What did the Rotches have to do with “The first act of emancipation in this commonwealth in consequence of the verdict of a jury”?

It was the master of one of their whaling vessels whose action precipitated the “Prince Boston Case.”

Following their Quaker principles, the Rotches were founding members of the Providence Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and took an active role in obtaining the freedom of enslaved men on their ships.

Prince Boston was born into slavery on Nantucket in 1750, one of eight children of Boston and Maria, a couple held by William Swain. Swain wrote a deed of manumission for Boston, Maria, and their youngest son in 1760, but he retained their other sons to serve him until each attained the age of twenty-eight. These young men he sent whaling and collected their shares in the profits of these voyages.

Prince Boston shipped on the Friendship, a whaling vessel owned by the Rotch family. While the Friendship was at sea, William Swain died, and at the end of the voyage Captain Elisha Folger delivered Prince Boston’s lay directly to him. John Swain, William’s heir, sued Folger for recovery of the money, but in 1773 the court decided against the Swains.

A half century later, the Nantucket Inquirer published a story from an unnamed source claiming that upon the decision in favor of Folger, the Nantucket magistrates immediately freed Prince Boston from slavery.  The newspaper story went on to relate that John Swain intended to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court in Boston, but “Mr. Rotch thought it advisable to retain John Adams as his counsel in this case” and given the circumstances, Swain did not present his appeal after all.

According to the Inquirer, “After that period, all the slaves of Nantucket obtained their freedom.” This did not happen overnight, however. Despite the disapproval of Nantucket Quakers, Benjamin Coffin of Nantucket did not free Rose and her sons Bristol and Benjamin until 1775.

As for Prince Boston, the Inquirer described him as “a respectable and industrious man…with such prudence and economy as to be possessed at an early period in his life with one hundred pounds sterling.” This appears to be confirmed by a 1786 entry in William Rotch’s account book.


Painting of African American whaling captain.
Absalom Boston

Prince Boston’s nephew, Absalom Boston, was a master mariner and commanded the whaleship Industry with an all-black crew. Subsequently he was an investor in the highly successful voyage of the Loper, but most of his extensive business dealings were land-based. Absalom Boston was active in the causes of abolition and the racial integration of the Nantucket public schools. In 1839 he ran unsuccessfully for seats on the Nantucket Board of Selectmen and the Nantucket School Committee, and in 1845 he brought an action against the town for depriving his daughter Phebe Ann “of the advantages of Public School instruction.” The following year the Nantucket public schools were finally and permanently integrated.

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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