Ras Prince Monolulu: An Unlikely Purveyor of The Sport of Kings
It’s doubtful there was that much betting turnover on the 1936 Olympic Games, which will forever be remembered as the ‘Jesse Owens Olympics’ where the athlete poked a blunt stick into the eye of Adolph Hitler, who unashamedly perceived and portrayed members of non-Aryan races (non-white and Jewish) as inferior and degenerate.
Three years beforehand, under Hitler’s absurd directions, the Nazis’ sports office had ordered all public athletic organisations implement an ‘Aryans-only’ policy. But, contrary to popular belief, Owens was not snubbed by the German leader with the athlete confirming the pair had exchanged “congratulatory waves” after he had claimed his four gold medals.
But there was no doubting as to how the runner had been affronted by his own country. In the years leading up to his Berlin triumphs Owens had to live ‘off campus’ with other African-American athletes whilst attending Ohio State University. He was also restricted to eating at ‘blacks-only’ restaurants and had to stay in ‘blacks-only’ hotels when travelling with his athletic team.
Things never improved for the 22-year-old despite becoming the most famous athlete in the world. To quote the runner: “Hitler didn’t snub me; it was Roosevelt who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram!”
Indeed, the US president never publicly acknowledged Owens’ victories at any time and when he hosted a reception at the White House to celebrate America’s Olympic success neither Owens nor any of the other 17 other African-Americans who competed in Berlin were invited.
Different Decade, Same Prejudice
Decades later in a place where gambling was commonplace – that’s Las Vegas – leading performers Sammy Davis Junior, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald were experiencing similar prejudice.
The names of black performers appeared on hotel marquees alright and they were responsible for high-grossing sold-out shows but they were not permitted to enter through a hotel or casino front entrance and they spent their nights cooped-up in boarding houses and motels on the west-side of ‘sin city’.
Such was the severity of the city’s segregation at the time, Las Vegas was better known by the epithet ‘The Mississippi of the West’.
The Crowned Prince of British Horse Racing
Meanwhile, in Britain, amongst a backdrop of a dedicated betting sport – horse racing to be precise – one character had become the most famous black man in the country.
His name was Peter Carl Mackay but he preferred to go by the moniker ‘Ras Prince Monolulu’ and this character was embraced and loved by the public for four full decades.
Do not be deceived by the name, unlike America’s number one entertainer of the time, Al Jolson, and also the subsequent BBC TV act ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’, Peter Carl Mackay was not a white-man donning black greasepaint, Ras Prince Monolulu was genuine.
But there’s one thing he did have in common with Jolson, Davis Jnr., Nat King Cole et-al – he was a world-class entertainer.
Unlikely Purveyor Of The Sport Of Kings
Details of Mackay’s early years are cloudy, undoubtedly hindered by falsified accounts of his background. However, we do know he was born in St Croix, in the Danish West Indies (which is now one of the U.S. Virgin Islands) in the Caribbean in 1881.
According to his own unlikely account, he made his way from his birthplace to the African coast where he was shanghaied aboard a British ship and styled himself as a prince in the hope of receiving better treatment. That ship was subsequently shipwrecked off the Portuguese coast from where he made his way to New York.
There is every indication he did spend a few years in New York before arriving in London via Tilbury Docks on a cattle boat called Minnetonka in 1902. A year of menial labour followed before he got a big break and joined the chorus of the first all-black West End musical show – it was called ‘In Dahomey’.
In Dahomey was initially staged on Broadway but after just 53 performances it was transferred to London’s Shaftesbury Theatre, making it the first American black musical to travel abroad.
Incomparable amongst other theatrical shows, the British public loved In Dahomey and it became a West End smash heralded as “the most popular musical show in London”. Its success was capped by a command performance celebrating the birthday of the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace.
That summer, Peter Carl Mackay was one of the 500,000+ racegoers that went to the 1903 Derby and that first visit to Epsom Downs probably acted as a catalyst in the development of ‘Ras Prince Monolulu’ who, according to the performer’s own propaganda, was chief of the Jewish Falasha tribe of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). This was a complete folktale.
As the In Dahomey stage show wound down and to support his alter-ego the newly crowned Ras Prince Monolulu began wearing a plumed ostentatious head-dress made of ostrich feathers, a multi-coloured silk jacket, baggy pantaloons (trousers) and a huge scarf wrapped around his waist.
By now he had set out as a racecourse tipster who was often found entertaining crowds at Newmarket, Epsom and other major meetings. His slogans when stood on an orange box and trying to sell his tips to racegoers were “I’ve gotta horse!” and “Black man for luck!”
During these early years as a part-time racecourse ‘advisor with an act’, Mackay continued to travel across Britain performing as a fortune teller, violinist, singer, lion-tamer and actor in Russia with an American ‘negro show’.
His travels also took him across Europe and into Germany where he unfortunately found himself when the First World War broke out. Consequently, he was detained in Ruhleben Internment Camp near Berlin for the duration of the conflict, eventually returning to London in 1919.
Mackay initially had some brushes with authorities on his return to England. Court appearances were recorded for offences such as using bad language in a public place, disturbances at political rallies and fortune telling.
But once he dusted off his full Ras Prince Monolulu regalia he quickly became Britain’s most popular and famous tipster as well as one of the country’s most recognisable characters.
On The Up Thanks To Kop
His rise to prominence was aided by successfully identifying the winner of the 1920 Derby when he collected £8,000 after Spion Kop, ridden by American jockey Frank O’Neil, took the race at odds of 100/6. In modern day terms his winnings equated to almost £400,000 and this big win was well publicised in the national newspapers.
With the additional publicity his successful bet brought, Monolulu dedicated all his time to being a full-time tipster and with his engaging character, imposing 6ft+ frame, colourful attire and trademark “I gotta horse” chant (“black man for luck” had been dropped at this point) racegoers could easily spot him in the crowds at race tracks where he entertained punters in the betting ring.
Ras Prince Monolulu quickly became a permanent fixture at all of the UK’s major meetings with his showmanship finding him people willing to pay him up to ten shillings for a sealed envelope which contained a bet selection handwritten on paper.
Once the transaction was complete Monolulu would reportedly whisper into the ear of the purchaser: “If you tell anyone, the horse will lose”. It was in keeping with the charade that his horse racing predictions were more the work of voodoo than old fashioned form study and stable whispers.
That said, Monolulu was unquestionably a keen punter and a less reported story highlights how he travelled to America in 1958 to back Irish Derby, St Leger and l’Arc winner Ballymoss in the Washington DC International. When the Vincent O’Brien trained horse finished third the Prince was reportedly left broke.
Just how many people subscribed to Ras Prince Monolulu’s preaching throughout the decades is unclear. But such was the entertainment value of his sermons the intrepid character enjoyed a cult-like status which appears to have kept the flamboyant tipster financially comfortable throughout his long career.
And he was clearly a grinder too. When not on a British racecourse, or Irish or in Paris for the the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, on Sundays Ras Prince Monolulu could be found at London’s famous Petticoat Lane Market or Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner once again entertaining the masses and selling his tips.
But beyond these public displays it was television and the silver screen which were the makings of Ras Prince Monolulu. Some historians insist Monolulu was the first black person to appear on British TV screens, making his debut on the day the BBC began its television service in 1936. If he wasn’t he was the first he certainly was one of the first.
Beforehand he had made an appearance in the 1931 movie The Sport of Kings and the BBC themselves had featured him on some of their most popular radio shows, including the 100th performance of Saturday Magazine, In Town Tonight and Shipmates Ashore.
Cameo roles in ten films from the mid-1930s and 1960 followed. Amongst those was a 1939 propaganda film called The Lion Has Wings, which used Monolulu as “an example of what Britain was, a nation at play and at ease with herself.”
Others included 1952’s Derby Day, 1954’s Aunt Clara alongside Margaret Rutherford and Sid James, and 1959’s Make Mine a Million alongside many familiar faces from the Carry On series of comedy capers.
Fittingly his final movie roll came in I’ve Gotta Horse which starred the UK’s answer to Elvis, Billy Fury, and Amanda Barrie. It was released in 1966, a year after Monolulu’s death.
Television was an even bigger vehicle for Ras Prince Monolulu and on YouTube you can find scores of his newsreel appearances stretching over decades. Rarely did an Epsom Derby pass without him being filmed.
Such was his appeal and status in 1957 he travelled Stateside to make two appearances on the quiz show Bet Your Life hosted by Groucho Marx. This too can be found on YouTube.
Six years earlier the American media got their first taste of Monolulu when he arrived in New York for the 1951 fight between Ray Robinson and Randolph Turpin in full regalia.
His appearance drew comment in the New York Times and after widespread interest in the character the Ethiopian embassy issued a press notice declaring, contrary to reports, he was not an Ethiopian prince.
As for his personal life – as outlined in the introduction of Prince Monolulu’s 1950 autobiography penned by Sydney H. White – the tipster regularly contradicted himself when recounting his past.
And while his own account stated he was married six times it has to be pointed out only three previous marriages can be fully verified. The 1931 marriage to Nellie Amelia was the highest profile as the Prince was rapidly gaining public notoriety at the time and his bride was white. Interracial marriages were not exactly commonplace at the time.
Prince Monolulu clearly did father a number of children but it is unclear what living relatives there are today. The lasting Prince Monolulu legacy is more about the mark he left on the sport of horse racing, particularly the gambling aspect.
Make no mistake, there would never have been a John McCririck had there not have been Prince Monolulu, who incidentally was also proficient at tic-tac and used it during his performances.
In death, as in life, myth and intrigue surrounded Ras Prince Monolulu. He lived until he was 84 when, according to the brilliantly entertaining but flawed journalist Jeffrey Bernard – who was visiting a sick Monolulu in the Middlesex Hospital – he choked to death on a strawberry cream offered by Bernard from a chocolate box. According to Bernard, the brand was Black Magic!
At the time, his passing was commemorated by two public houses being named in his honour: The Prince Monolulu in the West End and The Abyssinian in Hornsey, north London. Its sign showed him in his finery, holding up a race card. Just three years ago the London Borough of Southwick unveiled the newly built Monolulu Court named in honour of their famous former resident.
Unlike other flamboyant characters and high-stakes players, Ras Prince Monolulu was never met with disapproval amongst racing authorities. To the contrary, although now widely forgotten, he remains a celebrated and important individual both in terms of racing and the early development of racial integration within the UK.
His image can be found in London’s National Portrait Gallery and two of his colourful jackets are now on display in Newmarket's National Horse Racing Museum.
Impressive stuff for a character who could have easily been described as a ‘fake’ or ‘conman’ and probably would have been had he been born and lived during a different generation.
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