A different kind of sunken treasure, Part 4 of 13

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Little did anyone know in 1773 that the Rotches’ entanglement in Revolutionary politics was only beginning, let alone that the fate of this powerful family would be forever altered by the war. So far, William Rotch had avoided direct involvement, letting his brother Francis take most of the heat in the Tea Party fiasco, but the crisis arrived at his doorstep soon enough.  Rebels in Massachusetts had somehow learned that William had stored a  large number of bayonets in his Nantucket warehouse. Desperate for supplies, the provisional government attempted to commandeer them. A Quaker and therefore a committed pacifist, Rotch was horrified. Not only did he refuse to hand over the bayonets, he set sail from Straight Wharf and sunk them into the sea.  Massachusetts summoned him to answer for this bold act of defiance, and Rotch only escaped punishment by pleading for his right to religious liberty.

Massachusetts officials that William Rotch had in his possession a large number of bayonets. According to Rotch, he had occasionally accepted guns as payment for debts, but he always  detached the bayonets before reselling the gun as bayonets were “purposefully made and used for the destruction of mankind.” Several government officials visited Rotch to request he furnish the weapons, but each time he refused, as he could “put no weapon into a man’s hand to destroy another, that I cannot use myself in the same way.” Invoking a familiar Bible verse, Rotch said that he wished he could “beat them into pruning hooks,” but he settled for sinking them in the sea. 1 This act of defiance landed him in front of the Committee of Safety. He explained he destroyed the weapons “from principle,” and the examiners decided that “everyman has a right to act consistently with his religious principles.”2

1 William Rotch, Memorandum: written by William Rotch in the eightieth year of his age (Boston: Houghton Mifflin company, 1916), 3-4. Available online at: https://babel.hathitrust.org/

2 Rotch, Memorandum, 4-5

Published as part of a series

  1. Before the Rockefellers, there were the Rotches
  2. For those who fail at business…there’s always politics
  3. The Tea Party: bad for business
  4. A different kind of sunken treasure
  5. The Falkland gambit
  6. “No step between being clear, and death”
  7. Patriotism…and false flags?
  8. America’s first trade war: bad for business
  9. You can run but you can’t hide (in France)
  10. Whaler, traitor, coward…spy?
  11. Can you ever go home again?
  12. Post-script: Jefferson’s accusations and Adams’s
  13. Adams’s revenge

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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