Quakers and Whaling
Quakers dominated the whaling industry in Nantucket and New Bedford, Massachusetts, for 150 years.
In 1690 a Quaker from Cape Cod, Ichabod Padduck, went to Nantucket Island to instruct the islanders in the methods of whaling. Thus began some 150 years of industrial scale whaling by Quakers on Nantucket Island and the adjacent Massachusetts town of New Bedford. Vast fortunes were made as whale ships ranged the whaling grounds from the South Atlantic to Greenland, and from the coast of Chile to the South Seas. Their target was the sperm whale whose oil and spermaceti fetched high prices in the growing industrial centres of America and Europe.
Quakers first moved to Nantucket and the New England shores in the 1650s to avoid persecution in England. The Religious Society of Friends came to dominate life on the island. Many of Nantucket’s first families - Macy, Starbuck, Coffin, Hussey, Folger, Rotch - became pre-eminent in the whaling industry. Whaling was expanding and many Nantucket Quakers were employed in it.
Quaker beliefs and tolerant labour practices made both Nantucket and New Bedford welcoming to all comers. Many black sailors, among them escaped slaves, found work on the whale ships, some even as ships’ captains. Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott, daughter of Thomas Coffin and Anne Folger, was born on Nantucket in 1793. It could be said that the first black freedom movement began in a Quaker whale town.
By the late 18th century, as the demand for whale oil grew, New Bedford was a major whaling centre. However when the Revolutionary War broke out in 1776 the whaling industry was badly hit. William Rotch, who had moved to New Bedford from Nantucket, decided to go to Britain to set up his whaling trade there instead, with help from influential English Quakers like David Barclay. Others followed, and by the early 1790s some 20 Nantucket families, now led by Samuel Starbuck, had established themselves in Milford Haven, in Pembrokeshire. A Meeting House was built in 1811 and is still in use by Milford Haven Friends today some 200 years later.
In 1786 Rotch had moved on again, this time to Dunkirk, France, with about 40 ships. Quakers or former Quakers captained many of them. Dunkirk Meeting was an ‘allowed’ Meeting of London’s Gracechurch Street Monthly Meeting. However, the aftermath of the French revolution in 1789 made France a dangerous place to stay – a guillotine was set up outside the Rotch house –and by 1795 Rotch was back in New Bedford.
By the late 1780s the whaling industry in Nantucket had picked up again, and their whalemen had begun hunting the sperm whale in the Pacific. It is claimed that the first sperm whale was killed in the Pacific off the coast of Chile by Nantucket whaleman Archelus Hammond.
Sperm whales were a very lucrative prey, but they were also dangerous and capable of sinking a large ship. In 1820 a Nantucket whale ship the Essex, captained by a former Quaker, was sunk by a sperm whale in the South Pacific; this incident inspired Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick.
So lucrative was the trade in sperm whale oil that by 1790 Nantucket Quakers reported to Yearly Meeting that ‘there were no poor people on the island’. By the 1830’s the value of whale products on Nantucket alone exceeded $1 million and this was well below that of New Bedford.
During the 1840s Nantucket began to lose its place at the forefront of whaling. A disastrous fire in 1846, coupled with disputes between various Quaker factions on the island, led to the demise of the industry there. By 1850 Nantucket whaling was no more. The arrival of the railroad in New Bedford had driven the last nail in the coffin of Nantucket as a centre for whaling and New Bedford became the ‘city that lit the world’ with its whale oil.
But the golden age of whaling was past. The opening of the Pennsylvania oilfields in the late 1850s sounded the death knell for the whaling industry. The last whaling ship left Nantucket in 1869 never to return. By the 1880s whaling in New Bedford had also ceased.
As for Nantucket Meeting –it closed in 1944.