Modern history


The Nantucket Paradigm

One morning in the fall of 1659, before they were apprehended and hanged for not taking off their hats, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson, along with Edward Wharton, took shelter from a rainstorm in the house of a farmer, Thomas Macy, in Salisbury, north of Boston. Macy himself had been caught in the storm and was soaked to the skin when he arrived home, moments before the Quakers knocked at his door. He found his wife sick in bed, so he was too busy to entertain his guests beyond allowing them to stay until the weather improved. He spoke few words with them, though he admitted later that because of their speech and “carriage” (hats on), he thought they might be Quakers. Macy was a Baptist, not a Quaker, but his notions of hospitality were as plain to him as the weather. His guests stayed about three-quarters of an hour, until the rainstorm passed, then thanked him and left.

Nevertheless, the Boston court took exception to this minimal act of hospitality and fined him five pounds. Macy was outraged, and his outrage made history.

“He could now live no longer in peace, and in the enjoyment of religious freedom [i.e., the freedom to extend Christian hospitality to anyone of his choice],” wrote his descendant, Nantucket historian Obed Macy.

He chose therefore to remove his family to a place unsettled by the whites, to take up his abode among savages, where . . . religious zeal had not yet discovered a crime in hospitality. In the fall of 1659, he embarked in an open boat, with his family and such effects as he could conveniently take with him, and . . . proceeded along the shore to the westward. When they came to Boston bay, they crossed it, passed round Cape Cod . . . thence they crossed the sound and landed on Nantucket without accident.

This same journey today in a well-found yacht requires precise navigation to negotiate the extreme tidal currents and shifting sandbars that lie between Cape Cod and Nantucket. Macy was not ignorant of these dangers. This hazardous voyage, of several days’ duration, risking wife and children in an obviously overloaded open boat in changeable fall weather through a stretch of the most disturbed waters off the New England coast, tells us everything about the vehemence of Thomas Macy’s feelings. He was responding to the same charges and persecution that seven years earlier had driven Henry Howland and others to purchase the land that became the settlement of Dartmouth.

A year later, ten more families from Salisbury had joined the Macys on Nantucket. They purchased the island from Thomas Mayhew of Martha’s Vineyard (who had bought it from a group of absentee English aristocrat speculators).

But when these bold, independent-minded people tried to scratch a living from this place, they were at a serious disadvantage compared with settlers on the mainland. The fishing in the tidal-ripped waters around the island was good, particularly of cod, but with little to augment it from ashore, it made a thin living for the early Nantucketers.

From the earliest days of English settlement along the east coast of America, whales had been found stranded ashore, primarily along New England’s great stretches of beach on southern Long Island and Cape Cod. “Whaling” then was no more than scavenging; such flotsam was cut up and the blubber, long known to provide a useful oil, was boiled in large pots set up on the beach. But these windfalls were infrequent on Nantucket. Whales weren’t pursued and “fished” until the day, a year or two after Macy and others had moved to the island, when a live whale, of a kind locally called a “scragg”—a gray whale—appeared in the settlement’s harbor. It swam tantalizingly close, back and forth in the shallows off the town, for several days. A barbed spearhead was quickly fashioned by the local blacksmith, and a boatload of men eager to capture the whale set off with the spearhead and attacked and killed the whale. This appears to be the earliest account of a whale caught with a harpoon by the white settlers of America. The Nantucketers probably got the idea from watching the Indians, with whom they fished and were friendly, attempt the same thing.

Captain George Weymouth, exploring the New England coast and the waters around Nantucket and Dartmouth in 1605, observed of the natives: “One especial thing is their manner of killing the whale. . . . They go in company of their king in a multitude of their boats; and strike him with a bone made in fashion of a harping iron fastened to a rope, which they make great and strong of the bark of trees, which they veer out after him; then all their boats come about him as he riseth above water, with their arrows they shoot him to death.” But, as Weymouth indicates, “harping irons” were already well known. The Dutch had been whaling in open boats launched from the shore in Spitsbergen, far north of the Arctic Circle, since the late sixteenth century. A 1611 engraving of their techniques bears the description: “When the whale comes above the water, ye shallop rowes towards him and being within reach of him the harpoiner darts his harping iron at him out of both his hands and being fast they lance him to death.” And the Basques were known to have hunted whales in the Bay of Biscay since the eighth century, using this same method, which remained unimprovable for a thousand years: despite all the Yankee ingenuity brought to the business, American whalers still threw harpoons with both hands from open boats until the invention and use of the harpoon gun in the second half of the nineteenth century.

It was the Nantucketers who revolutionized whaling at two signal moments that saw the business evolve from opportunistic beachcombing into a global industry. The first was their adaptation of the Indians’ method of catching live whales from boats that encouraged them to hunt whales at sea rather than waiting for them to drift ashore. The immediate and subsequent success of this, and the infertility of their barren sandspit, led Nantucketers to put all their industry into the development of this “fishery.” They hired more whalers from nearby Cape Cod to come to Nantucket, and coopers to make barrels, offering acreage and steady work for these outside contractors. From the start, Thomas Macy and the early settlers established good relations with Nantucket’s local Indians, so these families became their partners in this early endeavor. Indian men joined the white men in their boats, and their wives were involved in the boiling of the blubber ashore. By the late seventeenth century, whaling was Nantucket’s principal business, and almost every family on the island took part.

The type of whale initially hunted was a species whose characteristics, alive and dead, made it the most suitable—the “right” whale—to hunt: it was a slow swimmer, possessed thick blubber, and, most important, remained floating when killed, so that it was easily towed ashore. The right whale, as it came to be called, was found immediately offshore, its migratory path lying close to outlying Nantucket in the warm waters of the continental shelf between the tepid Gulf Stream and the American coast. Whales were often seen from shore, and Obed Macy records a comment passed down by generations of Nantucketers: “In the year 1690 . . . some persons were on a high hill . . . observing the whales spouting and sporting with each other, when one observed ‘there,’ pointing to the sea, ‘is a green pasture where our children’s grandchildren will go for bread.’ ”

Nantucket’s whale fishery continued to prosper through the second half of the seventeenth century. Lookout posts—tall wooden posts with a sitting platform—were erected along the island’s southern coast and manned, like modern lifeguard chairs; boats were launched when whales were sighted. But this was still whaling carried out from a shore base. About the year 1712, a whaler named Christopher Hussey and his crew of white settlers and Indians had set out after right whales, when a strong northerly wind sprang up and blew their boat out of sight of land, far out to sea—probably to the warm edge of the Gulf Stream. When the blow subsided, Hussey and his crew found themselves close to a pod of a very different sort of whale. These had enormous blunt-ended heads that appeared to comprise half the whale’s body. Their jaw was nothing like the large baleen-filled scoop of the right whale, but was a long, narrow plank filled with teeth at the bottom of this head. At least one such whale had previously been found dead ashore in Nantucket, where it had aroused a frenzy of excitement. When cut open, its bulbous, bluff-bowed head was discovered to contain a reservoir of pure amber-colored oil that could be emptied out with ladles. This was initially thought to be a reservoir of the whale’s seminal fluid or sperm. It was quickly found to be far superior in quality to rendered blubber oil: it produced a cleaner-burning flame when lit—its primary use—but was also thought to have medicinal properties, both when swallowed and applied externally. For a time, Macy writes, this oil was esteemed to be worth its weight in silver. And many uses were found for those teeth, great ingots of a hard, fine ivory.

Hussey and his crew succeeded in killing one of these whales and towing it back to Nantucket, prompting the industry’s second major evolution (in America), the second innovation by Nantucketers: the commencement of deep-sea whaling voyages, the duration and spoils of which were limited only by the size of the vessels. Larger ships were quickly built, capable of venturing far offshore and remaining at sea, cruising for whales, with stores to feed a crew for six or more weeks without returning to shore, capacious enough to be loaded with hogsheads full of cut-up whale meat and barrels filled with sperm oil.

Such ships were too slow and clumsy to follow and attack a whale at close quarters, so they also had to be large enough to carry small whaleboats—the size of Indian canoes—that could be lowered for the chase and the kill. Since these did not have to be especially seaworthy or comfortable for long periods, or carry much beyond the essential harpoons, lances, and rope, they could be lightly constructed for speed and maneuverability. Thus evolved the classic whaleboat: about twenty-eight feet long, double-ended for speedy reverses away from a whale’s back and thrashing tail, oar-powered (though they also carried a collapsible mast and sail), rowed by five men and steered by the sixth, one of the ship’s mates. These are the small cockleshells now seen only in whaling museums, and in paintings and illustrations, being tossed, pulled, or smashed to pieces by a whale.

As larger vessels made more voyages, more facilities to receive and process their cargoes were built ashore on Nantucket. New wharves for larger ships were constructed in the town’s harbor; tryworks—sheds housing brick kilns and great iron cauldrons where the blubber was cut up and “tried-out” into oil—were erected near the wharves; warehouses to store barrels, coopering sheds, forges, shipbuilding yards, long ropewalk sheds, and soon candle factories and oil refineries were built. All quickly changed the appearance of what had been a sleepy settlement on Nantucket into a busy, and putrid-smelling, industrial town.

The business of the whale fishery became the primary occupation of almost everyone in Nantucket. Men were employed either aboard the ships or in the building of them and in the heavier manufacturing processes, while women, and many children, found work in the ropewalk and the candle factories, and in the importing and exporting businesses that supported a growing town.

In 1715, three years after Christopher Hussey’s epochal capture of a sperm whale, there were still only six vessels engaged in Nantucket’s whale fishery, producing that year £1,100 for the island. But whale oil was becoming highly sought-after in America and England, and the industry’s growth was explosive: by 1762, Nantucket had 78 ships at sea. The island’s catch that year amounted to 9,440 barrels of oil—almost 300,000 gallons—from approximately 130 whales.

This, and the lesser efforts by whaleships sailing from New London and Sag Harbor, was enough to impact the numbers of whales found across a broad stretch of the Atlantic. By the mid-eighteenth century, both sperm and right whales were becoming notably scarce along the American coast. No longer were they seen cavorting in the coastal pastures. As Nantucketers sailed ever farther to find them, the direction of their search first arced back toward the Old World: north up Davis Strait to the arctic reaches of Baffin Bay, east to the Grand Banks and beyond, to the Western Islands (as the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde groups were still known, even by Americans in a Eurocentric world). But whales (and the avoidance of French and Spanish privateers during a series of wars these two countries waged against England during the eighteenth century) led the voyaging whaleships inexorably in the direction of the geopolitical future: southeast, down the coast of Guinea, in West Africa, and then westward again, to “the Brazils,” even as far south as the Falkland Islands, where Nantucket vessels were cruising by 1772. Then Cape Horn beckoned, beyond which lay a whole world of unknown whaling grounds to be explored in tandem with the irresistible westward roll of history.

Norsemen had sailed above the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia and Russia from the first millennium, but the Nantucket whalemen rediscovered arctic conditions for themselves, and they made their observations available to fellow whalers: “The daylight goeth not out of the sky during the whole 24 hours.” On June 15, 1753, when the whaleship Grey-hound lay in Davis Strait between Baffin Island and Greenland, her log recorded: “At 10AM it grew thick of fog and we Brought to under a trisail & Foresail not daring to run we knew not whither among ye Ice or Fog. The weather is freezing cold; Nights short; Sea rowling and Tumbling. The Deep tedious; our cabbin a Delight; the fire pleasant, our allowance to every man on board his belly-full and more too if he wants. Alas, if it were not for hope the heart would fail.”

Nantucket’s whalers lived routinely at sea for months at a time, as no one had before them. “This morning I went out in my boat to the Carcass of a Dead Whale,” wrote Francis Swain in the log of the Speedwell of Nantucket as it cruised in the South Atlantic on March 30, 1776. “There was a great number of Albatrosses & I knocked down 52 of them with my lance Pole and haul ’d them into the boat . . . they proved to be Excellent good Meat.”

These Nantucketers, “geographically situated as if on a mother ship anchored in the Atlantic,” as historian Edouard Stackpole put it, were the world’s first proficient oceanographers. In London, Benjamin Franklin’s English friends asked him why their own ships were so much slower crossing the Atlantic than the Americans’. For an answer, Franklin wrote to his cousin, Nantucket whaling captain Timothy Folger, who told him about the phenomenon recorded by whalers of the warm river that flowed through the much colder Atlantic, from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Europe. Franklin was the first to publish an article and a map of this “Gulf Stream.”

THOUGH THOMAS MACY and most of the early settlers were not Quakers, Nantucket gradually became thoroughly Quakerized during the hundred years following their arrival. The community’s origins and continued open-mindedness about matters of faith had encouraged a number of Quakers to relocate there, but there seems to have been no regular Meeting until Thomas Story, an early Quaker missionary from England, visited the island in 1704. He found willing believers—not yet Quakers—in Nathaniel Starbuck and, in particular, his wife, Mary. She was “a wise, discreet woman, well read in Scripture, and not attached unto any sect, but in great reputation throughout the island for her knowledge in matters of religion, and an oracle among them on that account, in so much that they would not do any thing without her advice and consent therein,” wrote Story. With the Starbucks’ help, he organized Quaker Meetings with islanders, including a large number of the local Indians, many of whom had already become pious Christians. Story left the island with a regular Meeting established at the Starbuck house, under the guidance of Mary, and “now her three sons and daughters, and sons’ wives, are all in a hopeful way to the knowledge of truth, and liberty of the sons of God, with several other tender people at this time, in that small island.” Story was later able to report that “the Lord did visit them, and gathered many there unto himself, and they became a large and living meeting in him.”

Within sixty years of Story’s visit, two of the island’s three magistrates were Quakers, and most of the rest of the population were of the same persuasion. This religious solidarity had a profound impact on the island’s primary commercial enterprise. Nantucket’s genius in the business of whaling lay in the collective pursuit of a single engrossing occupation by its inhabitants, most of whom were connected by birth and an intimacy that stretched back over many generations, and now by religion. The business was conducted, Obed Macy wrote, as if by one family.

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, a French soldier who became a British subject, traveled through the colonies during the eighteenth century as a surveyor and salesman of cartographic instruments, and published a series of “letters” describing what he saw. He visited Nantucket just before the Revolution and was impressed by the degree to which the overarching ethic of Quakerism, with its “obedience to the laws . . . sobriety, meekness, neatness, love of order,” and, most of all, its “fondness and appetite for commerce” affected the development of the people in tandem with their business on Nantucket:

At schools they learn to read and write a good hand, until they are twelve years old; they are then in general put apprentices to the cooper’s trade, which is the second essential branch of business followed here; at fourteen they are sent to sea, where in their leisure hours their companions teach them the art of navigation, which they have an opportunity of practising on the spot. They learn the great and useful art of working a ship in all the different situations which the sea and wind so often require, and surely there cannot be a better or more useful school of that kind in the world. They then go gradually through every station of rowers, steersmen, and harpooners; thus they learn to attack, to pursue, to overtake, to cut, to dress their huge game; and after having performed several such voyages and perfected themselves in this business, they are fit either for the counting-house or the chase.

He also remarked a peculiar distraction that relieved the rigidly austere lifestyle of the island’s Quakers:

A singular custom prevails here among the women, at which I was greatly surprised. . . . They have adopted these many years the Asiatic custom of taking a dose of opium every morning, and so deeply rooted is it that they would be at a loss how to live without this indulgence; they would rather be deprived of any necessary than forego their favorite luxury. This is much more prevailing among the women than the men, few of the latter having caught the contagion, though the sheriff, whom I may call the first person in the island, who is an eminent physician beside and whom I had the pleasure of being well acquainted with, has for many years submitted to this custom. He takes three grains of it every day after breakfast, without the effects of which, he often told me, he was not able to transact any business.4


THE FACT THAT THIS Quaker whaling cult floated on a sandy cloister out at sea undoubtedly helped establish, by the mid-eighteenth century, Nantucket’s preeminence in the whaling business. But this handily situated platform was still small and required yet another sea voyage to transport its whale oil to any market. There were those who could already see the limits of such a location.

Such a man was Joseph Rotch. His father, William Rotch, born in Salisbury, England, in 1670, came to America around 1700 and became a prominent citizen in Provincetown. Joseph was born in 1704, and lived first in Braintree, then Falmouth. At some point he moved to Nantucket, where he married Love Macy, a descendant of Thomas Macy, and became a successful whaling merchant. Rotch was a Quaker, his sons were born on the island, and the Rotches became one of Nantucket’s leading families. Yet perhaps because of a background more cosmopolitan than most of his neighbors’, Joseph Rotch became restless on Nantucket. At the relatively advanced age of sixty-one, rich and secure by every measure of his time, he left Nantucket in 1765. Where he went indicates the scope of his ambition, and his appetite for renewal.

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