Times Past: Prince William Henry

Graham Norton recalls the British prince whose high spirits caused a stir from one end of the Caribbean to the other

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Princess Margaret has been heard to divide Britain’s royal family into stern Saxe-Coburgs or scandalous, pleasure-loving Guelphs.

The Guelphs were the Hanoverians, who came over from Germany, bringing their mistresses with them (one was usually not enough) at the death of Queen Anne, to occupy the British throne. The eldest son was always called George; hence our Caribbean Georgetowns (in Guyana, the Caymans and Great Exuma in The Bahamas) and forts (Tobago’s Fort King George, Trinidad’s Fort George). Their long-suffering queens are also on our maps: Charlotte Town in Dominica, Fort Charlotte in St Vincent.

George III, Charlotte’s husband, was unique among the kings of his line in remaining faithful to his wife. But, like another exemplary couple nearer our own time, they had terrible trouble with their children. Their sons kept mistresses from their teens, often preferring older women.

One of them, Prince William Henry, later the Duke of Clarence and King William IV, sowed some of his plentiful wild oats in the West Indies in 1786-7. In Barbados, Prince William Henry Street is named after him; in Antigua, Clarence House, the staid summer residence of the Governor General, was built for him, and was used for drunken dinner parties and sexual assignations.

William, George’s third son, joined the navy in 1779 at the age of 13. By 20, he had his first command — the frigate HMS Pegasus, of 28 guns — and sailed to the Caribbean: Jamaica, then Barbados, St Vincent, Dominica and Antigua.

“I have been in a constant round of dissipation from my first arrival in the West Indies,” he wrote to a friend. To his eldest brother George, he wrote a frank description of a wound incurred in amatory action “in my pursuit of the dames de couleures” (the ship’s surgeon was treating him with mercury). Off Dominica, the Prince met HMS Boreas, flying the streaming pennant of the Leeward Islands Station’s senior officer, Captain Horatio Nelson. Together they sailed to English Harbour in Antigua, where Nelson had recently finished a love affair with a married Englishwoman and was now wooing an elegant young widow, Fanny Nisbet of Nevis. Doting on Nelson as the model of a brave officer, William insisted on giving Fanny away at her marriage to Nelson at Montpelier House on March 11, 1787.

In the three months before both men left the Leewards, the
Prince sought both the high and low life. His escapades in Rachel Pringle’s bawdy-house in Barbados are well documented: in an excess of high spirits he wrecked the place, smashing glasses, mirrors and furniture. Rachel was unperturbed: “Let him be . . . he is the king’s son,” she exclaimed.

In Dominica, there were two very respectable halls at which the Prince refused to dance with the self-important older women, preferring the younger and prettier ones. At table his talk was said to be bawdy and unrestrained, every word an oath; the Governor’s wife stopped coming to dinner.

Nelson wrote to Fanny about their life in Antigua. “Tonight we dine with Sir Thomas, tomorrow the Prince has a party, on Wednesday he gives a dinner at St John’s to the regiment, in the evening is a mulatto ball, on Thursday a cock fight, dine at Col. Crosbie’s brother’s and a ball on Friday somewhere.”

For both army and navy officers the mulatto ball was an event of high significance. Here a newly arrived officer could hope to find a faithful mistress from among the unattached ladies. She would also be his housekeeper, and probably (since Europeans succumbed regularly to tropical illness) his nurse. Usually a free woman herself, she would hire servants or slaves to wash, cook and clean for her.

Contemporary gossip credited William with a “lady of colour” as a constant companion, even on HMS Pegasus, so devoted that she sailed back to England with him; she was said to dive below decks like a mole going underground at the first sign of danger, for an on-board mistress would hardly have earned the approval of the Admiralty.

William married only in late middle age, spending most of his life before that with an actress, with whom he had 10 illegitimate children to add to the others he presumably fathered in the West Indies. Though often engaging, he was also quirky, eccentric and arrogant, and a great flogger of his seamen. The Admiralty declined to offer him another command; he spent his time making speeches in the House of Lords, where he opposed the abolition of the slave trade.

But he did mellow. Called to the throne in 1830, he proved a popular king who presided over the most concentrated epoch of reform in British history; in the end, it was his hand that signed the Act which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire from August 1, 1834.