America’s first trade war: bad for business, Part 8 of 13

View all articles in this series


Great Britain punished the victorious rebels by passing the Alien Duty immediately after independence. The act imposed steep import duties on U.S. goods, making Nantucket’s whale oil too costly to sell at London. But neither could war-ravaged Americans afford to buy it. As a result, the island was financially ruined. Businesses shuttered, sailors were out of work, and desperate families plead for help. Many of the big whaling families moved their businesses overseas, essentially off-shoring their operations. It was during this financial crisis that Rotch approached first William Pitt and then King Louis XVI looking for a safe harbor.

Facing financial ruin, Nantucket whalers desperately searched for solutions to the Alien Duty. A small group had already removed to Hudson, New York casting their lot with the Americans during the war. Another group accepted terms from the Governor of Nova Scotia, ultimately relocating to this British colony (alongside thousands of Loyalist exiles) to circumvent the tariffs. William Rotch hatched another plan. In 1785, he sailed to Great Britain to meet with a young Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Pitt. The negotiations, however, dragged on for months, and Rotch grew angry at the British for using his desperation to their advantage. He therefore accepted an offer from King Louis XIV of France who immediately agreed to all of his terms. Rotch returned to London to inform a dubious Pitt that he had accepted France’s offer to relocate his operations there. It would turn out to be an auspicious decision, but of course no one could have foreseen the “terror” that was about to unfold in France.

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.

We use cookies to deliver our online services. Details and instructions on how to disable those cookies are set out in our Privacy Policy. By clicking I Accept, you consent to our use of cookies unless you have disabled them.

> >