Sunday, June 9, 2019

Captain Cannon: Voyage of the Ship Iris - Part 1

Nine years ago I did a post on Captain George Cannon: Logbook of the Iris.  I had transcribed the logbook and we were looking at having the logbook published by an academic journal. That never panned out. Then we were finding new and exciting information about Captain Cannon and were thinking of doing a website or a book, and that never panned out. We learned that Captain Cannon captured several ships as prizes and found records of a prize tribunal in Jamaica, among other things. I haven't done any further research on Captain Cannon in quite a few years and decided I ought to get out what I have done so that other family members can access it and do further research if they would like. So over the next few posts, I will share a timeline I've developed relating to the voyage of the Ship Iris, using sources described below, then when that is complete, I'll share the transcribed logbook. For further information on the logbook, including photos, look at the link above. For further information on Captain Cannon, check this link.  


            A logbook with writing within designating it as a “Journal of a Voyage of Ship Iris, from Liverpool to Bonney in Africa. Commencing the 8th June 1798 by George Cannon” is in the possession of a descendant of George Cannon. The logbook has periodic daily entries beginning June 9, 1798 and ending August 3, 1800, relating to two voyages of the ship Iris to Africa to pick up slaves and then to Jamaica to sell them. In addition to the logbook, we have been able to find other information relating to the voyages of the Iris. Other information includes: (a) letters from Ralph Fisher, the owner of the Iris, to various merchants relating to the Iris voyages; (b) Liverpool muster rolls showing the crew members on the Iris and what happened to them on the voyages (whether they died, ran, were impressed by the Royal Navy or returned back to Liverpool); (c) entries in Lloyd’s List, a commercial shipping periodical, that details the comings and goings of commercial ships; (d) court records in Jamaica from the Court of Vice Admiralty relating to two prizes captured by the Iris near Jamaica, namely, the ship North America and the ship Uncle Toby; (e) court records in London from the Lords Commissioners of Appeals in Prize Causes relating to an appeal by the ship North America of the court decision in Jamaica; and (f) a court case in the U.S. District Court in New York relating to a dispute between some sailors on the Uncle Toby and the Uncle Toby owners.
Beginning of Logbook for the Iris in Captain Cannon's handwriting. 
The logbook was pre-printed with space for daily entries. 

            The purpose of these posts is to take the information from the various sources, synthesize them, and put together as complete a picture as possible of voyages of the Iris and indirectly, part of the life of Captain George Cannon.

Great Britain at War with France and Spain

            The French revolutionary government guillotined King Louis XVI in Paris on January 21, 1793 and shortly after, France declared war on Great Britain on February 1, 1793. Spain was also at war with France, but in August 1796 entered into the Treaty of San IIdefonso and became an ally with France and agreed to combine its forces with France against the British Empire.[1] Therefore, Great Britain was at war with both France and Spain at the time George Cannon sailed on the Iris and it appears that the Iris had a Letter of Marque for both French and Spanish ships.

Letter of Marque

A Letter of Marque was a document issued by the government during time of war giving the captain of a ship the legal right to seize a ship belonging to an enemy country as a prize. The prize, which included both the ship and its goods, could be sold and the proceeds distributed among the owners and the crew, giving them a potentially lucrative source of revenue. Slave ships which were usually well armed and had a high ratio of crews per ton, often obtained Letters of Marque for their slaving voyages.[2]

The Ship Iris, her Crew, her Intended Voyage, and her Owner

            The Iris was a 285 ton ship built and registered in Liverpool and owned by a Liverpool resident, Ralph Fisher.[3] She had 18 guns,[4] at least twelve of which were fortified four pounders,[5] and was to carry a crew of 40 men, including Captain John Spencer. The Iris was cleared to leave Liverpool on June 1, 1798 carrying a cargo consisting, in part, of guns, gunpowder and cutlasses[6] for Bonny in what is now Nigeria, Africa. There the goods of the Iris would be bartered for a load of 420 Eboe slaves, the maximum allowed under rules established by Parliament, ivory and palm oil with an insured value of £1,300.[7] From Africa, the Iris would sail to Kingston, Jamaica, and use the merchants Lindo Lake & Co. to market the slaves and obtain a cargo for the Iris to take back to Liverpool. Ralph Fisher wanted half the African cargo to be sold for produce and half for short bills, not to exceed an average duration of 9 months, but which could include bills for 6, 9 and 12 months. Fisher also wanted the Iris to have a full cargo on the way back to England, to the extent that he even suggested cotton could be stored on deck. He also directed the Iris to sail home cheaply, which probably meant to carry as few crew members as possible.[8]

            John Spencer, the captain, had captained seven prior slave voyages. His last three voyages had all been on ships owned by Ralph Fisher. On the Iris, from 1797 to 1798, he had gone to Angola, on the Thomas, from 1795 to 1796, he had gone to Cabinda, and on the Mary, from 1794 to 1795, he had gone to Angola. All three trips had delivered the slaves to Kingston, Jamaica.  Prior to that he had obtained slaves in Bonny, New Calabar, Calabar and Jacmel, delivering slaves to Dominica twice and Grenada. He had also been captured by the French on a voyage in 1793.

            The rest of the crew, from the muster roll, included (the number in parenthesis is the rank of the crewman on the ship):
George Cannon (2), 1st Mate
Ritchard Stasbrick, aka Rich Scaristrick (3), 2nd Mate
Mahlon Stacy  (4)      
Charles Gelling (5)    
Erick Ohm (6) , Doctor                      
Ritchard (or Richard) Warbrick (7), Clerk                
Samuel Landor (or Sander) (8)          
George Kirkim (9)     
Thomas Lucas (10      
John Pickering (11)   
Patrick McVay (12)   
Jac (or Isaac) Broom (13)      
Barny Collins  (14)    
John Stimson  (15)    
James Lanham (16)   
John Emery (17)                    
William Layton (18)              
William Gray  (19)                
Anthony Creeds (20)                         
Thomas Shannon (21)            
Matthias (or Mathias) Richardson (22)
Mathew (or Mathias) Fisher (23)      
Alexander Alanson, aka Alex Manson (24)  
Antony Joseph (25)    
Willliam Charlton (26)          
James Savens (27)                 
George Ledwith (28)             
Edward Murry (29)               
Owen Costons (or Collins) (30)                     
Patrick Graham (31)              
Petter Petters, aka Peter Peters (32)               
Thomas Gordon (33)             
John Backhouse (34)             
Hendrick Farmor (35)            
Duncan McGloughlin (36)    
John Sanith (37)                     
Jonathan Howard (38)           
James Tomay (39)     
Bourd Taylor  (40)                
Muster Record for the Ship Iris. George Cannon is the second entry. 
George Cannon's signature on an oath that accompanied the muster record. 
A closer view at George Cannon's name on the muster record. 
The Ship Martha

            Ralph Fisher owned another, smaller ship, the Martha, 250 tons, with 34 crew under Captain Thomas Taylor. It, too, was headed to Bonny for slaves. However, Fisher made arrangements to sell the Martha’s slaves through a different merchant. Captain Taylor was first to go to David Miller Esq. & Company in St. Vincents, and if he was not able to provide a good price, then go to Thomas Aspinall in Kingston, Jamaica. The Iris and Martha left Liverpool the same date and sailed together to Bonny and then left Bonny at the same time for the Caribbean.[9]

Iris and Martha

            A letter from Ralph Fisher, owner of the ship Iris, to Dimsdale and Clays in London, dated May 12, 1798, states: “I wish you to push forward the Martha and Iris’s Insurance by choice Men, wish you to strike of[f] £100 on each Order, as I have that further gum pone here, say £100 on Iris and £ 100 on Martha”. A letter the same date, from Ralph Fisher to George Baillie Esq. and Co. in London: “Can you make it convenient to give me a specific Guarantee for my Ship Iris, for any of the Windward or Leeward Islands,[10] the Iris, Spencer will sail hence in 2 or 3 Weeks for Bonny[;] wish to finally fit for her ere she Departs if possible, if this agreeable to you, please say the shortest Dated Bills you possibly can give; I beg your reply as early as possible”.

            A letter, dated May 16, 1798, from Ralph Fisher to Higinsen Bernard & Wheler in London: “The Iris and Martha are both ready waiting for your Goods. I hope they are on the Road.”

The Ship Uncle Toby

May 18, 1798, the ship Uncle Toby left Hamburg up the River Elbe toward the North Sea with the ultimate destination of New York. Thomas Cottrel was captain. Henry Martin, a seaman, was on board. The Uncle Toby sailed first to Yarmouth, England, and then to St. Ubes. [The next entry for the Uncle Toby is August 25, 1798]


            A letter dated May 23, 1798, from Ralph Fisher to Henry and John Whately in Birmingham: “I am exceeding sorry in being obliged to relinquish the Iris’s Order for Guns. Captn Spencer went yesterday to choose them out, but found they would not answer, particularly the Spanish Guns; they will answer for Angola; I desired him to take two Bonny Capts with him, who, declare they will not pass[.] Captn Spencer dare not undertake the Voy[age] with them[. T]herefore [I am] under the disagreeable necessity of getting them at another Place, as the Ships are ready [and] I can’t wait[. A]s the Cutlasses you say are procured on purpose; I will take them if ready. [I] am truly sorry for the Disapointment, but our Voy[age]: chiefly depends on those Articles.”

            A letter dated May 28, 1798, from Ralph Fisher to Aspinall & Hardy in Jamaica: “I am in general unfortunate in making lower averages at Jamaica than other Ships from some fatality[.] I observe Mr Aspinall draws out of business the 1st Augt and the new firm will be Hardy Pinock and Britain; beg leave to observe to that firm the Iris is now in the Preference with you[. I]f you sell her [cargo, I] wish her sold for short Bills not to exceed 9 Mos Average or at most 12; which please pay attention to. If you can’t take her on those Terms I wish Mr. Aspinall to put her into other Hands on those Terms; I expect you’ll procure her a full freight home as soon as possible”. A letter the same date, from Ralph Fisher to Thomas Aspinall in London: “Aspinall & Hardy informs me you drew out of business the 1st Augt next. I hope you mean to come to L[iver]pool this Year, or early the next Crop; beg leave to refer you to their Letter, as Increase the Iris to sell for as short Bills as possible. I shall address her to you to put her into the Hands of  Hardy, Pinock & Britain; Shaw & Inglis, or Lindo or Lake, the first House no doubt having the preference.  I expect you’ll procure her a full fre[ight] home; she made a shamefull Freight the last Year not being ½ stowed[;] that I can’t blame any Body for but the Captn and Mate. As you informed me Eboe negroes have the preference with you [of] some [additional] Pounds before Angola [negroes, the Iris…] is intended [to go] there [Bonny]…”[11]

            On June 8, 1798, the Iris, with Captain John Spencer and George Cannon as first mate, left Liverpool with a crew of 40[12] for Africa.

[1] Liverpool Privateers, pp. 303-304; Wikipedia “Anglo-Spanish War (1796-1808)”, “French Revolutionary Wars” and “Second Treaty of San IIdefonso”.
[2] Williams, Gomer, History of the Liverpool Privateers and Letters of Marque with an Account of the Liverpool Slave Trade 1744-1812 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal: originally published in 1897), Introduction by David Eltis, pp. xvii-xviii (hereafter “Liverpool Privateers”); Sandown, n. 91, p. 20; Donald A. Petries, The Prize Game: Lawful Looting on the High Seas in the Days of Fighting Sail (Berkley Publishing Group, New York: 1999), pp. 2-3.
[3] She was built in 1783, registered in 1790 and almost completely rebuilt in 1794 (Lloyd’s Register, 1799 and 1800).  We have records of her being on four previous slave voyages: (a) two to Bonny under Captain George Greaves, one in 1790 delivering 401 slaves to Montego Bay, Jamaica and one in 1791 delivering 345 slaves to Montego Bay, Jamaica; (b) one in 1792 to 1793 to the Gold Coast under Captain Thomas Huson and delivering 338 slaves to St. Vincent; and (c) one in 1797 to Angola under Captain John Spencer, the current captain, and delivering 414 slaves to Kingston, Jamaica. She was about 50 tons above average, size-wise, for ships leaving Liverpool in 1798 for the slave trade (the average was 233.6 for the 144 ships which listed tonnage).
[4] British slaving ships generally carried cannons or “guns”. The cannon was muzzle-loaded: powder and shot was loaded from the front and rammed down and then touched off with a “match,” a rope on a long stick. They were named according to how much the cannon ball weighted. For example, a “four-pounder” had an iron ball weighing four pounds. Cannon shot was used to batter the wooden hulls of opposing ships and as a long-range anti-personnel weapon.
[5] Letters of Marque issued March 29, 1797 to John Spencer of the Iris, for his prior Angola voyage, show that the Iris had 12 guns using 4 pound shot. Letters of Marque issued June 17, 1799 to George Cannon of the Iris, for the next voyage, show that the Iris had 20 guns using 6 and 9 pound shot. The Iris had 18 guns for the 1798 voyage as indicated in a letter from Ralph Fisher to Bland & Ratterthwaite in London, dated September 20, 1798. In letters from Ralph Fisher to William Dinwiddie in Manchester, dated May 20 and June 25, 1799 and to Bland & Ratterthwaite, dated May 22, 1799, Fisher indicated he added two more 9 pound guns to the Iris, for a total of 20, and that her guns were “double fortified fours and nine pounders.” Therefore, it appears that the first 12 guns were double fortified four pounders and the last two guns added were nine pounders, leaving six guns unknown. The reference to six pounders in the 1799 Letter of Marque appears to be a mistake. 
[6] House of Commons 1802, p.10; Letter from Ralph Fisher to Henry and John Whately in Birmingham, dated Mary 23, 1798 and to Edmund Hill in London, dated November 26, 1798.
[7] Letter from Ralph Fisher to Bland and Ratterthwaite in London, dated September 20, 1798. The Iris appears to have only been allowed a maximum of 419 slaves (Parliamentary Papers 1806), but Ralph Fisher intended for her to obtain 420 slaves and she did obtain 420 slaves.
[8] Fisher originally intended to use the merchant house of Hardy, Pinnock & Britain, then Shaw & Inglis, and then Lindo & Lake, in that order, but subsequent unspecified events apparently changed the preference to Lindo Lake & Co. Letters from Ralph Fisher to Aspinall & Hardy in Jamaica, dated May 28, 1798, to Thomas Aspinall in London, dated May 28, 1798, and to Lindo Lake & Co. in Jamaica, dated July 12, 1798. Of the 40 crew on the original muster roll, only 6 remained to be discharged when the Iris returned to Liverpool on April 12, 1799.
[9] Letter from Ralph Fisher to David Miller Esq. & Co. in St. Vincent, dated June 10, 1798 and to Captain Thomas Taylor, care of David Miller Esquire and Co., dated July 12, 1798. The Iris logbook mentions seeing the Martha on June 16 and 17, 1798 on the way to Bonny, and September 5, 1798, after leaving Bonny. 
[10] The Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles chain of islands are the northern islands, including the U.S. Virgin Islands (including St. Croix), the British Virgin Islands (including Tortola), Saint Eustatius, Saint Kitts, Nevis, Barbuda and Antigua.  The Windward Islands are the southern islands of the Lesser Antilles, including Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago. 
[11] Bonny is the area in Africa where the Eboe negroes are located.
[12] Of the ships that left Liverpool for Africa in 1798, the average was 38.2 crew members per ship (out of 135 ships listing crew numbers).


  1. This is incredible, Bob thanks for sharing your latest research. Your relative - Chad Cannon

  2. As a descendant of John Spencer I would like to thank you for sharing this wealth of information and research. It's fascinating!