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Chapter 12

CHAPTER XII

NANTUCKET STORIES

 

There is here and there in Nantucket a mansion that impresses one as being of the patrician order. The one we have in mind stands on the corner of a principal street, with well-kept lawns and gardens in the rear, a house that has entertained General Grant and President Arthur, with many men distinguished in other walks of life. Its owner is a retired merchant,1 one of those who forty years ago made this isolated isle known and respected to the remotest corners of the earth. He began his business career in 1832, as shipbuilder, and sent out many craft that were the pride of the seas. In 1839, as our Consul at New Zealand, be threw to the breeze the first American flag ever hoisted there. When the gold fever broke out in 1849 he sent his ship around the Horn to San Francisco, and himself performed the journey overland, enduring all the hardships incident to the way. He owned the first tea ship that entered the port of Foochow after it was opened to commerce in 1854. One of his last ventures, of which a pleasant chapter might be made, was his  

 

 In Olde Massachusetts

journey to London and then to Paris in 1855, where he chartered to the French Government the ship Great Republic, then the largest vessel in the world, to be used as a transport in the Crimean war. The ship took at one voyage 3,300 horses, with officers and artillery, and earned $184,000 for her owners in fourteen months.

The reminiscences of such a man can but be of the greatest interest.

"I dare say you never knew that the history of this Island is linked with that of the famous tea party in Boston Harbor," he remarked one evening as we drew our chairs before a fire of glowing red coal in his library. "It was in this way. In the June of 1779 William Rotch had two stanch vessels ó the Beaver and Dartmouth, old whalers lying idle at his. docks, and one day, closeted in his counting-room, he chartered them to a stranger from Boston to proceed to England for a cargo of the East India Companyís tea. That company bad just been granted a monopoly of the tea trade of the colonies, and having decided on sending consignments to the four principal colonial ports, needed quite a fleet for the purpose. Perhaps, too, they thought the tea would be received with better grace coming in American bottoms. At least an agent of the Boston consignees was despatched to Mr. Rotch at Nantucket. Naturally, he was glad to charter to so powerful a corporation, and the Beaver and Dartmouth were speedily

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Nantucket Stories

got ready for sea. The story-tellers make a point here that the commander of the Beaver on this voyage was Nathan Coffin, the famous whaling captain of Nantucket, whom Bancroft afterward cited as an example of the indomitable spirit of the patriots of Ď76. Coffin, they say, at the opening of the war was homeward bound from a whaling cruise, and was taken by one of His Majestyís cruisers, whose captain offered him liberty on condition that he served his King. "Hang me to your yardarm if you will," replied the intrepid tar, "but donít ask me to become a traitor to my country."

The name of William Rotch often occurs in the Islandís Records. He was a leading merchant on the island for some years before the Revolution. During the war, like most of the islanders, he remained neutral, with the result of being plundered by both parties. After the war, commerce being prostrate in America, he sought the British court and petitioned the King to offer a bounty on whale oil, that the business might be prosecuted from English ports. "And what will you give me for the privilege?" "I will give Your Majesty the young men of my native island." The merchant, however, found little sympathy with his project in England, and proceeded to France, where he met with better success. Louis XVI. granted him a subsidy, and he established himself at Dunkirk, where he prosecuted the business with considerable

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 In Olde Massachusetts

success, sending the first whaler into the Pacific that ever ventured those waters; and as most of the officers and men who manned his ships were of Nantucket, he literally fulfilled his promise of giving his patron the young men of his native island. Mr. Rotch spent the last years of his life at New Bedford, and aided largely in building up the important whaling interests of that port.

The Nantucket whale fishery had, as has been shown, a small beginning. Her sailors were among the first to venture into the icy waters of Baffinís Bay and Davis Straits. In 1745 a vessel was loaded with oil by Nantucket merchants and sent direct to England. Several years before the Revolution her hardy seamen had ventured into the South Atlantic. In 1775 the port had a fleet of 150 vessels, manned by 2,025 seamen, which brought to her warehouses 30,000 barrels of sperm and 4,000 barrels of whale oil annually. During the Revolution few vessels were sent to the cruising grounds, and for a whole generation succeeding there was little revival of the old spirit of enterprise. In 1818, however, without any special predisposing cause, the business all at once assumed its old vigor. In 1821 this little island, with a population of barely 7,000, had seventy-two whale ships in commission, aggregating 22,000 tons burden, besides quite a fleet of brigs, schooners, and sloops. In 1842 the business culminated, eighty-six ships and two brigs and schooners then

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forming its whaling marine. It is to this period that most of the tales told in the captainís room relate. Half a score of ice-battered, oil-blackened old hulks unloading on its piers at once was no uncommon sight in those days. As many more would be taking in stores. In eight long candle factories the snow-white spermaceti was fashioned. Eight hundred coopers, blacksmiths, riggers, and stevedores went down to the docks every morning. When a vessel out at sea making the harbor was sighted there was commotion in the little port. In the rear of the post-office was a tall flagstaff, on which a blue flag, bearing the word "Ship," in large letters, was displayed. Owners, captains, seamen, women, and children ó every one who had a venture on the deep ó then gathered to speculate as to which of the portís eighty-two vessels the incoming ship might be, the extent and value of her catch, and whether her crew was as complete and sound in limb as when she left the harbor. Meantime the "camels" were steaming out to the harbor bar. This contrivance was in reality a floating dry-dock, used for lifting vessels over the bar, at the entrance of the harbor. It was moved by steam, and, when signaled, proceeded to the bar, was sunk, the vessel was towed within, and the water being pumped from the camel, the latter rose with the ship in its embrace, and propelled itself and its burden over the bar.

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