1.2. Captain John “Japan Jack” Stavers (1783-1826)  


    John or Jack Stavers appears to have been a larger than life figure in all senses of the word. He was by all accounts of huge stature and great muscular strength and also it seems a leader of men, although quick to anger and to resort to violence.


  When in his teens, he seems to have joined his uncle William, by then an experienced captain of South Sea whaling ships. He was with his uncle as a young seaman on board the whaler Perseverance in 1803, a time when Britain was at war with Napoleonic France.  The ship was taken by a French privateer when approaching the English Channel on its way back from a whaling trip off the coasts of Brazil and Africa. According to an article in the Times1, the French captain eyed Jack, his uncle and an English passenger, “all men of a daring appearance”, and resolved to remove them to his ship, fearing that they might attempt to recapture the Perseverance – which in the event was retaken within days by a British frigate. But the two Stavers and their companion remained in the custody of the French and were taken off to France. Captain William Stavers was soon exchanged for an important French prisoner. But Jack remained a prisoner of war for some 10 years, until the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of the French Monarchy.2


    The Times recounts that he made numerous attempts to escape, always being chosen the leader on account of his “great prowess, resolution and muscular strength”. He took on the task of disposing of the sentries “in the best way he could”. But although he got out, “as he was always more anxious to cover the retreat of his friends than to make best use of his own liberty, he was invariably retaken” Always fighting with the soldiery called to the spot by the alarm given, he eventually became such an object of terror to his French captors that he was confined to a cell below ground. He managed to escape even from this and would have got away “but for the circumstance of his humanity inducing him to assist a brother in distress.” This fellow prisoner had injured his leg in dropping from the wall of the prison and could not move quickly without assistance. Jack was recaptured while helping him, although the injured man apparently did then get away under cover of darkness.


    This episode is illustrative of the fact that long distance merchant seamen in those days faced not just the usual perils of injury, shipwreck, or being washed overboard (all frequent occurrences), but also the risk of getting caught up in wars and local political uprisings. For whalers, there were additional risks arising from disputes over access to whaling areas. As will be recounted, another Stavers captain had his ship taken by the Americans; and yet another had his ship detained during a South American revolution. 


    After Jack’s release, he seems to have returned to the sea and worked his way up to become a master mariner.  He next, unhappy, appearance in the records was in 1816, when he was master of the Thames, a South Sea whaler, and was brought before an Admiralty court for assaulting a 14-year-old cabin boy, a case that was widely reported in the press at the time.3 The cabin boy and another had been misbehaving and had in particular been spoiling bread – a heinous act as supplies on long distance ships could easily run short and reprovisioning was often not an option (by this time the ship was off the Galapagos Islands). The captain was accused of giving him a number of exceptionally barbaric beatings, tying him to a gun at one point. The boy subsequently fell ill and died of some other cause, but it was alleged that the beatings had contributing to his death.


    Discipline on board merchant ships was harsh and beatings were common, not least because the crews were often an ill-assorted and ill-disciplined lot; and there were many instances of actual mutiny. It seems that in this case, the prosecution was brought partly because of the determination of the boy’s father to have justice. Without that, the beatings – which certainly sound horrific to modern ears – would probably have passed without notice.


    In Jack’s defence it was argued before the court that what he had done was not exceptional. There was a ship’s surgeon on board who told the court that he could not recall how many lashes the boy had received, but that they were not such as to endanger his health and that other boys had been punished in the same manner. The court took the view, however, that Jack had grossly overstepped the mark and he was sentenced to a year in Newgate prison.


    On his release, Jack seems to have bounced back and returned to sea as a captain of whalers, which says something for his force of character (or the roughness of the whaling trade). Between 1818 and 1826 he went on three two-three year whaling trips, bringing back good quantities of oil. According to one of his great-nephews, he was known as “Japan Jack”, no doubt because he did much of his whaling off the coast of Japan.4


    The next and final episode in his life is so extraordinary that it is worth quoting in extenso the melodramatic report in the Times of 18 October 1826:


The following melancholy narrative will be read with painful interest by every reflecting mind, and deep will be the lament that in the 19th century, since the propagation of those documents that breathe peace and goodwill to all, men should be found professing a belief in those documents, nay, arrogating to themselves the title of the only true disciples of Christ, yet so barbarous and base as to commit one of the most cruel and uncalled-for murders ever perpetrated, and with cowardly and demoniacal fury mangling the form of their victim, when  the bold spirit that had once animated it had ceased to struggle, and must, one would suppose, have ceased to be an object of dread or deserving of further injury. Such still is civilised religious man in some quarters of the globe.


In the month of November, 1823, the ship Coquet, belonging to London, and commanded by Captain John Stavers, sailed from Gravesend for the coast of Japan, there to fish for spermaceti whales. Never did a vessel leave the British shores better manned and fitted for such a voyage, the captain and officers well skilled in every requisite art pertaining to their calling, full of health, confident of success, and looking forward, even then, as to no distant day when they should return to their native country, laden with the hard-earned spoils of the mightiest monsters of the deep. Alas! the greatest personage on board, not only as regards his station there, but from his personal physical qualifications, a man of large, it might almost be said, gigantic frame, and of a daring spirit, that knew not fear, was destined not only never to see that country more, but in a short space of time after leaving it, in the fullness of robust health and unthinking of death, to meet a sudden, shocking, and untimely end; to have his grave among the ungodly, far from country and friend, there to sleep, not unpitied, it is true, but hitherto unavenged.


On the voyage out, Captain Stavers, as is usual with persons engaged on similar voyages, touched at the Island of Guam, one of the Ladrones or Marianas; he there provided the ship with such refreshments as she stood in need of, and with the fullest approbation of the Governor, Don Jose Ganea Herrero, nay, it may be said at his desire and under his protection, he left sundry articles of merchandise for sale, affixing to them the prices at which they were to be sold; having thus done, he departed from the island in further prosecution of his voyage.


The coast of Japan, upon which ships cruise in search of whales, is subject at certain seasons to the visitation of dreadful tempests, and, consequently at such periods no vessels remain there. During the favourable season, Captain Stavers fished with great success; when this changed, he, with divers other vessels, once more sought the port of Guam. There are few places that the captains of vessels engaged with this fishery can with safety visit; but this being a settlement belonging to Spain, the inhabitants professing the Catholic religion, being considered civilised, and under the command of an European officer (a man who had served his native country, and been decorated with badges of honour), was considered, and indeed was, the only eligible port for obtaining refreshments, and effecting such repairs as their ships needed.


Shortly after this second visit of Captain Stavers to Guam, the Governor caused it to be intimated to him that he had imposed a duty of 30% on the goods left by him for sale as before mentioned. This imposition Captain Stavers considered most unjust, for not only had not the Governor given the slightest intimation that any duty would be imposed when these goods were left, and, in fact, no duty previously, in like cases, been charged, but part of these goods had been sold for, and the other part marked at, such prices as left no room for such imposition, without taking away that profit which was to remunerate the seller; independently of all which, Captain Stavers had great reason to believe that this duty was imposed on his goods only, and not upon those selling by others. Under these circumstances, it will not excite surprise in anyone that Captain Stavers felt indignant, and considered the conduct of the Governor both disingenuous and unjust.


In the course of the day in which he received this unexpected and unpleasant information, he communicated with several masters of ships, who all concurred in deprecating the demand set up by the Governor and in the propriety of Captain Stavers requesting the payment of it. Captain Stavers accordingly resolved to do so, and expressed his determination to see the Governor on the following day, and remonstrate with him on the subject. In the evening, however, of the then present and fatal day, having talked over the grievance till it had become magnified into one of still greater importance than it really was, and having perhaps drank so freely as to unfit him for calm reasoning, he on a sudden determined, unseasonable as was the hour of evening for such an occasion, to go on shore and demand at once an explanation of the Governor.


He landed accordingly , and proceeded forthwith to what is there called the Palace, and requested to see the governor; the sentinels on duty refused him admittance; this increased the irritation under which he laboured, so much so, that he expressed in very strong terms his determination to see the Governor in spite of all the opposition they might make. This being the case, and his demeanour testifying that it was likely that he would be as good as his word, the sentinels at length thought proper to call the Governor, who in a few seconds appeared at a balcony elevated a few feet above the street; as soon as he attracted the attention of Captain Stavers, the latter addressed him upon the subject his mind was so full of, and in a short space of time both parties were as angry as might be. As truth is the sole object of the writer of this narrative, and the simple facts are sufficiently melancholy, and reflect disgrace enough upon the Governor, without any unnecessary vilification of him, we will pass over what has been reported as the conversation that took place on this occasion. In reality, it is extremely doubtful whether either of the parties understood a twentieth part of what was said by the other; it was such a mixture of French, English and Spanish, and was uttered with such volubility, and under such excited feelings, that it would have puzzled the ablest linguist to have made one intelligible sentence out of all that was uttered. Suffice it to say that both parties felt aggrieved, and both talked of redress; finally they grew cooler, and Captain Stavers departed under an assurance that the Governor would meet him in the morning, and give him the satisfaction of a gentleman. Poor fellow, this was his idea of the matter, and was mentioned as such by him to several of his countrymen, whom he met shortly after, at the house of an Englishman resident upon the island.


Under an impression that all was at an end until the following day, Captain Stavers had seated himself in the house of the Englishman above-mentioned, had placed a glass of grog before him, and was talking with evident satisfaction of the morrow, when a Spanish officer entered the room. This person bore the title of Commissary; he seemed always particularly well-disposed toward Captain Stavers, and on approaching him now, he laid his sword on the table, shook hands with him cordially, and then patting him upon the shoulder, said, with apparent sincerity, that all should be settled in the morning, and the duty about which so much had been said taken off.


Whilst he thus spoke, and as it were instantaneously, the room was filled with soldiers (they entering with the utmost celerity through doors and windows), with a rapidity that left no opportunity for resistance (and therefore leaves without palliation their subsequent atrocious conduct); they seized Captain Stavers and his mate, separating them from the other Englishmen present, and with extreme violence hurried them out of the room; scarcely had they reached the street, when the mate heard his captain utter an exclamation as if wounded, and in the same moment he saw many arms upraised, and thrusts and blows given in every direction with inconceivable fury; a deep groan now pierced the air; the mate knew that it proceeded from his unhappy captain, and in an agony he cried out “My God!” A bayonet was at his throat in an instant and a musket levelled at him, and in this state he was hurried into the guard-house, which was close to the palace; the governor almost immediately after entered, his sword drawn, his frame agitated, his countenance full of ferocity – in a fierce and hurried accent, he exclaimed to the mate in Spanish, Tranquille! Tranquille! meaning, thereby, to inquire if he was peaceably inclined.


Alas! he was in the lion’s den; to contend was in vain; he therefore intimated that he was tranquil in the sense asked by the governor. Poor fellow! He was of course horror-struck, and a prey to the most gloomy apprehensions on account of his captain. As well as he could, he made the Governor understand that he desired to see his captain, and requested to be conducted to him (not in his worst forebodings dreaming he was dead); his wish was complied with,  he was led to the door; he loked out hastily, and anxiously searching for him with his eye, when his feet stumbled against something – it was the corpse of him who, but a few moments before, had stood proudly pre-eminent among his fellows – the bravest, the strongest, among many brave and strong men. The mate stopped, and looked upon his face, it was covered with blood; he lifted his head from the ground, and called upon his name, as if life was not quite extinct, the eyelids heavily unclosed for a moment, then closed for ever – the mate wept; he faintly entreated that they would remove the captain’s lifeless form from the place, and after this he is almost unconscious of what passed; he believes he was immediately taken into the palace, where he remained all night, and the whole of the following day, a prey to feelings, it may well be imagined, the most acute. He had sailed with Captain Stavers from boyhood; he has risen into command under him; he respected him as his commander; and loved him as his friend; his feelings on this occasion were such as did him honour, and entitle him to the esteem of all who value true affection.


We have said the mate was kept at the palace during the next day; in fact he was detained there as a prisoner, the Governor dreading, if he was allowed to go on board his ship, and commune with his brother officers and men under their command, that he would inflict some vengeance for the murder of his captain; and as all the English had left the island with precipitation, , and justly incensed with his conduct, he was under considerable apprehension that an attack would be made upon the island; he accordingly had the military called out (and under this name every male inhabitant is classed). What guns he had were ranged along the shore, and everything likely to offer defence was called into use; he justly enough, however, considered that his hostage (the mate) was his best hope of safety, and him, therefore, he kept closely, and endeavoured by all means to sooth and propitiate; in the meantime, the consternation on board the ships was extreme. The ardent feeling, so characteristic of British seamen, burst forth simultaneously, and to batter the town about his ears [sic], and then inflict summary justice upon Don Herrero, was the first and strong wish of the crew of every ship; their commanders, however, with great moderation, endeavoured to repress this spirit, prudently considering that it would do no good to the deceased, and might be productive of mischief to some innocent persons.


In the course of the day, the Governor sent an officer on board the several ships – this person, on his behalf, expressed the greatest sorrow for the event, and offered such excuses as he could in exculpation of his conduct; he further stated, that it was his wish that the deceased should have honourable interment; that the several officers would attend the same, and visit the shore upon the friendly footing they had formerly done. A consultation was accordingly held, and the result was, they went on shore with their respective surgeons, determined to examine the deceased previous to his burial.


On the floor of the guard-house lay the mangled remains of their friend – a melancholy spectacle indeed – covered with wounds and blood; and even at that early period, such is the effect of the climate, fast hastening to decay; on inspecting the corpse, the medical men enumerated the fatal wounds it had received, every one of which was mortal. The following is a copy of their account:


Post-mortem appearance of the body of the late John Stavers, commander of the ship Coquet, of London, as on examination by the under-signed, Oct. 21st , 1824, at the Governor’s Palace, in the town of Agana, in the Island of Guam.

  • A fracture of the frontal bone, extending from one transverse sture to the other; the weapon having penetrated into the anterior portions of the hemispheres of the brain.
  • Another fracture of the left parietal bone, commencing at the squamous suture, and extending upwards in length one inch and a half, likewise penetrating the substance of the brain underneath.
  • An extensive cut of the scalp over the bump of the os occipitis.
  • A gun-shot wound of the right fore-arm, the ball having passed between the radius and ulna.
  • A deep incised wound, commencing from the upper orbitary process of the malar bone, and extending downwards over the sterno-cleido-mastoideus muscle, in length five inches.
  • A sabre stab into the right lung.
  • A punctured wound of the abdomen on the left side, just through the integuments.
  • A bayonet stab into the back about an inch deep, close to the last dorsal vertebra.
  • A complete division of the radius and ulna of the left fore-arm, at the joint with the carpus; the hand hanging to the former only be a portion of the capsular ligament.”

This is signed by three surgeons; and annexed is a certificate that they are willing to make oath of the truth of their examination, that the several stabs and wounds were apparently inflicted by weapons of various descriptions, and such wounds the true cause of John Stavers’ death.


After this painful inspection had been taken, and the horribly formal detail we have given been duly minuted down, the corpse was decently composed, placed in a coffin, and borne to a grave prepared for it at the back of the palace; all the English captains of ships, most of the officers of them, and numerous seamen attending the melancholy interment. The Church of England burial service was read in an impressive manner, though in tones of sorrow, by one of the most intimate friends of the deceased; the earth then heaped upon one who through life had maintained the character of a brave and honourable man. Such never die unmourned by the brave, and his grave was not unbedewed by a manly, honest tear, nor unconsecrated by a heartfelt sigh. British hands reared a frail memorial above him, and for a short time at least, it will record the name, the quality, the fate of him who sleeps below.


We would willingly pass over unnoticed the conduct of those Spaniards who were either present at the burial of this ill-fated man or crowded the streets as it was borne along; it seems, however, wrong to do so, as it is a further proof of the ferocity of their character and of the total absence of all proper feeling at such a moment and for such a bloody event. The utmost levity was displayed by all; laughter was heard, and coarse jokes were uttered – nay, there was a sort of applause most apparent; and there is little question but that they considered the murder most just and proper, the deceased being a heretic, and therefore of no importance in their estimation. It was evident also that they were inclined to have offered yet greater indignities both to the living and the dead, had not their fears restrained them.


It will naturally enough be inquired what the conduct of the British was after this. That they placed no faith in any representation made by the Governor is true; that they believed that he was privy to, if not actually present at, and assisting in, the murder, they hesitated not to avow; that they wished and still wish for inquiry into the matter, and the infliction of an adequate punishment on the aggressors, is equally certain; but no one felt himself competent what to suggest, or how to act for the best under these circumstances; therefore nothing was done.


The Governor, up to the latest dates from the Island, still retained his situation (though, it is said, under evident depression of spirits), and no one had been called to account for the hand he had in the foul deed – a sufficient proof that the Governor was a party to it; for, had this been the case, would he not, for his own honour’s sake, for the honour of his country, cause some inquiry to be made, and some punishment inflicted on the offenders? Such seems the obvious course for a man of honour to have pursued; and failing so to act, he covers alike his name and office with odium and suspicion. It is said, when the Governor of Manilla heard of the transaction, he threatened to have Don Herrero recalled and the severest punishment inflicted upon him; as the latter derives his authority from the former, it is certain all this might have been done; as we have before noticed, however, Don Herrero still remained Governor of Guam and its dependencies.


It is to be hoped and expected that the British Government will not be negligent in this matter. Spain, it is true, has not much power, and still less of inclination, to make reparation for such a wrong; yet it will not do to pass over it lightly; the life of an Englishman has been wantonly and barbarously sacrificed, and the lives of Englishmen may hereafter again and again be so, if such a governor is to remain unpunished and unnoticed; inquiry, therefore, is imperiously necessary, and such a one as shall convince Englishmen that their Government will not suffer any foreign power to inflict an injury upon them with impunity.


Let it be borne in mind also that the ill-fated Captain Stavers has left behind him a widow and two young children totally unprovided for – that their case is truly pitiable – that on their account justice is necessary; and if this Governor, this Don Herrero, has any worldly effects, the King, his master, ought to cause them to be sequestrated and applied to the benefit of this murdered man’s family. Alas! this, at all events, is a remote and perhaps altogether forlorn expectation. For kindliness, support and comfort, the unfortunate widow and her fatherless children must look at home. It is in Britain only that the injured can hope for redress, and here, truly, is a case calling for the fullest exercise of British benevolence – here is no fictitious distress, no doubtful calamity to arrest the hand of bounty; death has deprived them of their best earthly stay and support, and we feel well assured that the British merchant, the British mariner, nay the whole British public, will truly sympathise with the destitute widow and her little ones. 


    There is also an account of the incident in a book by Thomas Beale, a ship’s surgeon on whaling ships, who heard about it on a visit to Guam. Describing Stavers’ visit to the Governor’s palace, he wrote that Stavers, 


who was a most bold and resolute man, and who was also unfortunately addicted to habits of intemperance, but still possessed of many excellent and amiable traits, was observed opposite the palace in a state of intoxication, armed with a brace of pistols, with which he challenged the governor out to fight. Many of the people who knew him — for he had often visited this island before — were well acquainted with his boisterous though harmless nature — they well knew that his words were "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," they therefore smiled at him as they passed, and thought of his conduct no more than that it was a mere petty brawl between him and the governor; every generous mind would have felt the same towards him, when all the circumstances are considered, but in this island there are wretches who require blood for an angry word, — and so it happened with Stavers, who continued to call upon his cowardly acquaintance until near sunset, but no one up to that time molested him in the least, although there was a Spanish guard near the palace — or more properly, white-washed barn — of eight or ten men, whom I believe he also challenged.  The captain, however, having called for a long time in vain, became quite exhausted from the heat of the sun and other causes, and he therefore retired at last into the house of an Englishman who resided near the palace.5


    There were strong protests from the British Government and the Governor was eventually sacked. His successor removed Jack’s bones from the grave behind the Governor’s palace where they had been buried and sent them back to Jack’s wife in Rotherhithe for reburial there. He wrote the following letter to her:


“Esteemed Madam,


Whilst in the city of Manilla, the distressing account reached me of the death of your husband, who was my most intimate friend. Without a moment’s delay I presented myself to his Excellency Don Mariano Ricafort, Governor and Captain-General of the kingdom, and demanded a trial of the author of this evil, which was granted. Immediately after His Excellency appointed me the successor to the above-mentioned aggressor, and on my arrival and taking possession of the Government of these islands, my first care was to put under arrest and in good custody the assassin of your husband, who remains in prison until an opportunity presents itself for remitting him to the disposition of the above-mentioned Government, in order that the Gentlemen of the Royal Audience (the Judges) may determine what punishment he may suffer, and that his execrable crime should not go unabhorred.


As it seemed to me that the place where the deceased was buried was unsuitable to his circumstances, I determined to disinter his bones, and have placed them in the fittest manner I could in a case, which I have entrusted to the care of Don John Renwick, Captain of the ship Lyra, in order that he should deliver them to you, that you may, if you please, perform the due funeral obsequies, and bury them with corresponding decorum.


I hope, dear Madam, that you will pardon the liberty I have taken, as it springs from the affection I entertained for the deceased, and I hope I shall always be considered your most true and sincere friend.




    Jack’s wife, whom he had married in Stepney 1817 after his emergence from jail, was, like him, from Northumberland. It is not clear what happened to her immediately after Jack’s death, but she died ten years later and by the time of the 1851 census his two daughters were living with their maternal aunt Isabella Huggup in Tynemouth. They both later married. 


Ships commanded by John “Japan Jack” Stavers:

Thames 1814 -1816 (owner Wm. Mellish) bringing back 1500 barrels of sperm oil.

Pomona 1818-1821,  bringing back 550 casks in 1819 and 620 casks  plus fins in 1821.

Sir George Osborne  (ship, 316 tons, built France)1821-1823

Coquet or Coquette (495 tons, built 1807) 1823-1826




1. The Times 18.1026

2.He is listed in an 1806 French Register of POWs, National Archives ref: ADM 103/468 Part 1, which reveals four other prisoners from the Perseverance.

3. Morning Chronicle (inter alia) 21.11.1816

4. Letter from John Stavers (son of Captain George Stavers), to his sister Barbara Lambert, 7.9.1943, in the possession of the author.

5. Thomas Beale The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, 1839, pp.335-339.

6. The Times, 18.4.1827