“No step between being clear, and death,” Part 6 of 13

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Unfortunately for Nantucket and for Rotch, troubles with Massachusetts were only beginning. The island attempted to remain neutral during the war, as they needed to sell their whale oil to the British but to buy their foods and medicine from the mainland. Both sides demanded Nantucket declare its allegiance in exchange for their trade.
Islanders, terrified that starvation or bankruptcy (or both!) would be their fate, dispatched Rotch and three other men to plead with British and American officials.  The men knew  they risked imprisonment and even death for this mission, and indeed, Massachusetts charged them with high treason for visiting a British military official without an official pass from the colonial government.

The war had placed Nantucketers in an impossible position. Two considerations prevented them from joining the patriots: their pacifism and their business. Whale oil was the only product Nantucket had to sell and islanders knew they would go broke without access to the British market. But the same two considerations also prevented them from joining the loyalists.  Nantucket imported all of its foodstuffs from the mainland and islanders knew they would go hungry without access to the American market. As a result, islanders desperately tried to remain neutral during the conflict.  William Rotch joined a three-person delegation that implored American and British officials to send food, medicine, and passes for their whaling ships.  Rotch boarded a British vessel in occupied New York without a pass from the patriot government, an act of desperation and defiance for which Massachusetts charged him with high treason. Rotch spoke eloquently in his defense at trial, but the Legislature was not as sympathetic to his pleas as the Committee of Safety. The House cleared him, but the Senate returned a hung jury. Only the peace settled the matter, though it should be said that while Rotch escaped execution, he paid dearly for his involvement in the war. Rotch ships were targeted by the British and the Americans and Rotch reported staggering losses between $60,000 – $100,000 ($1.3 – 2.2 million dollars in today’s money).

Rotch, Memorandum, 16.

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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