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Ras Prince Monolulu: the horse-race tipster who transformed himself into an Abyssinian prince

If you went to the races in interwar Britain, there was a good chance you would have spotted an excitable ‘African prince’ in the crowd, offering the latest tips. But who was he? Sonia Grant delves into the remarkable life and career of the country’s first black television star...

Ras Prince Monolulu entertains the crowds at Aintree racecourse, 1931 (Photo by KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Published: February 2, 2022 at 3:38 pm
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The celebrated racing tipster Ras Prince Monolulu was “tailor-made for television”, declared the journalist and broadcaster Bernard Levin in 1956. Yet by the time Levin made that assessment, Monolulu was already a seasoned ‘performer’, having made his television debut 20 years previously.

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In fact, Monolulu’s brief skit on Picture Page, a magazine programme, had been part of a test transmission from Alexandra Palace before the BBC began broadcasting in earnest on 2 November 1936. As a result, Monolulu gained the accolade of being the “first black man to appear on British screens” – even if the programme could have only been viewed by the estimated 200 households that owned television devices at the time.

Nonetheless, because of widespread radio ownership and his reputation as a tipster at the Epsom Derby, it was reputed that, unless the American actor Paul Robeson was in town, Monolulu was the most famous black man in Britain.

But how did he come to be so well-known?

A self-confessed ‘chancer’, Ras Prince Monolulu was born Peter Carl McKay in 1881 on the island of St Croix, formerly part of the Danish West Indies – a fact that would sometimes lead journalists to erroneously describe him as being as a Danish citizen.

When exactly McKay first adopted the moniker ‘Ras Prince Monolulu’ is not clear, as is much of his early life; indeed, some parts of his autobiography may be embellished.

His rueful statement, “I was born coloured. No fault of mine, no fault of anybody,” is telling, and perhaps an acknowledgment that he knew the circumstances of his birth and his race would limit his opportunities. Either way, McKay made a conscious decision to reinvent himself: being a black man with little way of a formal education wouldn’t take him very far.

A man on the move

After leaving St Croix during his youth, McKay travelled to New York City, where – as recorded on the 1900 US Census – he found a job as a janitor. Not satisfied with the drudgery of menial work, he made his way to Britain two years later, where he was initially forced to take on similar roles. The only alternative was the workhouse.

In 1903, McKay must have finally felt that lady luck was on side, because he ended up landing a part in the chorus line of In Dahomey, the first all-black musical on London’s West End. However, when the production came to the end of its run, so too did any prospect of further work. Once again, he went on the move.

Over the coming years, McKay travelled across Europe extensively, working as a fortune teller, violinist, singer, lion tamer and even a ‘cannibal’ in a touring roadshow.

Things took a turn for the worse at the outbreak of the First World War when, classified as a British subject while living in Germany, he was interned at the Ruhleben civilian detention camp near Berlin – a place he would spend the next four years.

By the time he was released and repatriated to Britain, a transformation had occurred: Peter Carl McKay was no more, and instead, Ras Prince Monolulu – a self-styled Abyssinian prince – had been born.

Standing at well over six feet tall and already a prominent figure, he gained a reputation for his ostentatious clothing and accessories, often sporting ostrich feathers and high-heeled yellow boots

Back in London once again after the war, Monolulu opened a market stall on Petticoat Lane, where he would sell the latest horse racing tips to passing punters. Standing at well over six feet tall and already a prominent figure, he gained a reputation for his ostentatious clothing and accessories, often sporting ostrich feathers and high-heeled yellow boots.

Although Monolulu was hailed as an amusing character and beloved particularly among the working classes, the covert racism that he encountered in interwar Britain did not go unnoticed. “As I have travelled up and down England, I have met with the colour bar constantly,” Monolulu would write at the time.

“When attending race meetings, I have often written and booked rooms in the town in advance, received a letter of acceptance, and then on arrival, have been met with all manner of excuses as to why I could not be taken in... Sometimes the boarding house keepers have kept their part of the agreement and let me have a room... [But] within 12 hours I have been in the streets again looking for other lodgings.”

Cameos and campaigns

Despite such setbacks, Monolulu carved out a successful career, and from the 1930s, any British film that featured a racecourse would include the tipster in a fleeting cameo – at a time when black people were largely absent from screens.

Indeed, the public mostly regarded him as a benign figure; he rubbed shoulders with cockneys and wealthy thoroughbred horse owners alike, and people would be dependent on his tips. But his charm, patter and popular catchphrase – “I gotta horse” – aside, Monolulu had an awakening.

In 1935, Benito Mussolini waged a campaign to expand the Italian empire by invading Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), which – along with Liberia – was the only African nation not to have been colonised by Europe, and therefore held special symbolism to diaspora communities.

Monolulu made good use of his ability to project his voice to large crowds, which was just as well, as police regulations did not allow the use of amplifiers

Outraged by this injustice, and as a self-styled Abyssinian prince, Monolulu took it upon himself to fight back. Over the coming years he would lend his support to the International African Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA), an organisation that included leading black activists Amy Ashwood Garvey, CLR James and George Padmore, as well as the future Kenyan president and prime minister Jomo Kenyatta.

At the first open-air meeting organised by the IAFA in Trafalgar Square, Monolulu made good use of his ability to project his voice to large crowds, which was just as well, as police regulations did not allow the use of amplifiers. Even if they hadn’t been able to hear his words, however, the 500 gathered there would have seen Monolulu enthusiastically waving a huge Abyssinian flag.

Then, when the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa, fell to Italy in 1936 and leader Haile Selassie sought refuge in Britain, Monolulu was there to greet him at Waterloo station, dressed in the full regalia he imagined an African prince would wear.

How a Trinidadian cricketer took on discrimination in law – and won

In July 1943, celebrated Trinidadian cricketer Learie Constantine, along with his wife and daughter, had booked rooms for four nights at the Imperial Hotel in London, as he was due to play for the Central Lancashire Cricket League in a charity match at Lord’s.

However, when the family checked in, Constantine was informed that they would only be allowed one night’s accommodation; apparently, the family’s presence would be objected to by white American military personnel who were also guests.

Because of his high profile, the incident was raised in Parliament; although there was no law against racial discrimination in Britain at the time, Constantine argued that the hotel had breached its contract with him, and pursued legal action.

Constantine was especially perturbed at “his first-class status as a cricketer and his third- class status as a man”. Following a two-day hearing, the judge ruled in Constantine’s favour. It was the first case of its kind and was widely regarded as paving the way for the passing of the Race Relations Act of 1965.

In 1954, by which time he’d enjoyed a successful career in law, he wrote the book Colour Bar, in which he opined about his personal experiences of racism as well as the state of race relations in Britain and beyond.

Knighted in 1962, Constantine became the UK’s first black peer seven years later and took the title of ‘Baron Constantine of Maraval in Trinidad and of Nelson in the County Palatine of Lancaster’.

Monolulu kept up his personal protests throughout the Second Italo-Abyssinian War (1935–36), and regularly took to a soapbox at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park to promote the anti-imperialist cause. On several occasions he fell foul of the park’s regulations, which at the time stated that no person should “behave in any manner reasonably likely to offend against public decency”, and was subsequently fined.

Fortunately for Monolulu, the BBC did not consider his political activity to be in breach of the corporation’s guidelines, and he adeptly maintained a career as a broadcaster, tipster and activist for the rest of his life.

On 14 February 1965, Peter Carl McKay succumbed to cancer, aged 83. The Guardian, which would have known better, showed deference to McKay’s alter-ego, writing in his obituary that he had been “born in Addis Ababa, Abyssinia”.

Other newspaper obituaries stated that he had died “broke”, which was perhaps unsurprising given that he openly admitted the proverb “A fool and his money are soon parted” applied to him. However, the best assessment of McKay’s – or Monolulu’s – career would come from the man himself, 15 years before he died.

Dictating his life story to his close friend Sidney White, he poignantly concluded: “My life on the racecourses... in the streets of London... making people laugh with silly stories and jokes, may have given the impression that I am just an ignorant darkie, completely uneducated, and having as my only stock-in-trade some funny clothes, a great mouth and even greater roaring voice and the ability to tell a tale, and nothing else...

“Maybe I am an ignorant darkie; maybe I am a fool, a cheerful fool who goes around the world looking at life with a huge grin and greeting the highest and lowest alike. But no confidence trickster; confidence tipster, yes. I wouldn’t have had things any other way. That is how I want you to see me always.”

Sonia Grant is a historian and writer. She is currently working on two books: the first will look at Charlotta Bass, America’s first black vice-presidential candidate; the second will explore the experiences of African and Arab civilians interred at Ruhleben Camp in Germany during the First World War

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This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed

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