TALES OF THE STAVERS CAPTAINS

PART 2: THE ROTHERHITHE STAVERS

 

2.2. WILLIAM “JACK” STAVERS (1789-1862), Knight of the Netherlands

 

    William seemed set to follow a naval career, entering the British East India Company’s navy as a midshipman at the age of 141. The East India Company had originally been set up in the time of Queen Elizabeth I by London merchants under as a private company to trade in the Indian Ocean area. But during the 18th century, in the dying days of the Mughal Empire, it took control of large swathes of India. It had its own private army and navy, but also received military backing from the British Government (the Company’s rule in India only came to an end in 1858 when the British Crown took direct control of those parts of India ruled by the Company).

    William seems to have displayed considerable ability from a young age.  He became a second mate on only his second voyage with the Company’s navy – particularly rapid progress. But he decided that the sea was not for him. At the age of 17 he left the East India Company and joined the British Army, volunteering for the 25th Regiment of the Light Dragoons, which had been raised for service in India. 

  Over the next 10 years, he was involved with is regiment in a number of imperialist engagements in support of the East India Company’s position in India.  In 1806 he participated in the suppression of a violent mutiny by the Company’s Indian troops at Vellore in South India. During the Napoleonic Wars, he was part of the force that captured Mauritius (then known as Isle de France) from the French (the East India Company was by this time operating well beyond the Indian sub-continent).

    William’s career then moved to Java (now part of Indonesia), where he was to spend the rest of his life. The island of Java had belonged to the Dutch East India Company and then the Dutch State, but by 1810 it had been annexed by Napoleonic France. In 1811 the British East India Company despatched a successful military expedition from India to take Java from the French. William was part of this expedition and was one of the foremost in scaling Fort Cornelius where the defenders were entrenched. Shortly afterwards he was made an officer on the field of battle.

    Sir Stamford Raffles, who had been appointed the British Governor of Java, mounted various military expectations to subdue local princes and in 1812 William Stavers was part of the party which stormed the palace of the Sultan of Jogjakarta (one of the three main princes). He seems to have stood high in Raffles’ estimation, as when Raffles created a native military, he had the first captaincy of it.

    After the fall of Napoleon, Java was returned to the Netherlands. William Stavers stayed on, however, and settled down at Surakarta in central Java as a merchant and coffee planter on lands leased to him by the local princely house.2 His relationship with the local sultan was so good that in the treaty of cession of Java to the Netherlands, his  leaseholds were given special protection. In 1814 he married the 16-year old Maria Schmidt (or Smith), the Eurasian daughter of an old Dutch officer, by whom he had three children. He seems to have prospered during this period, as in 1822 he returned to London with his wife and child, returning only when he heard that the Dutch Indies Government had revoked the leases on the land on which his coffee wealth depended, an ungrateful act as he rendered considerable help to the Dutch authorities, having been active in helping to suppress local mutinies in 1817 and 1822.3

    When the five-year “Java War”, a major uprising led by the rebellious local prince Diep Negoto, broke he was appointed an officer in the Solo Schuttery or local National Guard and played an active part in the war, at various times both helping the Dutch fight against the rebels and at others negotiating with Diep Negoro. At one period during the war, he was said to be the only person with whom Prince Diep Negoro (the most important rebel leader, whom he had known since the latter’s childhood) and the local priesthood would treat, and the only person who could safely enter the prince’s camp even under flag of truce.

  General de Kock, the Dutch Commander-in-chief was lavish with his public thanks to Stavers, but the Dutch were tardy in giving any restitution for Stavers’ lost estates. His plight even hit the British press. An indignant article by a Times correspondent in Batavia (as the Dutch East Indies was known) in 18274 which is worth quoting from in extenso, illustrating as it does the latent hostility between Dutch and British at this time of imperial rivalry but also Stavers’ apparent tendency to angry words, reminiscent of his uncle “Japan Jack”.

… it is not towards the natives the Dutch are alone faithless: towards Captain Stavers, who may be said to have been their saviour, they have acted infamously. This brave and active man has, on all occasions, been foremost in their ranks, whether to fight or to negotiate, he has been equally prompt and efficient. To guide them in their marches through the interior – to place them on their guard from sudden attacks – to discover the measures and means of their enemies and to open communication with them from time to time has been [his] unceasing employment: and how has he been served? He has been thanked!  Previous to the war, he took from him his valuable plantations after ordering that no European, particularly an Englishman, should reside in the interior. They fixed their own price for compensation, low enough you may be assured; and having done so, very coolly tell him, that they will pay him when they can. Shortly after this, the war commenced; – then his services became desirable, - then it was considered whether he might not be left in the interior. The Governor took a great fancy to him, and finding that he knew the shortest ways through and about the country (very important knowledge in case of a retreat), he would scarcely let him go out of his sight.

Well, Stavers rendered the most important service: in fact he saved the Dutch forces from destruction over and over again; and in this last rainy season, how has he been rewarded? Why, by being refused even the paltry pay they had agreed to give him, which was not sufficient to liquidate a tenth part of his expenses. He then requires them to come to a settlement for his plantations, when his excellency the Commissioner-General, as he is called, very graciously tells him that the Government have no means of paying him, but they will return him his estates, if the Princes who granted them to him will give their consent. Mark this. The Princes owe Stavers many thousands, and, in truth, would be very glad if Stavers would not only takes the lands they formerly granted him, but a few miles of territory, if he pleased; for till he had the lands they were next to useless; but what do you think is the reason of His Excellency offering to give back the lands? I’ll tell you. When they were taken away from Stavers, they were in the most flourishing condition – in fact some of the best coffee gardens in the country. During Stavers’ absence during the wars, his own people defended his lands from several attacks by the rebels; but these latter repeated them so often (feeling that Stavers, by the assistance he was lending the Dutch, was their greatest enemy), that at length they succeeded in destroying every [bit] of property: his houses, his cattle, every stick of coffee, was reduced to ashes, a smiling village made desolate; and this is now offered to be returned, if the Princes will consent. Can you conceive greater mockery? Is there any man on earth, except a Dutchman, who would have the effrontery to make such an offer? This has been done, and after all the circumstances I have stated.

Stavers is naturally indignant; he has about him all the quick feelings of a soldier, and has in consequence been blunt and candid. Such conduct suits not courts; not even the courts of colonies. He is one who studies little their likes and dislikes, and has seen plain in consequence; he knows what is right; and he claims above all that his rights be berespected. To make the case worse, one of the Princes who bought a carriage from Stavers for 3,500 rupees, on purpose to ride about in these campaigns, cannot get money enough to pay for it.

 

    As is hinted at in this article, Stavers was something of a rough diamond, albeit a popular one among the expatriate community who no doubt inspired the article. An acquaintance who knew him in the 1820s described him as “a very kind, excellent hearted rough fellow, in whose house I have spent many a happy day”.5

    It is not clear whether Stavers got his compensation, but in 1828 he was made a Captain of the Staff of the Dutch Commissioner-General6 and the Dutch did later make him a knight (4th class) of the Military Order of William of the Netherlands, the oldest and highest of the Dutch honours, awarded for outstanding bravery in battle. As The Times reported in 1841 he was given special permission by Queen Victoria to wear (a requirement for foreign decorations conferred on British subjects).

    After the end of the Java war, William relocated to East Java, where he became involved in the area’s burgeoning sugar industry.7 He seems to have tried a number of ventures, including running a small foundry, but without having great success. In 1839, he appears to have decided to return to England, acquiring a steamboat with his brother Francis to run a service between Poole and Portsmouth.8 This venture does not seem to have lasted, however. While in London, he donated a number of Javanese artefacts to what is the United Services Institution.9 In 1840 he visited The Hague10 and with the help of Dutch friends obtained a government contract for the manufacture of sugar on Java. This represented a turning in his luck. With his associates, he set up what was to become one of the most up-to-date and best equipped factories in Java.11

  He remained there with his family for the rest of his life. When he died aged 72, according to his obituary,12 he was buried with military and masonic honours (several Stavers seem to have been masons). During his long and varied career on the island, he clearly built up a quite exceptional knowledge of the place and its inhabitants, as well as achieving generally good relations with the local rulers. Although his relations with Dutch authorities were sometimes fractious, he seems to have been highly regarded in the expatriate community. So a rather remarkable character.

    Interestingly, he is described as “the Javanese-speaking Scots land-renter in Surakarta” in one book about Java, so it seems that he was still conscious of his Scots roots.13


Notes 

1. Obituary in the Morpeth Herald of 2.8.1862. This obituary also appeared in various other journals.

2.G Roger Knight, Descrying the bourgeoisie: Sugar, capital and State in the Netherlands Indies circa 1840-1884, pp. 42-45 Bijdragen tot de Taal- Land- en Volkenkunde Vol 163, No. 1 (2007).

3. Morpeth Herald, ibid.

4. The Times, 28.12.1827. There is also an earlier report about Dutch ingratitude to Stavers  in The Times of 7.2.1827.

5. G. Roger Knight, The Industrial Project in Colonial Java 1830-1885, (University of Adelaide Press 2014), p.146 quoting Gillian Maclaine to John Gregorson, Salatiga, 29.5.1822,.Gloucestershire Archives, Osborne-Maclaine, MSS D3330, Box 18. This book contains much interesting information about Stavers’ caeer in the sugar industry.

6. The Times 12.1.1828

7. Knight, 2007 op. cit.

8. T.R. Stavers Journal.

9. United Services Institute Journal 1840, Part 2, p. 563. They were: “A four armed Image, 2 feet 9 inches, on a black stone pedestal dug up from a depth of 12 feet on the north side of Mount Cawvie, 4000 feet above the level of the sea.  A smaller figure from Singhosavie. 6 Kreeses. Two Swords. One Spear. One blowpipe and case of arrows. Two Matchlocks. Three Malay spears. One Chines Sword. One Alligator’s skull. One Tiger’s skull.”

10. Morpeth Herald, ibid

11. Knight, 2007, op.cit.

12.. Morpeth Herald, ibid

13. Peter Carey, The Power of the Prophecy 2007, Chapter X, note 129.

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