The John Francis diary describes a voyage from New York City (May 1-June 13, 1791) to the West Indies on the Brig Mercury under Captain Thomas Fry. Also included are a few records of the return voyage from the West Indies island St. Eustatia to North America on the Ship Ruby , lead by Captain John Ritchie, June 14-July 4, 1791. Francis's notes for both trips record the date, latitude and longitude, air and water temperatures in the morning and evening, wind, course, distance, and weather.
Francis did not record many personal details, but did mention that his brother Tom was also on the ship. Instead, he wrote primarily about life at sea (occurrences on the ship, flora and fauna of the Atlantic, and weather) and described the markets and towns of the places they stopped. Early on he noted the deaths of many of the "Indiamen" on board (p. 14) and described an incident where he "commenced swearing rather profusely" when an "Ethiopia Color'd Devil" ruined a pig by scoring its skin before cooking it (p. 26).
Francis used the journal to reflect on the books he was reading. He enjoyed Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which he found "elegant and ingenious" but also admired Dr. Joseph Priestley responses to Burke (p. 12). He also read Soloman the Second, ou les Sultanes, by M. Favart, written in 1761, which he compared favorably to Shakespeare (p. 38). He felt strongly about America's experiment with Democracy:
"We bid Adieu to the Shores of America--The Sole Abode of Liberty and Individual Happiness--Free from the Terrors of a Religious Government--The most Horrid of all Tyranies[…]the most Happy if not the most deserving Country
When compared to the [Shackled] Slaves of the Port--The Humble Creature of Russia--The [mere] Engines of Ambition [and] private Will the Subjects of Prussia[...]Or the Wild enthusiastic Frenzy of the emancipated Frenchmen--I say American’s ye are Ungrateful if ye are not Happy--Ye are Not Wise if ye Complain" (p. 18).
Francis was also interested in sea life. He wrote of seeing a flying fish (p. 6), a Portuguese man-of-war (p. 7), two humpback whales (p. 15), and shooting a trophy bird with "wonderful plumage" (p. 36). He saved some of his most poetic writing for his long struggle with a large colorful fish:
The Effects of the Dolphin have not quite disappeared -- A Little Fever hangs on my Lips[.] my Breath partakes a Little, but my Immagination more than all when Slumbering -- all the Colors of the Rainbow so finely varieagated [and] so often Changed by the Dying Dolphin. Lightly pass across my Sleepy Eyes and I fancyfully conjecture my Skin -- simmilarly affected[.]
"The Sun had been hid [for] the Day and seem’d reserved alone to pour its divine Rays on the dying Fish -- Whose Angelic and Varied Colors seem’d to paint full strongly every Varied Pang he felt in quitting the World for the Regions of Immateriality[.] His Size and Shape were both Uncommonly Large [and] Elegant[.] His Exertions to escape Equal -- And almost overcome Mine to hold firm -- Had Strength been used -- To this Time he would have been Ploughing the Mansions of the Deep -- But Reason was in this more powerful than Instinct[.] I wearied him with his Own exertions to escape and at length hauled him along side dead to all useful exertion (page 21).
Francis made drawings and wrote descriptions of many marine creatures that he encountered. The back of the diary has sketches of squid ("animal of glutinous substance"), sword fish, pelicans, cuckold weed, and dolphins, among others. He also drew and described islands and rock formations, including Antigua, for which he noted their latitudes. Page 107 of the journal contains a small pencil sketch of the Ship Ruby .
The collection also contains a two-page hand-drawn map of the United States and New Britain (Canada), which covers as far west as the French Territory, as far east as Bermuda, as far north as Hudson Bay, and as far south as Cuba. The map depicts and lists cities, states, rivers, lakes, and the islands of the West Indies. The Mercury's course is plotted with the longitude/latitude and date noted, " At Sea on board the Ship Ruby , Capt. John Ricks, July 1791. Lat. 39"37 Long. 69"27. For the purpose of fixing the Course of the Gulf Stream." [Chart of a voyage from New England to the West Indies and return] (1791).