Wiliam Rotch of Nantucket A Quaker Hero

William Rotch: Memorandum

(an Autobiographical sketch)


The career of William Rotch during the years covered by this Memorandum is a stirring 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 commercial and whaling voyages. The trials he and the islanders underwent during the Revolutionary 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.)

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 England 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 nineteenth 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 graceful, and becoming one who had stood before ministers and kings in the Old World… .Let us see him in his carriage, sitting with patriarchal dignity, and follow him to the old Friends Meeting House. … Seated in the ægallery,– 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 invention 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 emulate 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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