2.2. Captain William Stavers (1765-1816)


  This branch of the family is well documented, mainly thanks to the extraordinary Journal written by Captain Thomas Reid Stavers (1798-1867).1


  William Stavers was the youngest son of the William Stavers who came from Scotland in the mid-18th century. Not only was he a notable merchant master mariner in his own right, but three of his sons were also well known sea captains. The whaling trade was increasingly based on London and he moved south to London at an early age - when he married Margaret Crowther in 1784 at St Katherine-by-the-Tower (in what is now Tower Hamlets), both were described as of residents of the parish. He appears to have moved fairly shortly afterwards to Rotherhithe on the other side of the Thames, as his children were baptised there.


    He first followed his elder brother Captain John Stavers into the Arctic whaling trade. There is no information on how he began his maritime career, but doubtless he got himself signed on as cabin boy or apprentice in the traditional way.  By 1789 he was captain of the whaling ship Leviathan (owned by the Mellish family), fishing for black or "right" whale off Greenland and in the Davis Strait. The Leviathan and the Mellish, captained by his elder brother, arrived back at Gravesend on the same day in 1789, the latter with a catch of 1 fish and the Leviathan with 5 fish (whales were commonly known in the trade as "fish"). His brother John’s ship the Aurora was also recorded by Lloyds List as arriving home from the Davis Strait at the same time as the Leviathan in both 1791 and 1792, so probably the brothers made a habit of sailing in convoy.


    By 1793, however, William and the Leviathan had moved on to the somewhat less unpleasant but in many ways more challenging South Sea whaling. The challenges in the southern whaling industry were not just the normal marine risks but also, because his career spanned various wars, the risk of being captured by enemy ships, something that happened to William twice.



The voyage of the Perseverance 1802-3: capture by the French


    By 1801, William had taken command of another whaler, the Perseverance, a vessel of 414 tons, with a crew of 35. Like the Leviathan, it was one of a number of whaling ships belonging to the trading house of Peter and William Mellish, for whom several of the Stavers captains worked, including William’s father. The relationship between the Stavers and the Mellishes is illustrated by the fact that William called one of his sons Peter Mellish – no doubt with Peter Mellish of the trading house standing godfather. He was to make four journeys with her, two to the south Atlantic and two to the Pacific.

   His first voyage passed off without incident and he was safely back at Gravesend in May 1802. But these were dangerous times, as Britain was at war with revolutionary France and Spain, and on her next journey she was seized by a French privateer, despite being armed, with six nine-pound guns. A later court case over the ownership of the cargo gives a lot of detail about the journey.2  

  Although the captain was hired by the ship’s owners, he was responsible for hiring the crew. All came aboard for the 1802-3 voyage at Deptford in August 1802, apart from one black man who came aboard at St Helena, a regular stopover for whalers.  The ship sailed for the coast of Brazil in search of whales, touching inter alia at St Helena. Some passengers came aboard at St Helena – it was quite common for these merchant ships to take a few passengers, as deep sea passenger vessels did not exist at the time. The journey was a successful one, amassing a cargo of 360 tons of whale oil and 120 tons of whale bones, the produce of 36 whales from the coasts of Brazil and Africa. 

    In October 1803, the Perseverance was on her way home, steering a course towards the English Channel, when she was taken by a French privateer, whose master had the good revolutionary name of Captain Citizen Etienne.  She was retaken within a couple of days by the British frigate Sirius and brought back to Plymouth, but not before Citizen Etienne had taken on board his own ship William, William’s 20-year-old nephew John Stavers and several other passengers. William was quickly exchanged for an important Frenchman, no doubt due to the excellent connections of the Mellish family, but the others languished long in French captivity.

    Both William and the Perseverance having returned home safely, William undertook one more whaling trip with her, leaving in August 1806 and returning in 1809. This time he ventured for the first time into the Pacific (probably round Cape Horn), involving a much longer and more arduous voyage and setting a precedent that four of his sons were to follow. The Perseverance clearly had “letters of marque” from the Brirish Government authorising her to act as a “privateer” under the conventions of war and to seize enemy  vessels, as  she captured an unnamed Spanish vessel laden with sugar (this was a period of the Peninsular War)3, and also either on this journey or the previous one the Santa Gertrudis alias Juno, as the vessel was put on sale in 1808 at Lloyds Coffee House as a prize taken by the Perseverance.4


Voyage of the Seringapatam: Capture by the Americans

    William next took command (probably in January 1810) of another South Sea whaler belonging to the Mellishes, the Seringapatam. On his second voyage with the Seringapatam, in March 1812, he took with him two of his sons, John (mate) and Francis (gunner).5

    During the Napoleonic wars, there had been continual low-level hostilities between the UK and the USA over trade and territorial issues, and in 1812 the USA had declared war on Britain. William arrived at the whaling grounds off the Galapagos Islands at the height of this war. The Americans had long resented the presence of British whalers in the Pacific, and the war was seen as an opportunity by some to try to clear the eastern Pacific of the British ships.   This was a mission espoused with passion by the redoubtable US Navy Captain David Porter, who had at the beginning of the war been given command of the USS Essex, with which he captured several British merchantmen.  The Seringapatam was a formidable ship, having originally been built in 1799 for the navy of Tippoo Sultan. She had a crew of 41 and was armed with 14 nine-pounder guns.  William Stavers was moreover by this time a highly experienced whaler captain with reputation for enterprise and aggression, who clearly enjoyed the sport of capturing enemy vessels and in May 1812 had captured the Nantucket whaling ship Edward.6 Porter soon therefore had the Seringapatam in his sights.

    In July 1812, off the Galapagos Islands, the Essex, accompanied by two other US ships, proved impossible for even the wily William Stavers to avoid and after an exchange of fire the Seringapatam was captured. David Porter later wrote that:

The capture of this ship gave me more pleasure than that of any other that fell into my hands; for, besides being the finest ship in those seas, her commander had the character of being a man of great enterprise … Although he had come into the Pacific on a whaling voyage, he had given little attention to that object while there was a hope of meeting American whalers. On requiring of this man that he should deliver his commission [i.e. letters of marque], he, with the utmost terror in his countenance, informed me that he had none with him, but was confident that his owners had, before this period, taken one out for him, and he had no doubt would send it to Lima, where he expected to receive it. It was evident that he was a pirate, and I did not feel that it would be proper to treat him as I had other prisoners of war. I therefore ordered him and all his crew in irons; but after enquiring of the American prisoners whom I had found on board the prize as to the manner in which they had been treated by the crew of the Seringapatam, and being satisfied that they, as well as the mates, were not to blame for the conduct of their commander, I liberated them from confinement, keeping Stavers only in irons.7


    Porter was determined to send William Stavers to the United States to be put on trial as a pirate.  As he wrote later:

I was desirous of getting rid of Stavers. He was a man of great cunning and considerable observation and, however desirous I might be of concealing my intentions, I was apprehensive that some circumstances might lead him to conjecture rightly as to my future views. In order to put it entirely out of his power to obtain and give such information as was calculated to benefit the enemy or frustrate my plans. I thought it advisable (as I had always intended sending him to America for trial).8


    William was sent back to the United States on the Georgiana, a British prize prize ship seized by Porter. Fortunately for William, however, the Georgiana was recaptured by a British frigate before reaching the US, and William emerged unscathed from this adventure,9 as indeed did his sons who were “paroled” and sent to Rio de Janeiro in one of the US ships.10


William’s last voyage: the Perseverance 1816-1818


    In September 1816, William again took charge of the Perseverance for a disastrous voyage to the Brazil Banks which ended in his death, a journey which is described in detail in the journal of his son Thomas Reid Stavers, who was part of the crew as a boat-steerer (responsible for steering one of the boats from which the actual harpooning of the whales was done). He recorded how a school of whales was spotted and the boats were lowered. William went in one of the boats himself and Thomas Reid was in another.  In the latter’s words,


A Whale came up close to my Father’s Boat. The Boat-steerer struck her. When I saw the Boat knocked to pieces, our boat was about a Mile from my Father's. We pulled towards them as quickly as possible. The first thing I saw was my dear Father lying dead on the Water. I caught hold of the Collar of his Shirt the way the Boat had drew me over board. The crew caught me by the legs and hauled the son and Father into the Boat. We then pulled for the Ship where every means were used by the Doctor to restore him, but alas, my dear Father was gone to that Goal where none return.


   Despite being absent at sea so often, William married (twice) and fathered nine children. Of his five sons, four became notable sea captains – John Reid Stavers, Francis Stavers, Peter Mellish Stavers and Thomas Reid Stavers. The exception was his eldest son William, who became part of the British and then Dutch colonial machine in India and the East Indies, and whose history is also worthy of note, so is included here even though he was never a sea captain.


  It was normal for South Sea whaling captains to have a share of the profits from their voyages, and it was possible for a successful and canny captain to become quite rich. William seems to have built up sufficient resources to purchase at least one ship (or possibly a share in it) for him to be able to describe himself as a shipowner at the time of his youngest daughter’s baptism in 1814.  By that time he had also moved to the parish of St James’s Piccadilly (T.R. Stavers recalls his having lodgings in Haymarket, next to the theatre), which also indicates that he was doing well.


    There has been a suggestion that a Captain Stavers introduced the potato to New Zealand. An old Maori chieftain told a British visitor in 1815 of an earlier visit by a Captain  “Stivers” and his ship, during which the captain apparently supplied some seed potatos to the locals, giving birth to a Maori  word for potato,  taewa, a corruption of “Stavers”. Assuming the visit was around 1800, this would have been Wiliam Stavers. Although there is no record of his visiting New Zealand, it is certainly within the bounds of possibility that the Leviathan did so.11


Ships commanded by William Stavers:

Mary Ann: 1787

Leviathan (ship, built 1776, 303 tons): 1789-99

Perseverance (ship, built 1801, 400 tons): 1801-1809

Seringapatam (ship, built India 1799, 336 tons) 1813-12

Perseverance (ship, 400 tons, built 1801, owned Mellish) 1816-1818





1. http://whalesite.org/anthology/trstaversjournal.htm

2. National Archives ref: HCA 32/1619/4724.

3. Caledonian Mercury 15.8.1808

4. Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 21.3.1808.


6. Ben Hughes: In pursuit of the Essex: Heroism and Hubris on the High Seas in the war of 1812, 2016

7. David Porter, A voyage in the South Seas, in the years 1812, 1813 and 1814, 1823, pp. 62-63.

8. David Porter (main author) Journal of a cruise made to the Pacific Ocean by Captain David Porter in the United States frigate Essex, 1815, p.207.

9. William S Dudley and Michael J Crawford The Naval War of 1812: a Documentary History, Vol 1 p.792,

10. Register of British POWWs, America, 1812, National Archives ADM 103/466

11. Rhys Richards: Rongogute, Stivers and “other visitors” to New Zealand  “before Captain Cook”, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 102, No. 1 (March 1993), pp. 77-38.