party of officers from the ship; drove up through the town, which was all alive with negroes and coolies, men, women, and children, animals, and green decorations, to the tramway station. Up the hill thither many of the negroes and coolies ran after and alongside the carriage in which were the Governor (Henry Irving) and ourselves, and cheered us all enthusiastically and indiscriminately. One coolie woman, when unable any longer to keep up with us, fell behind most regretfully, and, prompted by the sudden impulse of offering something, took off the silver bangle she was wearing and threw it into the carriage. It made a very good ornament to a walking-stick. Another old negro, white-headed, came running with a curious knobbed stick which he had had fifty years, and wished it to be taken to England in his memory. It was so, and, 'given to the Queen,' is now stowed in the Swiss Cottage with other curiosities at Osborne.”
The HMS Bacchante covered more than 40,000 miles during its voyages to the Mediterranean, West Indies, South America, South Africa, Australia, China and Japan.
A trove of trinkets
And when the fleet pulled into Portsmouth, England, in August 1882 (Queen Victoria was there waiting) the princes brought along tourist trinkets of the time — photographs, paintings, weaponry, jewels, some orchids in Port of Spain and bird nests from Caroni of all places.
“When crossing the Caroni river noticed the mangrove-trees with their curious roots standing out from the mud, and then past a lofty tree on the left, from which dangled several orioles' nests like pouches, each more than a yard in length, and which on returning we took home with us. Walked with Mr Prestoe through the Botanical Gardens and chose some orchids to be sent to Sandringham, including one called Spirito Santo, the flower of which is exactly like a dove, and another, called the Lady's Slipper, very pretty.”
But it's a curious “stick” handed to George and Albert in the town of San Fernando that is of interest here. Is it possible that the “knobbed stick” really did make it to Swiss Cottage at Osborne House 137 years ago?
Was it in fact a poui wood “bois” used in the stick fight dating to the time of slavery, the ultimate symbol of resistance banned that very year?
Osborne House is on the Isle of Wight, completed in 1851, and the summer home of Queen Victoria, across from Portsmouth, where the HMS Bacchante would have arrived on its return to England. On the compound is the Swiss Cottage, built for the Royal children, and the place where they would store the objects and specimens collected on their travels.
No trace of gift
The Brits are known for their meticulous documentation, so we check the Royal Collection Trust, which has digitised and made available much of what the royals accumulated over the years. There are literally thousands of “sticks” (what else could you give people who already had everything?) but inventory of walking sticks done in 1936 makes no mention anything from Trinidad.
So we made contact with the Osborne House archivist, who agreed to check the inventory of the Museum in Swiss Cottage dating to 1904.
Sorry, there were no Trinidadian sticks listed, said the curator who suggested that the use of the word “curious” in the diary entry suggests a Trinidadian-style work of art.
The collection of walking sticks in the Prince Consort's Room
But what about the collection of 19th century walking sticks that ended up in an umbrella rack in room used by the Queen's husband at Osborne House? Could one be the old man's stick? Nope, said the curator, it's European.
Last August, the Express took a trip over to the Isle of Wight, with the intention of viewing the collection. Long story short – you can't just walk into the room and check out things. The Swiss Cottage and some part of Osborne House are open to the public. This room is not.
“Of course, it's not impossible that a Trinidadian would re-present a European visitor with a European object, but it would be very unusual. Even so, there are no Trinidadian walking sticks in the collection today,” we were told by the trust.
And that is where we must leave it, until someone else digs deeper and turns up something different.
Source: Richard Charan, Trinidad Express April 2017
The collection of walking sticks in the Prince Consort's Room
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