Tag Archives: shipwreck

Jamaica in the 18th century British Press

I was searching the British Newspaper Archive last week and in an idle moment wondered just how much coverage there was of Jamaica. A search for the single word ‘Jamaica’ was revealing. Even bearing in mind the rapid increase in the number and size of newspapers, particularly during the 18th century, the increase in references to Jamaica is an indicator of its rising importance to the British economy, and sadly during the 20th century also its decline.

  • 1710-1749      5,703
  • 1750-1799    28,818
  • 1800-1849  169,096
  • 1850-1899  390,761
  • 1900-1949     74,838
  • 1950-1999          648

A further breakdown in the first half of the 18th century is also revealing (again bearing in mind that the number of papers was also increasing).

  • 1710-19        96
  • 1720-29      996
  • 1730-39    1,147
  • 1740-49    3,464

Incidentally re-running the search a day later produced a few more references, either due to minor vagaries of the indexing system, or to the addition of new newspaper scans. The ten year project to digitise the newspaper collections of the British Library is on-going, so as with many on-line sources it’s worth popping back from time to time to see if an item of interest is now available.

And like maps, I find old newspapers endlessly fascinating. Where else could you learn that in 1742 a clerk to a vinegar merchant in Hoglane, reputed to be worth £2000, a widower for thirty years and who had pass’d his Grand Climackterick five years had married a lass of nineteen!

More particularly for the family or other historian you may find mention of someone in an unexpected context – perhaps a house sale, or as victim (or perpetrator) of a crime.

For example I wrote a while back about the scandal involving Joseph Biscoe and his wife and found that not long after the court case Biscoe sold all the contents of the house he had owned in Derbyshire, from which it sounds as if he was getting rid of everything that might be connected with her.

Biscoe sale

But to return to Jamaica. Many of the early references are records of which ship has arrived and what the cargo was. On the 2nd of September1712 the Newcastle Courant announced that a galley called the Rapier had arrived from Jamaica carrying a cargo of ‘sugar, cocoa, indigo etc.’ Many announcements during periods of war related to British ships being captured, or enemy ships that had been captured and their cargo taken. For people anxiously awaiting news of the arrival of friends or family, or whose fortune was tied up in a particular cargo, the shipping news in the papers was a vital source of information, especially for those who did not live in one of the major ports.

It was through the British Newspaper Archive that I discovered a reference in 1768 to a box addressed to Joseph Lee being washed up on the shore near Penzance with a large quantity of mahogany presumed to be from a shipwreck. As I knew that Joseph Lee was visiting London at the time and the box was addressed care of Messers Thomas and Stephen Fuller, Merchants in London, I knew for certain this must relate to the Joseph Lee whose letters feature in A Parcel of Ribbons.

Sadly also there are sometimes adverts relating to runaways.

Missing black boy 1807

This one appears to be a boy who was free rather than a slave, but one wonders what it was that made John Thomas run away from his apprenticeship and offer himself to someone else. The age given is young for an apprentice, so was he in fact a slave whose master wished to disguise the fact at a time when emancipation and an end to the slave trade was very much under discussion?


Newspapers are an invaluable source of information I’ve only touched on the British ones here, but of course there were newspapers published in Jamaica, and you will also find many references in American newspapers.

Lost at Sea

Aivasovsky Ivan Constantinovich The Shipwreck

 The Shipwreck by Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Given the dangers of travel by sea in the 18th century it has always amazed me how frequently people crossed the Atlantic.  Sea captains like Stephen Blankett made regular trips to Jamaica every year, and it was on ships such as his that hopefuls travelled out looking to make their fortune, and colonists travelled home.  Britons sent their Jamaican born children “back home” to be educated, to enter mainstream society, and to marry.  Many fled the heat and disease hoping to make a full recovery in the cooler climate of England.  Not everyone made it.

On the 25th of July 1782 a fleet left Bluefields Bay Jamaica for England, it included the Ville-de-Paris, which had been the flagship of the Comte de Grasse during the American Revolutionary war and had been captured by Admiral Rodney, and on board the British Queen with Captain James Hodge were John Ellis his wife Elizabeth and their niece Anna Maria making her first trip to England.

The British Queen was a ship of 350 tons with a crew of 45 and 20 carriage guns, which in 1761 had been owned by “Peter Impaud, Elias Benjamin de la Fontain, Daniel Vialars and others of London, merchants” when she was issued with letters of marque against the French. In May 1776 she had been included in a fleet of transports taking troops and wagons to Canada, and another record refers to her making a trip to Greenland. In 1777 she had been surveyed at Deptford and found fit for service as a transport ship. In 1780 her then owners, Wilkinson and Company, offered her to the government to carry stores to Jamaica and it is possible she was returning with the fleet from this latest episode in July 1782.

John Ellis had married Elizabeth Palmer in 1754.  They had two sons John and Charles Rose who were already in England. Ellis was one of the largest landowners in Jamaica, son of George Ellis and Anne Beckford he had inherited the Newry plantation in St Mary, half of the Sixteen Mile Walk plantation and a share in Palm plantation in St Thomas in the Vale. In 1752 he bought Montpelier from the widow of Francis Sadler Hals. When his brother George died in 1753 leaving a pregnant wife, he acquired about another £30,000 of property on the grounds that his brother’s Will had failed to make provision for any possible children.

In the days before weather forecasts and mass communications ships captains relied on a combination of luck and experience when it came to avoiding extremes of weather.  By 1782 it was well understood that there was a hurricane season in the Caribbean, but there was no way of predicting when or where specific storms would strike. The route frequently taken by ships sailing back to England was heading north out of the Caribbean and up the coast of America before striking out across the Atlantic.

It seems that the fleet had got roughly to the latitude of Boston when in the early hours of the morning of the 17th of September the storm hit them.  Initial reports in the British press during October and November concentrated mainly on the fate of the Ville-de-Paris.

A Captain Cox who arrived in London in early December reported having seen the ship after the storm and that she had lost her main and mizzen masts and that the crew had thrown all the guns overboard and sealed up the gun ports. The ship had been pooped, that is hit by a huge wave on her stern which had carried away a large part of the structure, however the crew had used sail canvas to seal the ship and when last seen by Captain Cox she had been heading for the Azores under jury rig.  However a report in the Leeds Intelligencer on 24 December 1782 said that “the Sylph cutter, which sailed to the Western Islands near two months ago to look after the Ville-de-Paris and the Glorieux men of war is returned to Spithead, without having obtained any intelligence of them.”

News of the ill-fated Ellis family was finally reported in the Hereford Journal on the 9th of January 1783.

“William Shotton, late servant to John Ellis, Esq of St Mary’s, Jamaica, who took his passage from that island, in the month of July last, for London, on board the British Queen, Captain Hodge relates the following melancholy tale: That they sailed from Jamaica on the 15th of  July, under convoy of the Ramillies ; that his said Master, together with his wife and two nieces, two boys his wards, and four servants were on board; that they met with nothing particular on the passage till the 17th of September, when at three o’clock in the morning in lat.42 there came on a violent gale of wind, accompanied by a swelling sea which strained the ship almost to a wreck, and caused her to make so much water, that the pumps were obliged to be kept incessantly going.  At three o’clock in the afternoon it laid the ship on her beam ends, and carried away her mizzen mast, with various other things, off the deck, and at the same instant washed the said William Shotton overboard, and likewise his wife, who then happened to have fast hold of his clothes; but having both got hold of the wreck and entangled themselves with the ropes, they floated in this situation for near two days, and were then providentially taken up by the ship Catherine, Captain McLey, bound from Cork to New York. They were afterwards taken by an American priveteer, and carried to the Havannah, from whence they obtained a passage to Philadelphia, and from that place to New York, where he embarked on board the Minerva Captain McAddams, which is arrived at Portsmouth. Whilst they remained on the wreck, he frequently saw the ship on her beam ends: but being much exhausted and struck with heavy seas, the ship disappeared to him, so that he cannot say for certain whether she righted or sank, but is inclined to believe from her distressed state, and having six feet water in her hold, she must have inevitably sunk. He could not learn any thing of her from the Catherine‘s people after he was recovered.  He further adds, that he saw several ships founder during the gale, but could not learn their names.”

The Wreck of the Assurance

It would seem horribly unlucky that ships which had safely crossed the Atlantic avoiding such storms, and possible capture by an enemy, should end up being wrecked within sight of home.  But this is what happened to the naval frigate HMS Assurance which was stranded off the Needles on 24 April, 1753 and which was carrying Edward Trelawney the former Governor of Jamaica. Trelawny had been Governor from April 1738 to September 1752.  It was under him that peace had finally been achieved with the Maroons, and his term as Governor was one of the longest and most successful of 18th-century Jamaica until failing health brought about his return to England. During his time in Jamaica his tact and natural diplomacy largely brought an end to the squabbles that had characterised the Jamaican Assembly. With his departure this accord sadly came to an end.

Trelawny survived the wreck of the Assurance and arrived back in London four days after the shipwreck.  He died at Hungerford Park on 16th January 1754.  A Customs report was lodged relating to a small amount of Rum and other goods saved from the wreck.

22 August 1753 In order to your command signified by Mr Freemantle in his letter of 18th inst. we beg leave to Report that the Rum & and other sundry Goods saved out of the Assurance, Man of War, stranded on this Island were first brought by the persons who took them up floating in the sea to the Custom House & delivered to Mr Wilkinson as a perquisite of Admiralty in case they should not be claimed but as there was not then room in our Warehouse to contain them we lodged the said Goods in a Warehouse hired of Mr George Mackenzie at 12/6 per week [1]

It was possible to insure cargo against loss, indeed there was a thriving insurance industry by the middle of the 18th-century, and many of the letters that survive in the correspondence of absentee planters and plantation factors and commission agents relate to the insuring of cargo.  However the best that an individual could do when contemplating a transatlantic voyage was to write a Will and say their prayers.

There are many brief Wills in the collections held at the National Archive at Kew that were written by sailors, both in the Navy and merchant service, leaving their few possessions to wife, mother, or close friend.  By the end of the 18th-century so common was the practice that printed Will forms were provided, such as the one completed by Robert Kelly of the Alarm in 1798[2] leaving everything to his sister “Sarah Rex of number 6 Armory Lane, Portsmouth in the county of Hampshire”.

Of course sailors in the Royal Navy faced a variety of risks at sea, but everyone who crossed the Atlantic encountered the dangers of tempest, uncharted reefs, ships undermined by ship worm which disintegrated in heavy weather, and the ever present possibility of human error.

Some lucky ones like Trelawney survived shipwreck, many more like the Ellis family were lost at sea.




[1] http://www.customscowes.co.uk/1753-1764.htm

Collector to Board Letters Book 1753 – 1764 National Archives ref:CUST 61/2

[2] National Archives, Kew, ADM/48/51

Stephen Blankett – A Captain on the Jamaica run


Ships in Kingston Harbour c.1745

I first came across Stephen Blankett when he was mentioned in the Lee letters as captain of the Landovery, the ship in which Robert Cooper Lee sailed to Jamaica.  I was curious to know what might be discovered about such a man and amazed to see how much I could find out armed with only the name of the ship and her captain’s surname.

Stephen Blankett must have been born about 1705, or perhaps a little earlier, for he married Elizabeth Born in 1726 at St Marylebone by Vicar General’s licence issued on the 15th of September.  He may have come from a family of Thames lightermen, the skilled sailors of small boats who plied their trade in London’s river ferrying goods to and from larger ships anchored there, and acting as a river taxi service for passengers wishing to avoid London’s crowded  streets, or to cross from one bank of the river to the other.

Stephen and Elizabeth settled in Maidenhead Court in Wapping where the first six of nine children were born between 1728 and 1738, and baptised at the church of St John at Wapping.  About 1740 they moved across the river to Rotherhithe where three more children were born and baptised at St Mary’s Rotherhithe.  Living so close to the river was obviously ideal for someone who earned his living from the sea.

The first official record I have come across for Stephen Blankett and his ship the Landovery is in 1740 when for several months they were held in port, fully loaded and ready to sail, but unable to do so because no convoy was available to protect them on the voyage to Jamaica.  On June 25, 1740 the Landovery was waiting at Deptford, and the Sheldon under Captain William Bird was moored nearby at Gallions Reach.  By the 4th of July it was reported that The Industry a stores ship, with William Clarke as Master, was at Blackwall and due to leave for Spithead and then Jamaica with a cargo similar to that of the Sheldon and Landovery.  Official papers recommended that she should sail with the same man of war as the other two ships.  On the 7th of  July Stephen Blankett arrived at Spithead and wrote to request orders to sail.

However the National Maritime Museum holds a letter written in early October from “the owners of the Sheldon, Landovery and Industry transports who have been ready to sail for 3 months. Captain Renton, who was due to convoy them, sailed in July. Commodore Anson sailed on the 18th Sept without them. They claim demurrage from that time and ask for a special convoy.”  In four months the ships had only travelled as far as Portsmouth.

Sailing in the Caribbean carried with it the risk of hurricanes and in 1749 several ships leaving Jamaica in early September suffered severe damage, the Landovery however, leaving on the 1st from Pig Bay had escaped.

Throughout the 18th century, apart from the hazards of the weather, ships regularly faced the danger of capture by privateers, or opposing navies.  This posed particular problems for the colonists in the Caribbean islands who were far from being self-sufficient, unlike those on the mainland of North America, and who were over dependent on imported supplies.

Jamaica had virtually no indigenous manufacturing and imported a huge range of necessities.  The cargo of a ship like the Landovery would have included items such as barrels of salt beef and pork; casks of butter from Ireland (its rancid flavour on arrival being something of an acquired taste!); beer and wine; oil for lamps; clothing and shoes; rolls of cloth; pots and pans; powder and shot; copper stills for rum making and sugar boiling equipment; iron collars and shackles for restraining slaves; agricultural tools for working the plantations; high quality ready-made carpentry such as window frames for planters’ mansions; and luxury items such as tea, furniture, silverware, oriental silks and porcelain.

And of course there were passengers such as the young Robert Cooper Lee.  We sometimes underestimate the extent to which people travelled to and fro across the Atlantic during the 18th-century, and it was common for merchants and planters to make trips back to Britain on business, for families to travel “home” perhaps to visit England for the first time, for sick colonists to travel back to Europe in the hope of regaining their health, and for quite young children to be sent to England for their education. On the outward voyage there would also be young men (and they were mainly men) off to seek their fortune, and particularly in the early part of the century indentured servants who had sold their labour for a fixed term and hoped to gain independence and some land at the end of it.

The convoy eventually sailed, but in November 1744 the Westminster Journal was again reporting that the Jamaican convoy had been held in port since April for want of a naval escort.  It must have been a considerable relief to everyone concerned when the War of the Austrian Succession came to an end in 1748 and for nearly a decade the seas were a little safer – until the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1757.

It was common for Jamaican ships to be named after the estate which they supplied, and there was a Landovery estate in the parish of St Anns, so it is likely that the original owners of the ship were the owners of the Landovery estate.  Stephen Blankett may have had a share in his ship, or he may simply have made use of the opportunities it provided.  Either way by the early 1760s we find him trading as a merchant in his own right when ‘Stephen Blankett and Company of Rotherhithe’  based at Princes Street, owned a ship called the London, a vessel of 300 tons armed with 18 carriage and 4 swivel guns.

The Landovery herself seems to have had a chequered history during the 1750s. In November 1753 returning from Jamaica under Captain Miller, she was listed as lost off Boulogne and 20 crew were reported drowned. There may in fact have been more men on board than normal, for another newspaper reported that she had picked up the crew of the  Charming Betty sailing from Dublin to Bordeaux which had been run down by a Dutch dogger heading from Cork to Nantes. It seems possible the Landovery was successfully salvaged. At the time  “forty puncheons of rum and some planks of mahogany” were recovered, and in October 1756 the Leeds Intelligencer reported that a ship of the same name sailing from Liverpool to Jamaica under Captain Johnson was captured and taken to Havre de Grace.

By the time Stephen Blankett made his will in 1762 he was a relatively wealthy man able to leave much stock and personal property to his wife Elizabeth, and to request that she should sell enough of his investments in the 3% consols to provide each of his children with £500.  Blankett died at 26 Princes Street Rotherhithe in March 1765 and was buried at St Mary Rotherhithe on the 29th of March.

In June of 1765, two months after the death of Stephen Blankett, Princes Street in Rotherhithe, was largely destroyed in a terrible fire caused when a pitch kettle boiled over.  More than two hundred houses, numerous warehouses and other buildings were destroyed and 250 families were made homeless.

Of Stephen Blankett’s nine children, at least five lived to grow up.  William became a shipbuilder, Lydia married John Beach a mariner of Princes Street, Esther married Samuel Meek a ship owner, and Elizabeth married George Dominicus an East India merchant.

John Blankett (1741-1801) following his father to sea, had an interesting naval career. At one point condemned to death in Gibraltar for a murder, he was later reprieved and attempted to gain support for various voyages of exploration but was turned down in favour of Captain Cook.  By 1799 John Blankett had become a Rear-Admiral and commander of the Leopard. He died on the Leopard near Mocha on the 14th of July 1801.  According to the Dictionary of National Biography, he was described as ‘an unusually good linguist, having a perfect mastery of French, Italian, and Portuguese. Seen by many as a good officer and an accomplished and amiable gentleman, he was criticized by others for his bad temper and eccentricity during his last days in the Red Sea.’

Elizabeth Blankett outlived her husband by a decade, and was buried at St Mary Rotherhithe on the 8th January 1775.