Patriotism…and false flags?, Part 7 of 13

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Though both American and British officials believed he secretly supported the other side, William Rotch insisted he was neutral, styling himself repeatedly a “hearty wellwisher to both America and Britain.” 1 Yet pride in his native land was perhaps on exhibit when his ship the Bedford, captained by William Mooers, became the first to sail up the Thames flying the stars-and-stripes in February 1783. Though a provisional treaty had been signed by both parties in November 1782, terms of the treaty were only published for the  first time in late January 1783. Moreover, many acts of Parliament were still in force against the American rebels. This display therefore caused much confusion and consternation as British customs officials frantically consulted with the Lords of Council as to how to proceed. True, the ship was American built, American owned, and American manned, but Great Britain had not yet recognized the legitimacy and sovereignty of the United States. Eventually, the ship was received and her 487 butts of whale oil offloaded, but not before Rotch’s ship had courted controversy and made history.

We should be careful, however, in celebrating what might appear at first glance an unusual display of patriotism from Rotch. First, remember that the existence and terms of the treaty were only published only a week before the arrival of the Bedford.2 Second, consider that Mooers had sailed from the Brazil Banks, likely after completing a full whaling season and a long winter passage. Finally, note that for quite some time, London merchants had been helping Rotch skirt the Alien Act by receiving his oil as if it had shipped from Nova Scotia.3 Both of these factors suggest that  the ship could also have been carrying a British flag. (Indeed, it wouldn’t have been the first time a Rotch ship had done so.) We don’t know why Captain Mooers chose to hoist the rebel flag on that voyage, though he worked so closely with Rotch it would not have been without some consultation. We should remember, however, that it was likely an active choice, given that he was probably sailing with two flags!

1 Letter dated London, 8 month 9, 1785 to William Rotch to sons Samuel and William may be found in Mss 2, S-g 1, Series A, Box 1, folder 2 Rotch family collections at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

2 George Henry Prebble, History of the Flag of the United States of America (Cambridge: University Press, 1880), 291 – 296.

3 Jane Clayton, Shipowners employed in the South Sea Whale Fishery from Britain: 1775-1815 (Hastings, UK: Berforts Group, 2014), 80.

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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