Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The King of Prussia : Serendipity is Not Mere Chance

One abiding sin that I must confess to is a hyperactive imagination. Dangle a wisp of a thought and my mind would soon have conjured up a story. Poke a little more, it will add sounds & smells, another nudge and lo behold, you have alternate reality! This habit has led to many a comic, annoying and sometimes even tragic let-downs. Reality, after all, seldom lives up to fantasy….

However, once in a while life has a way of throwing a delightful little twist in your direction that indulges this quirk and reaffirms the grand theory that serendipity is not mere chance. This is the story of one such moment of serendipity.

As a new immigrant to this country my first real installation was in a small town in Pennsylvania called Bluebell. My friend CC, had moved in a year earlier to a place close by called ‘King of Prussia’. When I first heard of it, still in India, I was truly enamored. For someone’s who’s sense of geography is, well, challenged, all I knew about Prussia was about its European connection and that there was a brilliant hue of the colour blue called ‘Prussian Blue’. With little fact to my disposal, my imagination was glad to take over. I pictured my dear friend living in a quaint town with an old castle at the center. Reality, as I mentioned earlier, seldom lives up to fantasy and this was an anti-climax of most comic proportions. We all know, what truly, is the center of King of Prussia. For those who don’t, King of Prussia boasts of the largest and swankiest mall this side of the country. Flashing neon lights, streams of cars and crowds of shoppers, that is what sets this otherwise typical, suburban town apart from its neighbours. As is obvious it has little in common with the quaint and romantic image I had conjured. My curiosity however was not doused. ‘King of Prussia” is an unusual name. Why ‘King of Prussia’ and why not ‘King of Transylvania’? Who was the King of Prussia and what was his connection to this place? In the pre-wiki era, there was little information available. All clues drew to a blank and soon I forgot about it and moved on.

A few months ago, as I researched for a holiday in South of England, I stumbled upon a little story that suddenly threw a whole new light onto King of Prussia and brought out a neat little secret…. Here is that fascinating tale.

To start at the very beginning, one has to tread through the mists of time. Let’s start traversing back - fifty years…hundred years…two hundred years…all the way to the 18th century.

The Western World in the 18th Century
The late 18th century was a volatile period in history. It was a time of great upheaval and also of science and discovery. The British ruled the Americas and had started spreading the colonial tentacles across to Asia and India. Europe was emerging as a great colonizer and trading posts were setup almost all over the world. Enterprising men faced the dangers of the sea to travel to remote lands to gather exotic goods that were then sold back home in Europe for a high premium. The governments were fighting many wars in this time. There were the wars of independence being fought in the Americas and France. The French were going through the period that is often called the ‘reign of terror’, the terrible anarchy that followed the French revolution. The Britain establishment was sympathetic to the aristocrats and funded many of the anti-revolutionary activities in France. The British pocket was quite drained with these extra-curricular activities and it turned towards high taxation to fill it. In particular custom duties on the foreign goods were a major source of revenue, given the boom in foreign trade. They enforced these trade duties with the zeal of a missionary. What dear old Newton had said about the third law of motion can snugly retrofit here - for every zealous law-enforcer there is an even more zealous law breaker! So this was also the time in history that was ripe with smugglers, pirates, swashbuckling adventures on high sea and tales of buried treasures.

Cornwall, England
The South coast of England is treacherous. Craggy cliffs dot the coastline and the waves are merciless in their tirade against the dull grey rocks. This area of the country has been wild for centuries, cut off from the rest of the nation culturally and geographically. Small fishing communities dot the isolated coastline. Cornwall is still considered to be its own country in many ways. In the late 18th century to early 19th century this place was a breeding ground for outlaws. London was distant, roads were non-existent, law enforcers were sparse and the French coast was right across the sea. Smuggling flourished in this setup. The otherwise inaccessible and rocky coast is dotted with hidden coves where smuggled goods could land in the dark hours of the night unseen by the mainland police. Concealed caves and secret passages honeycombed the cliff sides, aiding the quiet transportation of the contraband to the mainland.
Secret passages connected these caves to the clifftops
Wrecking ships, was also common in this area in these times. The folks who did this for a living were called 'Wreckers'. Fantastic and grotesque as it sounds, it is true. With lighthouses few and far between, ships were at the mercy of these ruthless men. On dark stormy nights, when visibility was nil, they would flash lights from hidden spots on the coast and direct unsuspecting ships towards the treacherous rocks. The ships would crash against the rocks and shatter. As the vessel would groan and creak in its dying throes, each incoming wave would smash it anew on the rocks bringing it inch by inch closer to its end. Early in the morning the wreckers would make their way to the shore through the secret passages and loot the cargo even as the crew lay dead and injured. Year after year, decade after decade many a hapless ship died a horrific death on the rocks of Cornwall. It was a Godless profession that worked without retribution in this remote and rugged terrain.
Smuggling, by itself was not considered a crime by the locals. The high taxes imposed by the government were regarded unjust and there was certain Robinhood kind of valour attached to the whole profession. The local sympathy ran high. A poem by Rudyard Kipling 'The Smuggler's Song'in way sums up the Cornish way of life that suggests to let the sleeping dogs lie and let the smugglers smuggle!

Old Fisherman’s house near Prussia Cove
John Carter
Here, in these times and in this remote corner of England lived the Carter family. They had a small stone house at the mouth of a sheltered Bay by a cove called Portleah. A large brood of children was their pride and these included three sons John, Harry and Charles. The family lived in, what Harry was to describe - ‘decent poverty’. They were poor but god-fearing. Sea-faring was a skill that most children in these parts learnt whilst still in their knickers and the Carter brood became proficient sailors with intimate understanding of the Cornish and French coasts. The next step was inevitable. It is not known when and how. It is likely that the easy money and extreme poverty drove them towards it. Harry, (sometimes John with him) would sail over to the French coast and smuggle fine wines, laces and brandy into the Cornish coast. The house was equipped with lofts and cellars to store this contraband. Through a well-established secret network, the goods would then be distributed across England to adorn the fine homes of the aristocrats. The brothers owned two ships. Harry mainly looked after the travel and John would safely land the goods in the dead of the night and transport them to the far flung destinations inland.

The King of Prussia
The Carter brothers grew in this business and soon became very well-known. The dangerous nature of the business called for an ability to take risk and fight it out - not only the elements but also the forces when time came. Over all there was a natural valour that was needed to succeed. And succeed, they did. In boyhood games, John would emulate Fredrick, the King of Prussia, a man he greatly admired for his bravery. It was said, in the later years he closely resembled the popular German monarch. Soon tales of his own valour spread so far and wide that John Carter himself came to be known as the King of Prussia! The Portleah cove, where his cottage stood came to be known as the Prussia cove and is known till date. The legend of the Carter brothers and their adventures resounds in the folk tales of Cornwall even today.

A large part of John Carter’s image came from the fact that a la Robinhood, even though he was a law-breaker, he was an honest and morally upright one. While modern perspective might sense a dichotomy in the assertion the medieval morals accepted it without conflict. Even though they smuggled contraband, the Carter vessels had a clean and pious environment onboard. Swearing was completely banned and prayers were religiously read. They were smugglers but they were not wreckers. A famous legend is about the time when the customs police raided John’s home and took away a fresh smuggling consignment. Upon discovering the fact John was restless, not because he lost the consignment, but because he had made a commitment and wanted to be known as a reliable trader. On the same night he raided the customs warehouse with a band of followers. Next morning when the officials came in and surveyed the break-in site, they all shook their heads in unison and murmured, ‘The King of Prussia was here’. And just how did they know? Well, he only took what he was considered was rightfully his and did not touch a piece that belonged to anyone else!

The legend of the Carter Brothers 

As the tales of the swashbuckling bravery of the King of Prussia spread, the hotter the officials got on his trail and the more adept the ‘King’ became at dodging them. However, this cat and mouse game had to end one day. Being on the wrong side of law did catch up with him eventually. In one skirmish off Portleah, John was grievously injured and had to go in hiding. He was now hounded as he seeked one safe-house after the other. With time it became more and more apparent that he could not hide any longer in that injured state. One fine day John disappeared. No one in Cornwall quite knew what happened to him. Some presumed he was dead and others speculated a grand comeback, but it was all just that - speculation. No one had a clue of the truth. John never came back.

Speculation on John’s fate gradually fused into bed-time stories, myths became legends and the King of Prussia became folklore.


A century passed with no revelation on what happened to John Carter. At the turn of the last century a manuscript emerged in the home of a certain Mr. G.H Carter. It had been carefully preserved over a hundred years as a family heirloom. And heirloom it was. The manuscript contained the diary of Harry Carter! Harry had been taken prisoner on one of his sojourns to France and languished in prison for long. When he returned he renounced all and took up the job of a preacher. In 1900 a Fleet Street publication published the autobiography as a book. Amongst other things, this booked provided the story on what happened to John Carter.

After his injury John spent some time in Cornwall and then finally escaped to France. But worse was awaiting him there. France was in the grip of the revolution and along with the French aristocrats, the British, who were considered sympathizers were also being thrown into jails. John ended up languishing in French prisons for a long time. On being released he was at cross-roads again, he needed to earn a living, find a new life and new place but going back to Cornwall was not an option. The ships and business were all gone.

Now here is where the story borrows a master move from the book of an accomplished dancer. It does a wide side leap, follows it with a neat twirl and lands bang on the right foot. It is a moment of flourish that connects all the dots in a single sweep and tells us that the universe is truly connected. The job John Carter landed was not in France, not in Cornwall, not in London, it was in Pennsylvania, USA!

Completing the Circle
King of Prussia, PA owes its name to a small tavern by the same name that sat on Route 202. A spy map of the area dated 1777 lists it as Berry’s Inn. By 1800 it was called ‘King of Prussia’ inn. There is no set theory why this name change came through. The commonly held perception is that it was to entice the Prussian soldiers who were camped at the nearby Valley Forge. Legend says that in the very early days the sign-board of the inn carried a picture of Fredrick, the Great.

An old picture of the King of Prussia Inn in Pennsylvania
Now, here is where we can nudge our imagination to take that baby step to connect it all. Imagine the tavern on a particularly busy night. It is full of people - locals from the farms close by, soldiers lodged in Valley Forge and travellers on the way to Ohio stopping at the inn for the night. As the sun sets, ale flows freely and the place abounds in chatter. In a corner sits a stocky man. He is a farm-hand at a nearby settlement. Middle aged, weathered, yet strong, he is scarred with the wounds of many unknown battles. He holds these scars as honours, quite a like a general holds his medals. He is quiet and reserved but on some days with ale down his throat, he speaks. And when he speaks everyone listens in rapt attention for he tells a tale that is out of the leaf of a fable. It is a tale of adventure, of enterprise, of valour and of rising above adversity; it is the stuff legends are made of. And why not, this man is already a legend. He is the King of Prussia, the King of Cornwall. Even in the incongruity of his situation he remains a King.

And so, while the King of Prussia Inn might have had a picture of Fredrick the Great the likelihood of his look-alike, namesake and follower John Carter giving the place its name emerges as a strong alternate reality. After all human quirks are timeless and even three hundred years ago, everyone was a sucker for a good story.

An Indian poet & philosopher has been known to say - “vice and virtue are nothing but the stamp of morality on the rituals of the era, with each epoch morality changes’. Morality has undergone 180 degrees shift since the times of John Carter and the sides are truly switched. The band of smugglers who plied trade in the dead of the night two hundred years ago were pioneers. They were pioneers of the doctrine of free trade! What do you call it but the brilliance of destiny that the town of King of Prussia today is known to be a showcase of the same free trade doctrine that John Carter embodied. It boasts of the largest mall in East Coast.
Yes, serendipity is truly not a matter of chance, it is divine design that you just happened to stumble upon!

The King of Prussia Mall: An Ode to Free Trade
A Smuggler's Song
If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street.
Them that ask no questions isn't told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark --
Brandy for the Parson,
'Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don't you shout to come and look, nor use 'em for your play.
Put the brishwood back again -- and they'll be gone next day!

If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining's wet and warm -- don't you ask no more!

If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red,
You be carefull what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you "pretty maid," and chuck you 'neath the chin,
Don't you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one's been!

Knocks and footsteps round the house -- whistles after dark --
You've no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
Trusty's here, and Pincher's here, and see how dumb they lie --
They don't fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by!

If you do as you've been told, 'likely there's a chance,
You'll be given a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood --
A present from the Gentlemen, along o' being good!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark --
Brandy for the Parson,
'Baccy for the Clerk;
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie --
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by! 
Rudyard Kipling