TALES OF THE STAVERS CAPTAINS

PART 2: THE ROTHERHITHE STAVERS

 

2.6. PETER MELLISH STAVERS  (1795-1870)

 

    Peter Mellish Stavers, the fourth of the sons of William Stavers, was baptised like his siblings at St Mary’s Rotherhithe. It is likely that he was named “Mellish” because his parents had asked one of the Mellish family to be his godfather. The Mellishes were traders who owned a number of whaling ships, including the Leviathan and the Perseverance, for which they had employed William Stavers as captain. Although only undertook two South Seas whaling voyages, he continued as an active captain of both freight and passenger shps for many years afterwards in India and the Far East, and after he retired from the sea became involved in merchant marine politics in London.

 

    Peter joined the south sea whaler Thames in 1811 at the age of 16 as an apprentice, being promoted Third Mate in 1814.1 His next ship was the whaler Spring Grove as Mate.  In August 1818 he was appointed master of the Zephyr. This journey is particularly well documented, as he inviting his younger brother T.R. Stavers to join him as Second Mate on a whaling voyage round Cape Horn, and Thomas gives a detailed description in his Journal.

 

    After a “boisterous” journey round the Cape they arrived off the coast of Chile in September, where they fell in with Francis Stavers on the Policy. On 4 February 1819, they caught their first whale. However, in yet another example of how easy it was for these deep sea captains to become inadvertently involved in other people’s wars, they found themselves caught up in Admiral Lord Cochrane’s taking the port of Paita, a popular reprovisioning place for whaling ships on the Chilean coast.

 

    Cochrane was a dashing figure who, after a brilliant career in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, turned mercenary and took command of the Chilean navy during the Chilean war of independence against Spain. As the Zephyr had approached Paita, its crew had noticed a large ship and a brig sailing after it all day. It turned out that this was Lord Cochrane coming to take the place, then still in the control of the Spanish. T.R. Stavers described what happened once they arrived in port:

    We had not been at Anchor more than three hours when the Boats belonging to the Frigate were sent in to cut out the Spanish vessel’s lying inside of us. At 9 O'clock the shot came across our Deck like Hail stones, for the people on board of the Spanish vessels had jumped over board, and alarmed the Town. The next morning a Brig was sent in to attack the Fort, and our Ship being in the way, we received more damage than they did. 

      We had to tow the Zephyr out with the boats. The shot flying in every direction but thank God no one was hurt. After we got clear, we saw the troops landed, and the place taken. Our Ship's company then became dissatisfied because they could not get on shore and refused to work. But, as usual, this was forgiven, and they went to work when they found they could not get on shore. We then steered for the Galapagos Islands and anchored there on the 10th of May 1819. We took a supply of Turpin, and then put to sea to cruize off the North Head. We were very unsuccessful and short of Salt Provisions so that we could not leave the Galapagos Islands, for when our stock of Turpin were out, we used to go and get more. After knocking about the Ocean for Thirty Months we were obliged to go Home with 1100 Barrels of Sperm Oil, and arrived in England on the 6th of February 1821.

 

    The Zephyr departed again in May 1821, leaving Portsmouth at the same time as the Tuscan,, commanded by Peter’s brother Francis and the Earl Morley commanded by his brother John, presumably by brotherly arrangement. She returned with a good cargo in September 1823. This was Peter’s last whaling voyage.

 

    By 1825, perhaps through the agency of his eldest brother William, he had moved to the Dutch colony of Java, where he commanded ships trading in the Dutch East Indies, including his first steamship, the Van der Cappellen. He then moved in 1828 to Calcutta, where he again captained a variety of merchant vessels travelling mainly between India, Singapore, China and Australia.  In 1831 as captain of the Argyle he took 250 male convicts (of whom six died en route)  from Plymouth (18.3.31) to Australia, via Rio de Janeiro, a journey of  138 days,  arriving in Hobart on 3 August 1831. During the voyage an unsuccessful attempt to seize the vessel was made, and when they arrived in Australia some of the prisoners charged with conspiracy.2

    In 1841-2 he was captain of the steamship India, which made the first journey by a steamship from Suez to India. This was a pioneering voyage, important because it facilitated the passage for travellers between Britain and Bengal journey (19th century travellers to India, before the Suez Canal opened, would take a ship from Britain to Alexandria, proceed overland to Suez and then take another ship from Suez to India). The India had been built in 1840 to take mail and passengers between Suez and India, but before she could do so, she was diverted into taking troops from Calcutta to Moulmein in Burma, where there was unrest.3 She finally conveyed passengers in 1842.   At the end of the journey, the passengers wrote the following letter:

 

On board the Steamer “India”

1st April 1842

Dear Sir,

Being on the eve of arriving at our several destinations, we desire to express to you ere separating our sense of the attention and civility we have received from you during the time that we have been on board the “India”.

Although the voyage has been attended with difficulties, which will, doubtless, be obviated when the communication becomes better established, yet we have no hesitation in declaring that the delay and inconvenience we have established, have been surmounted entirely by your indefatigable personal exertions and activity. We hail, however, the conclusion of this voyage, as important in establishing the perfect feasibility of a direct communication by Steam between Calcutta, Madras and Suez, and conclude by offering you our best wishes, begging you will accept a small piece of Plate [i.e. silver] in token of our good feelings towards yourself, as well as in commemoration of this first successful attempt at Steam Navigation between Suez and Bengal.

We are, dear Sir, faithfully yours [followed by the signatures of 26 passengers.4

 

    He married Margaret Catherine Mc Niell, whose two sisters were subsequently to marry Francis and Thomas Reid Stavers, and had 10 children. Most of his children probably died young in the unhealthy Indian climate, as only his eldest son and his spinster youngest daughter appear in later records.

 

   His wife died in India in 1845 after the birth of her last child. He seems then to have returned to the UK as in 1851 he was living in Islington with his 11-year old son Richard (who went to sea as an apprentice at the age of 13 and joined the East India Company service, but then died of sunstroke in 1864, at the age of 255). In 1857 he was a founder member and on the executive committee of the Mercantile Marine Service Association, formed by a group of shipowners, merchants, mariners and engineers to improve conditions in the merchant marine, and was part two delegations from the Association  to argue their case with the Board of Trade.6 He died in Greenwich in 1870, at the age of 75, leaving about £1,5007.

 

Ships commanded by Peter Mellish Stavers8

 

Zephyr (port London, ship built 1811, 286 tons) 1818-1823

Thalia(?) (port Java, 420 tons) 1825

Mary (port Java, 400 tons) 1827

Van der Cappellen (steamer, port Java, 336 tons) 1825-6

Cecelia (brig, port Java, 199 tons) 1828-9

Argyle  (port Calcutta, 578 tons, trading London-India ) 1829-33

Brougham(?)  (port Calcutta, 227 tons) 1833

Mermaid (port Calcutta, 577 tons) 1834-36

Cowasjee Family (port Calcutta, 431 tons, between Calcutta, Singapore and Canton); 1838-39

India (port Calcutta, 1206 tons, Suez-India, mail and passengers) 1841-42

 

 

 

 

 Notes

1. Master’s Certificate of Service of 1851

2. Launceston Times (Tasmania) 12.9.1831

3. Morning Chronicle 21.3,1855 and 28.3.1825

4. Letter in possession of the author. All the passengers have signed on the back. This letter strangely ended up in the possession of Captain George Stavers (1825-1891), leading to the misapprehension in his family that he was the captain, even though he would only have been 17 at the time. Contemporary press reports indicate that the India left Calcutta on 11 January, arriving in Suez on 11 February. The letter was presumably written on the occasion of a later celebratory party to present the captian with the "small piece of Plate".

5. Morning Advertiser 29.6.1864

6. Morning Chronicle 27.6.1857

7. National Probate Calendar

8. These are listed in a master’s certificate of service, 1855, two names illegible. National Maritime Museum.

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