- Historic Sites
The World & Nantucket
The natives never could live quite happily with “off-island” civilization—but neither could they live without it
June 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 4
For a while, the settlers tended their sheep and grew their gardens, and one way or another they got along. There were codfish to be had offshore, and in 1672 the first whale was taught, and then the Nantucketers began to take to the sea. Afore people came to the island as the industry flourished, and by 171;; there were six sloops in the whaling fleet, which took in eleven hundred pounds sterling that year. Nantucket was on its way, but it was also headed into international trouble. In 1754 the French and Indian War broke out between France and England, and as far as the French were concerned the Nantucketers were English. In one year they captured six Nantucket whaling sloops and took them to France, where their crews were imprisoned and eventually vanished. Another six were lost to the weather, but that was to be expected; what made the Nantucketers bitter was that they should have to stiller for someone else’s war. They even accepted the occasional trouble with pirates as an occupational hazard (a Nantucket captain named Nathan Skilf had his boat pillaged by pirates and then was whipped and, as a final indignity, had his cars cut oil), and their chief bugaboo remained international wars in which they were caught in the middle. Edouard A. Stackpolc, in The Sea-Hunters , sums up the pre-Revolutionary Nantucketers by saying: “Theirs was a pride in accomplishment seldom equalled. Frugal to the point of habitual self-denial, confident through ilie experience of a generation of whalemen, governed by the sober tenets of their Quaker religion, the Nantucketer was the whaling symbol of his time. … Here was a prosperous Quaker kingdom in the sea before the Revolutionary War suddenly burst upon it.”
And burst it did, with Nantucket frantically trying to stay neutral, and each side accusing it of dealing with the other. As Quakers, Nantucketers were against any war; as Americans, they had had no great problems with the Dritish; as whalers, they needed freedom of movement for their ships: and as islanders, they needed produce from the mainland to survive. (The population had long since outstripped the island’s ability to sustain it.) A number of Tories had fled from Hoston and Salem to what they considered a safe Quaker refuge in the Atlantic; this made the rebel authorities suspect Nantucket of Tory sympathies, and the suspicion led to curtailment of supplies. The British blockaded the island and impressed Nantucket seamen whenever they caught them; they also raided the island, making off with fifty thousand dollars’ worth of property. All in all the war was, for Nantucket, a complete shambles. The lucky ones were the twenty or more islanders who are supposed to have served with John Paul Jones on the Ranger and the Bonhomme Richard ; they at least had navy food, which although no bargain was better than no food at all. (There is increasing reason to doubt that any Nantucketers served with Jones, bin the legend nevertheless persists. There is even a plaque to one Thomas Turner, allegedly killed in the engagement with the Serapis .) Be that as it may, those who stayed behind were close to starvation. The story goes thai a man named Meader, in the winter of 1780, asked his neighbor for a hammer “to knock my teeth out with; I got no further use for ‘cm.” Wartime humor being what it is, the remark is passable as a sample. From all accounts, the winter of 1780 on Nantucket made Valley Forge look like a pleasant outing.
The best illustration of what the war did is the fact that in 1771 the island population was 4,545,, and 150 ships were in service; by the end ol’ hostilities. 1,600 Nantucketers had lost their lives, and 134 ships had been (apttired. That kind ol war makes it hard to say who won, especially for a group who didn’t want it in the first place.
The only thing they could do was start to rebuild their whaling fleet, and this they did. Hut other ports had taken tip whaling too, with a resultant drop in prices, and in 1785 Xantticket petitioned the Court of Boston lor independence. This might have allowed them to set their own prices as well as to avoid foreign entanglements; but the (Jouit refused, so Nantucket resigned itself to the inevitable and concentrated on whaling. And made a success of it, too; prosperity re- turned, the population increased, there was a modest building boom, and everything was going splendidly when along came 1812, and another war willi the British. Nantucket joined the rest ol New Kngland in protesting to Congress, and tried as a last resort 10 be declared officially neutral, but once again the off-islanders had their way, and the war was on. A petition to President Madison lor protection against the British wem unanswered.
This time the British blockade was so successful that almost no food at all arrived during the winter of 1813–14. The following July. Nantuckei turned in desperation Io the British, and asked for passports to get supplies from the mainland. The British agreed, provided Nantucket became a neutral and paid no more taxes to the United States. Nantucket wrote to Congress and asked for tax exemption, explaining the reason, and when after a month there was no reply, the agreement was signed. Six ships were allowed to go for provisions, and fifteen for wood. It wasn’t much but it was better than nothing, and Vice President Elbridge Gerry later approved the action as having been the only thing possible. (This was, incidentally, Nantucket’s last gesture toward independence; the newspaper reports of a “secessionist” movement in the mid-1930’s were without foundation.)