The Falkland gambit, Part 5 of 13

View all articles in this series


The onset of war between Britain and the American colonies devastated Nantucket’s economy. As whaling grounds became battle grounds, ships that weren’t confiscated or destroyed languished in drydock. Cargoes that weren’t seized rotted at port, and sailors who didn’t join up or who weren’t impressed remained unemployed. Desperate merchants had few options. Some turned privateer or smuggler. Others turned to the increasingly crowded West Indies trade. Francis Rotch recognized that whalers needed to find neutral waters far away from the conflict in order to protect their ships, sailors, and sovereignty. While seeking restitution from Parliament for the cargo lost during the Boston Tea Party, the younger Rotch brother obtained passes allowing his whaling ships to continue sailing to the Falklands amidst the hostilities. One of these Rotch-owned ships would be among the first American vessels to round Cape Horn into the Pacific. 1

Colonial control of the Falkland Islands had passed from France to Great Britain to Spain. The latter two almost went to war in 1770 over control of these strategically important islands, as they served as an essential colonial outpost and weigh station in the South Atlantic. By 1774, however, Great Britain had abandoned the islands. Nantucket whalers like the Rotches used the subsequent power vacuum as an opportunity to expand the scope and influence of the island’s industry. Their success was so immediate and so great that Edmund Burke complained in a now-famous speech that no one could compete with the “hardy industry” of New England fishermen. Burke was particularly impressed with their presence in the South Atlantic, commenting that “Falkland’s Island, which seemed too remote and romantic an object for the grasp of [British] national ambition, is but  a stage and resting-place in the progress of their victorious industry.”  Famously concluding that there was “[n]o sea but what is vexed by their fishery.  No climate that is not witness to their toils,” he warned Parliament that the Americans no longer relied on Great Britain for their livelihood.2 He urged the British to reconcile with the colonists so as to ensure that the crown could continue to benefit from their industry, but to no avail. Americans soon won their independence and Yankee whalers soon pushed into the Pacific, both leaving their British counterparts behind.

1 The question of which whaling ship(s) first crossed into the Pacific has long been a contested one. We know that the British whaler Emilia, commanded by Captain James Shields, departed London on 1 September 1788 and subsequently rounded Cape Horn. Rotch claimed to have sent his French-registered (but American-built and American-manned) whalers into the Pacific as early as 1790. The greatest confusion surrounds US whalers and initially involved the Rotch ship Beaver (of Boston Tea Party fame). This ship was long credited with being the first American whaler to round the Horn, but subsequent studies have demonstrated this ship was confused with another Beaver, built for Ichabod Thomas and captained by Captain Worth. Stackpole, however, argues that the credit belonged to the 175-ton Rebecca, built for Joseph Russell & Sons and captained by James Hayden, in 1791.

2 Edmund Burke delivered this famous speech, ‘On Conciliation With America’ , to Parliament on March 22, 1775. The full text may be found at:

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.

> >