• by Amy Jenness, author of On This Day in Nantucket History •
William Rotch, a prominent Nantucket shipowner and devout island Quaker died at age 94 on May 16, 1828. He was a businessman who owned a large 18th Century whaling and shipping business and helped make Nantucket the third-largest port in New England and the world’s whaling center. Rotch family ships were involved in 2 landmarks of the American Revolution.
In 1773, Rotch-owned ships Dartmouth and Beaver—were two of the three raided during the Boston Tea Party. And, the ship Bedford was the first to display and carry the American flag into British waters on February 3, 1783.
The American Revolutionary War created economic and political hardships for Rotch, who refused to fight or take a side because of his strong Quaker ideals. In fact, many of Nantucket’s citizens refused to participate in the war, which made them a target of both the British and the patriots.
The British fleet ransacked ships, including Rotch’s, sailing from Nantucket, and harassed island sailors and citizens. In 1779, Rotch, and two others, testified before commanders of the British Army and Navy and asked the military to stop blockading the island’s shipping trade and the British agreed to stop the pillages. Nantucketer and patriot Thomas Jenkins charged Rotch and others with high treason for going to a British port without the consent of the court.
During his testimony at a hearing, Rotch said he always removed bayonets from guns before selling them because a gun can be used to hunt for food but a bayonets’ only purpose is to kill a man.
“As this instrument is purposely made and used for the destruction of mankind, and I cannot put into one man’s hand to destroy another that which I cannot use myself in the same way, I refuse to comply with thy demand.’ The person left me, much dissatisfied. Others came and received the same denial. It made a great noise in the country, and my life was threatened. I would gladly have beaten them into ‘pruning-hooks.’ As it was, I took an early opportunity of throwing them into the sea. I sank them in the bottom of the sea…I did it from principle. I have ever been glad that I had done it. If I have done wrong, I am to be pitied.’
Complaints against Rotch were partially discharged and his full liberty was restored after the war.
The conflicts and harassment from both sides prevented Rotch and other Nantucket ship owners from whaling or provisioning the island, and by the end of the war, Nantucket had lost the majority of its ships and island people were close to starvation.
In his memoir, Rotch remembered it this way: “From the year 1775 to the end of the war we were in continual embarrassments. Our vessels were captured by the English, and our small vessels and boats sent to the continent for provisions denied and sent back empty under pretense that we supplied the British, which was without the least foundation. Prohibitory laws were often made in consequence of these reports, unfounded as they were. By this inhuman conduct we were sometimes in danger of being starved.”
After the American Revolution, some ship owners began to rebuild their whaling businesses on Nantucket and others relocated to Nova Scotia, England, and France, due in large part to British and French government incentives designed to put those countries in the lucrative whaling trade.
In 1785, Rotch and his son Benjamin traveled to England to petition for permission to relocate the family’s whaling interests to England. When unreasonable demands were made, Rotch, already ambivalent about moving to England, turned instead to France. With a warm welcome from that country, the Rotch family conducted whaling from Dunkirk beginning in 1786.
While in France, Rotch did well and associated with influential people, but once again his Quaker faith and his pacifist stand against war got in the way of business. In 1791, when a revolution in France seemed imminent, Rotch asked the National Assembly at Paris to be exempted from fighting. He tried one more time in 1793 without success. Once again he and his sons moved the family whaling business, this time to Milford Haven, England, a town developed by the British to be a whaling port.
Rotch eventually retired to New Bedford, where he died, and left his sons to run the family whaling ventures in England and America.