For those who fail at business…there’s always politics, Part 2 of 13

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Like the commodity markets today, the price of both spermaceti and oil fluctuated dramatically. Buyers banded together in an attempt to keep it low while sellers conspired to artificially inflate it. In one of the more epic battles of the eighteenth century, the Rotches battled the Hancocks from 1764 – 1766. The two firms pushed each other to the brink, sending global oil prices soaring then plunging. In the end, Joseph Rotch emerged the victor and John Hancock lost his shirt. It was even said that Hancock turned to politics because the Rotches had beat him so badly at business!

By the 1760s, Joseph Rotch & Sons was the most prosperous and powerful seller of sperm whale oil. But another seller, John Hancock, sought to make his fortune by challenging them. Hancock
had inherited the business from his uncle, Thomas, who had raised him since he was eight years old. The Hancocks correctly perceived that whoever landed the first shipment of oil of the season in London could fetch the highest price at market. A young John Hancock had discussed this strategy with his uncle and sought to implement it with great fanfare after inheriting the business. He began by visiting Nantucket in 1764, offering unimaginable sums of hard species to every oil seller except Rotch in an attempt to corner the market. In total, he spent £17,000 and sailed to London with six ships full of oil. His alarmed agents told him the market could not absorb such a massive quantity of oil and certainly could not fetch a high enough price to justify his initial outlay. The agents even pleaded with Hancock to form an alliance with Rotch, but Hancock refused. Instead, he took an even bigger risk. In 1766, he spent £25,000 on twelve ships of whale oil. This gamble cost him dearly. Extant records suggest that the price of oil plummeted and Hancock recouped perhaps as little as £3,600 on his outlay. The Rotches, however, weathered the storm and emerged more powerful than ever. Their rivals were not pleased, as one of them had tried to form “a Company of us” to block Rotch with this dire warning: “Joseph Rotch haith not Gott y Government of y whole Iseland as yet…”1 Hancock, on the other hand, faced financial ruin. He retreated from the whale oil business and made the wise decision to turn his attention toward the other family business: politics. Hancock would go on to play a leading role in the run-up to the American Revolution. He served as a principal negotiator in the aftermath of the Boston Massacre, working with Governor Hutchinson to withdraw British troops from Boston. He was also a moderator during the tense negotiations over the Tea Act – a role, of course, that brought him back into contact – and conflict – with the Rotches. After shots were exchanged at Lexington and Concord, Hancock traveled to Philadelphia to join the Continental Congress. He was unanimously elected President, a role that would lead to his famously oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence and the apocryphal story that he signed large and clear enough for King George to read it. He also served as chair of the Marine Committee, a position from which he oversaw the creation of a small fleet of American frigates (including the USS Hancock, named in his honor). Hancock then served as the first elected Governor of Massachusetts from 1780 – 1785. He died in 1793, after a long and storied career in politics – his second profession.

1 Quote from Christopher Hussey letter taken from: Joseph McDevitt, The House of Rotch: Whaling Merchants of Massachusetts, 1734-1828 (MA Thesis, American University, 1978), 121.

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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