TALES OF THE STAVERS CAPTAINS

PART 2: THE ROTHERHITHE STAVERS

 

2.5. Francis Stavers (c.1793-1840)

 

    Francis Stavers, the third son, followed the family tradition and became the master of whaling ships. In 1813, he was a gunner aboard his father’s ship Seringapatam when it was taken by the Americans. From 1817 to 1820  he was master of the whaler Policy on a voyage not without excitement as when she was off the coast of Chile, she was fired on and boarded by Chilean forces (it was the time of Chile’s war of independence from Spain), and Francis was instructed to keep 18 leagues from the shore or his ship would be detained.1   His brother Peter Mellish Stavers, who was in the same area in command of another whaler a few months earlier, also had problems with the Chileans, on which see below.

  

    In May 1821 he assumed command of another whaler, the Tuscan, taking his younger brother Thomas as First Mate. This was to be the first of five whaling cruises by the Tuscan with a Stavers at the helm.2 The ship had started life in 1808 as a French ship called Ronco, but had almost immediately been seized by the British and taken into service by the Roral Navy as HMS Tuscan, and then sold on in 1818.

 

    It was quite common for South Sea whalers to be asked to take missionaries out to the Pacific Islands, and Alexander Birnie, the owner of the Tuscan, had arranged for missionaries from the London Missionary Society to be carried to the Society Islands in French Polynesia to report on their missions in the area. Two of these wrote a fascinating account of the journey,3 and part of it is described in T.R. Stavers’ Journal. So the first part of the journey is exceptionally well documented, with graphic descriptions of life on board.

 

    The Tuscan arrived in Tahiti (the largest island of French Polynesia) in September 1821. After discharging its passengers, she departed for her whaling cruise round the Pacific. By mid-April 1822, the vessel arrived at Honolulu in the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) and by mid-October it had reached the Loo Choo Islands (now the Ryukyu Islands) off Japan. Thomas Stavers’ journal gives an account of the next part of the voyage, which included various sometimes fraught encounters with the local inhabitants.

 

    The local chiefs of the Loo Choo islands (now Ryukyu Islands) refused to let them land, placing sentries at every quarter of a mile along the coast. Francis told the chiefs that he wanted water, which they sent together with a present of two bullocks.  The vessel was stuck there for several days because the wind was blowing into the harbour. payment was offered for the things that came from the shore, but they would not take anything. After a few days they sent some potatoes and five Goats to the ship. All they would take in return was a chart of the world. On Sunday 20th October many of the chiefs came on board to see a Christian service on board ship. Thomas commented that they seemed much pleased with the singing.

 

      On 19 October the Tuscan arrived off Lord North’s Island (Tobi, a tiny island in an archipelago north of Indonesia now part of the Republic of Palau). They were surrounded by about 18 flying proas (fast outriggers special to the region). T.R. Stavers reported that they:

made all sail from them. But we found they meant to attack us. We fired

several shots over them. When they found they could not get alongside,

they came astern, but a stiff breeze springing up, we left them.

 

  Their next stop was the Island of Gillolo (now Halmahera, part of Indonesia) where they met the ship of their younger brother Peter and agreed to keep company and share the whale oil taken by both ships. It was not uncommon for merchantmen in dangerous parts to sail in convoy, although the sharing of oil was probably a more unusual brotherly arrangement. The Tuscan finally arrived back in England in October 1823.

 

    Captains of whalers sometimes reported the sighting of unknown Pacific islands. One uninhabited coral island, now part of Kiribati, was first spotted by a Russian captain in 1820 who called it after his ship Vostock. But it was also spotted and reported by Francis Stavers in 1821 during his journey with the Tuscan and briefly rejoiced in the name of Stavers Island.4

 

    It seems that Francis may have temporarily lost the taste for these long whaling voyages, as he refused an offer to take the Tuscan on another trip in the following year (Thomas stepped  into his shoes) and seems to have opted for a different sort of cargo, although as will be seen one that  proved hardly less troublesome.

 

    In October 1825,  he was the master of the Kumbang Jatie which sailed from Texel (in the Netherlands)  for Buenos Aires taking 67 German farmers and artisans and their families (a total of 311 people, making with the crew a total of 336 people on a 300-ton vessel ) who were emigrating to South America.

 

    The ship had to pass Montevideo on its way to Buenos Aires on the other side of the river Plate. Montevideo at the time was under Portuguese rule (the Portuguese being the colonial masters of Brazil) and there was intermittent warfare between the Portuguese and the newly independent United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata, whose capital was Buenos Aires. The Kumbang Jatie was unlucky enough to arrive in Montevideo in the middle of what became known as the Cisplatine or Argentine-Brazilian war and a Brazilian corvette intercepted the vessel and Stavers was told that Buenos Aires was under blockade. A Brazilian man of war was sent down to take charge of the Kumbang Jatie. In the words of the writer of  the letter, the passengers, who had been elated to  be on the point of arrival after their difficult sea crossing, were cast into despair. A highly coloured account of the affair is given in a letter from on board the ship that reached The Times::

On our voyage we experienced some heavy gales and suffered some considerable damage, notwithstanding which, the crowded state of the ship, the sea-sickness consequent to a body of people who had never even seen the sea till they entered the Kumbang Jatie, and the peculiar situation of several of the women (many of them far advanced in pregnancy), we arrived at this place in fair health, after a passage of 60 days from the shores of Old England. Such was the goodness of providence, and the care, circumspection and unremitting attenton of the captain to the cleanliness and other comforts of his passengers, that only one woman and three young children (all sick previous to coming on board) died on the voyage. In return, however, for these losses, four women presented their husbands with as many fine boys. You will readily conceive that, quick as our passage was, these poor people had enough of it; everything had been new, and in a state of confusion to them, and the trials they met with in the several gales we experienced were severe indeed.

Judge then the pleassure that invaded every heart when told that they were about to enter the river on whose shores stood the town where their troubles were end. It is beyond my poer to describe the delight depicted in every countenance, in all which the children seemed fully to participate, and danced about in the fullness of infantile jollity. ...

[After the Portuguese corvette had intercepted the Kumbang Jatie and fired a gun at her:] Picture to yourself the sudden change in the countenances of the late happy people I have described; astonishment and the most gloomy melancholy overcast them; they seemed in agony; and vivid as had been their joy, their despair now exceeded it; it was intense. At 4 p.m. Captain Stavers returned on board [having been taken off the ship by the Portuguese], accompanied by the First Lieutenant of the corvette, who assumed command of the Kumbang Jatie; all crowded round the captain, every eye was cast upon him with looks of the most anxious inquiry; and yet manifesting a dread of hearing something worse than their own imaginations had pictured, which God knows was bad enough; poor creartures, they were soon aware of their misearable situation, and they were told they would be prevented from proceeding to Buenos Ayres.5

 

    After a number of excchanges between Stavers and the Portuguese authorities, they finally told Stavers that he was free to go on his way, but not to Buenos Aires. By this time the ship was badly in need of supplies and many of the passengers were becoming ill. He begged to be allowed to continue on the short journey to his destination, but despite the intervention of both the local British consul and the British merchant community in Montevideo, the Portuguese were adamant. When one of the German passengers died, two of the sailors from the Kumbang Jatie and four Germans from the group took the body in a boat and  buried it in a far corner of the harbour, but were seized and detained for a while before being allowed to return to the ship.

 

    Unfortunately, The Times did not report how this saga ended, but it is yet another example of how easy it was for British merchant captains to be caught up in local wars.

 

    This was not the end of Francis Stavers’ problems with the Kumbang Jatie. Her owner was a British company based in the Dutch East Indies at what is now Jakarta. In 1828, the ship, having been away from its home port for nearly 4 years, was taking a mixed cargo from Chile to London and was forced to put in at St Helena to pick up stores. Francis had insufficient cash to pay for the stores and the owner had no agent on St Helena , so he borrowed from some English merchants on the island, giving them a “bottomry bond” secured on the ship, expecting the owner to repay the loan once the ship reached its destination.  It seems, however, that the owners did not pay and the creditors sought the arrest of the ship. Francis gave evidence (now in the National Archives) in two cases arising out of this affair, one on behalf of the crew, who had not received their wages.6

 

     In 1829, after the early death of his first wife, Francis Stavers married Elizabeth Ann McNiel, who kept a girls boarding school and whose two sisters had married his younger brothers. Following this marriage he made one further Pacific whaling voyage as master of the Partridge, leaving England in 1830 and not returning until January 1834.7

 

  He seems after that to have decided against further voyages on the high seas, as by 1935 he was the master of the Emerald, a steamer operating along the south coast of England, where the main hazard was being hassled by steamers of rival companies.8  In 1839, his eldest brother William came back to England from Java and the two brothers jointly purchased a steam boat, the Rose, to run a service between Poole and Portsmouth.9 Francis died in December that year, aged 47,10however, and William returned to Java, so his venture into ship ownership ended sadly. At the time of his death, the Death Duty Register gives his residence as Poole, but he also seems to have owned property in the Kent Road.11 His will, leaving everything to his wife and only daughter, is in the National Archives.

 

    An American traveller who met Francis in the Pacific, described him as “a full, corpulent, jolly-looking John Bull person, and one of the best informed and most gentlemanly whaling captains out of London”.  He recounted an occasion off Hawaii when the captains and crews of some visiting ships organised an impromptu concert, and Francis appeared to be one of the musicians; on close inspection, however, his violin was perceived to have no string, but Francis was making “such movements of his body and his bow as would leave one to suppose he was leader of the band. He played his part admirably and deceived all for some time.”12

 

Ships commanded by Francis Stavers

Policy (ship, 275 tons, built 1801, owner Mellish): 1817-1820

Tuscan (380 tons, built in Venice 1808, owner Birnie): 1821-1823

Kumbang Jatie (registered in Java): 1825-1828

Partridge (ship, 517 tons, built France 1814, owner Mellish): 1830-34

Emerald (south coast steamer): 1835

Kent (south coast steamer): 1838

Calpe (south coast steamer): 1838

Rose (south coast steamer): 1839

 

 

 

Notes

1. Lloyd’s List No. 5462 of 4.2.1820

2. The Tuscan was typical of many whaling ships in that she did not start life as a whaler. She built in Venice in 1808 as a general sailing ship for a French owner, her original name being the Ronco.  This was the time of the Napoleonic Wars, however, and she was almost immediately seized as a prize by the Royal Navy. For the next eight years did service with the Navy, inter alia supporting the British Army in Spain, landing British troops and firing on French troops on the Spanish coast. She also had quite an adventurous career capturing enemy ships and privateers, before she was sold in 1818 as a brig of 334 tons and was converted to whaling. (From www.wkiwand.com.)

3. D Tyerman and G Bennet,  Journal of Voyages and Travels, Vol I, , available at www.books.google.co.uk.

A later  (1832) account of the savagery of these islanders is given in A narrative of the shipwreck, captivity and sufferings of Horace Holden and Benj. H Nute, Horace Holden, pub. Boston by Russell, Shattuck and Co., 1836. 

4. Steve Dehner, The Armchair Navigator II,: Supplements to Post-Spanish Discoveries, 2020

5. The Times 23.3.1826 and 27.6.1826

6. National Archives  HCA 17/148/1987

7. https://whalinghistory.org/bv/voyages/

8. Letter in The Times, 22.9.1835.

9. Journal of T.R. Stavers

10. The Times, 31.12.1849

11. The electoral registers of 1835-40 recorded him as resident in the Kent Road and also the freehold owner of two tenanted houses,

12. John Coulter MD,Adventures on the Western Coast of South America, 1847.

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