John Quaco, a Bristol mariner

Using archival records, we have explored the life of John Quaco. He was a Black man from Bristol who served on merchant ships. As a seaman, his career is documented in a range of records that tell us a little about his work. Other records give glimpses of his life in Bristol.

Photo of Allie Dillon, City Archivist and Nicola Hole, Archives Assistant

Allie Dillon, City Archivist and Nicola Hole, Archives Assistant

@BristolArchives

We haven’t found a baptism record for John Quaco but he was born between 1713 and 1723.

His surname comes from the West African tradition of naming children after the day they were born. ‘Quaco’ means a male born on a Wednesday, although it has many different spellings in our records.

We don’t know anything about his background, except that he was a ‘free man’. He may have been a slave who gained his freedom or he may have been born a free man.

We could speculate that he was the second generation of his family in Bristol. It’s possible that his father was brought to Bristol as an enslaved servant and became free.

The earliest document we have found that mentions John is the record of his marriage. He married Penelope Webb on 8 September 1743 at St Michael’s church. The parish clerk noted in the register that the couple were ‘two negroes’.

Their marriage licence recorded that John was a mariner. It also mentions that his bondsman was Thomas Quaco, though we don’t know if he was a relative.

Parish registers mention other black people called Quaco in St Michael and St Augustine. It’s possible that they were also members of his family.

Much of central Bristol was occupied by its seafaring community. The streets around the docks were crowded with boarding houses, inns and the many trades that served Bristol’s ships.

Poor rate records for 1752 showed that John lived at Princess Amelia Court. This was on Pipe Lane, just off St Augustine’s Back (now St Augustine’s Parade).

As a mariner, John paid into a pension fund and this is why we know details about his career.

In 1747, an Act of Parliament set up a pension scheme to encourage young men to become merchant sailors. This scheme provided payments to retired mariners or to their families if they died.

In Bristol, the Society of Merchant Venturers planned to establish a Seamen’s Hospital as part of this scheme. The hospital was never built but the pension fund was established and run by the Society.

The Society’s archive contains detailed records of seamen and their pension contributions.

We have found John listed in muster rolls for voyages on several ships. These documents list all the crew (in order of rank) and their contributions to the Seamen’s Hospital Fund.

The example shown here is for the ship Ruby in 1752. John’s entry shows that he had made his payment. It also names his previous ship, which was the John & Martha. In this way, muster rolls can be used to trace the ships on which a mariner served.

From these records, we know that John served on at least seven different vessels. These included slaving ships that took captured Africans to the Americas. Other muster rolls show that this was risky work for black sailors, as they could also be sold as slaves.

Image: John Quaco’s record of service. The note at the end says that he had been ‘a free man above one and twenty years’.

In 1763, John applied for a pension from the Fund. The records contain a report of his service that was part of his application. This lists the ships on which he served and confirms that he always paid his monthly contributions. This is the document that tells us he had been a free man ‘for over one and twenty years’.

He may have received the pension due to temporary ill health, as related records show that he was back at sea in 1765.

By 1766 however, he was declared incapable of future service. His pension was renewed and paid to him until at least 1780.

Due to missing details and different spellings in the parish registers, we cannot be certain when John and Penelope died.

John may be the man named only as ‘Quaco’ who was buried at St Augustine’s on 13 March 1780. This man died at St Peter’s Hospital. This was the city workhouse but John may have gone there for medical care at the end of his life.

Later in the register, there is an entry for ‘Penhelican Quaco BlackWoman’. From this, we think that Penelope was buried at the church in 1785.

You can see records on Ancestry via a paid subscription or access them free of charge at UK local libraries.

  • Marriage of John Quaco and Penelope Webb: St M/R/1/c
  • Marriage licence: EP/J/3/1 (ask for FCML/1743/3)
  • Seamen’s Hospital Fund – ships’ muster rolls: SMV/9/3/1
  • Seamen’s Hospital Fund – record of service: SMV/9/3/3/4/123
  • Seamen’s Hospital Fund – records related to pension payments: SMV/9/2/1/7, SMV/9/3/2/1
  • Probable burials of John and Penelope at St Augustine’s: St Aug/R/1/f

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