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Wiliam Rotch of Nantucket

A Quaker Hero

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William Rotch: MEMORANDUM

(an Autobiographical sketch)

 

 INTRODUCTION

    The career of William Rotch during the years covered by this Memorandum is a stir-

ring but little-known chapter of AmericanQuaker history.

    Born in 1734, by the time of the Revolution he had built the largest business in the

Quaker community of Nantucket Island. His ships sailed to most civilized ports on com-

mercial and whaling voyages. The trials he and the islanders underwent during the Revo-

lutionary War are described here in a remarkably quiet, understated style.

(This story is also told from a different angle in my Quaker Nantucket and the American Revolution, also

published by Kimo Press. And for more about William Rotch and his family papers, in the Sturgis Library in

Barnstable, Massachusetts, click here.)

    Rotch’s account continues past the war to tell of his years of work trying to save

the whaling industry,first by moving it to England, where the main market then was, and

thereafter to France. Driven out of France by another revolutionary war, he returned to

his beloved island. He declines to say that the passage of time, political and personal

antagonisms had by 1795 made him unwelcome by many Nantucketers; he allows only that after

a year he moved to New Bedford, where he lived until his death in 1828. Under his influence,

New Bedford became both the center of world whaling, and a focus of Quaker culture

in New England. In his later years Rotch served on the Executive Committee of New Eng-

land Yearly Meeting, and was a patron of the Providence Friends School, now named after

Moses Brown, another great Quaker of his day.

    A sketch of Botch in his later years was penned by Daniel Rickets in the late nine-

teenth century in "New Bedford of the Past,"  based on his recollections from a half-century

earlier. Here is part of it:

    "It is a meeting day of the Friends. In front

    of the house is seen a plain but handsome

    coach, with a sleek and tine looking pair of

    bay horses, a colored driver of respectable

    appearance, and another servant at the open

    carriage door. The door of the mansion opens,

    and a courtly, venerable looking gentleman

    appears, an advanced octogenarian, tall with

    silvery locks, his dress of the true William

    Penn order--a drab beaver, drab suit, the long

    coat and waistcoat, knee-breeches with silver

    buckles, and shoes also with silver buckles--

    his step a little faltering but still grace-

    ful, and becoming one who had stood before

    ministers and kings in the Old World... .Let

    us see him in his carriage, sitting with pat-

    riarchal dignity, and follow him to the old

    Friends Meeting House. ... Seated in the

    ęgallery,-- or high seat, at ‘the head of the

    meeting,’ his very presence seems calculated

    to inspire a respect for the principles of

    peace he so truly inculcated both by precept

    and example."

Augustine Jones, writing in The Friend

in 1901, had this to say of him:

    "We owe vastly more to the heroes of in-

    vention and of enterprise, who have clothed

    and fed the multitude and spread before the

    entire world the light of modern civilization,

    than to the whole race of violent men who

    have changed again and again the map of the

    world, whose vainglorious chronicles are the

    staple of history, far beyond their merit or

    usefulness... .Hero worship would have been

    very distasteful to that group of noble men,

    which included.. the Rotches and many others;

    but we cannot forget the worth lost in them;

    we may well seek with all our hearts to emu-

    late their careers in following the Lord Jesus

    Christ in the obedience of faith."

 

And, now, William Rotch tells his own story.

            --Charles Fager

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