Nantucket Quakers in France
—The story of An Island Plant, in The Atlantic for May and June, reminds me of the curious concatenation of circumstances which brought Nantucket Quakers before the French National Assembly, to be addressed by Mirabeau.
Battered between hammer and anvil during the War of Independence, Nantucket fishermen found themselves, at the peace, shut out of British markets as foreigners. Some of them made overtures for immigration, first to England, where they encountered procrastination or refusal, and then to France. Francois Coffyn, a native of Dunkirk and an English interpreter, was anxious that they should settle in that port. They stipulated for exemption from import duties, a bounty on their sperm oil, the command of their own whalers, and liberty of conscience. Shubael Gardner, who had been a prisoner in London, conducted the negotiations, and in February, 1785, he went back to Nantucket, where Rotch convened the selectmen at Sherburne to consider Coffyn’s offer. Coffyn raised the £1800 required for the expenses of the emigration, and Rotch, landing with his brother at Dunkirk on the 28th of April, proceeded to Paris to conclude the arrangement. Three oil-laden whalers — the Canton, Captain Whippey, the United States, Captain Thaddeus Coffin (a namesake, but of course no relation to François Coffyn), and the Mary, Captain Moore —shortly afterwards reached Dunkirk.
But, meanwhile, English intrigues, according to the Dunkirk historian, Decode, had made the French government change its mind, while, on the other hand, the London courts had raised the embargo on Nantucket oil, and the English authorities wished to reopen the negotiations for immigration. The fishermen, however, with Quaker probity, rejected these overtures as coming too late. Gardner, with his wife and daughter, accordingly sailed for Dunkirk, accompanied by six boats, and a refugee family from England followed.
The naval rope factory was assigned to the immigrants, until cottages and factories could be erected for them on the Isle Jeanty, and some lodged with the townspeople. In 1789, the three above-named whalers sailed from Dunkirk for Brazilian waters, and twelve others followed. A series of hitches, however, occurred. The French government refused to pay the promised bounty of fifty francs per ton, and England, obtaining a reduction of import duties, undersold the Nantucket settlers in the French market. The Revolution, with its civic oath and military service, brought further complications, so that on the 10th of February, 1791, three Quakers, their hats on their heads, appeared before the National Assembly. Their names were J. Marsillae, W. Rotch, and B. Rotch. Marsillae was a doctor, a graduate of Montpellier, who, a little later on, published a Life of Penn, and also a treatise on gout, How and when he had become a Quaker does not appear ; but Languedoc then contained, as Nîmes still does, a few French Quakers, and these had apparently fraternized with the Nantucket immigrants. Of Marsillac there is no trace after 1792, but a Paris jeweler of that name, a native of Lyons, guillotined in 1794, may have been a kinsman. We can fancy the half-puzzled, half-amused look of the Assembly and the galleries when one of the three hatted men, doubtless Marsillac, asked permission to read a memorial. After mentioning the Nantucket, immigrants, and affirming the existence of Quakers in several towns and villages of Languedoc, the memorial explained the Quaker objection to oaths and to bearing arms ; it cited Pennsylvania in proof of the feasibility of these principles, and it pleaded for the toleration accorded in England and the United States.
Mirabeau, who was then president of the Assembly, made a characteristic reply. He expressed a hope that regenerated France would become a second Pennsylvania. He promised the fullest religious toleration, and raised no difficulty as to oaths ; but as to non-resistance, while admiring it as a grand philosophic principle, he suggested that selfdefense was sometimes a duty, that liberty could not be won nor preserved except by force, and that colonists could not allow their wives arid children to be slaughtered bv savages. “If one of us,” he added, “meets a Quaker, he will say to him, ‘Brother, if thou hast a right to be free, thou hast a right to prevent thyself from being enslaved. Inasmuch as thou lovest thy fellow-man, do not allow him to be butchered by tyrants. It would be tantamount to killing him thyself. Dost thou desire peace ? Remember that weakness is what causes war. General resistance implies universal peace.’ ”
The memorial was referred to the Constitutional Committee, and the deputation was invited to “ the honors of the sitting ; that is to say, to seats on the floor.
In September, 1791, the Assembly confirmed the engagements originally entered into, and invited a further immigration. Forty whalers are said to have sailed from Dunkirk in that year, the crews being half French. When war broke out with England, ninety fishermen asked permission to fly the American flag ; but this, of course, could not have been recognized by the English, and the fishery necessarily collapsed. On the 26th of October, 1793, another Dunkirk deputation waited on the Convention to complain that the English wives of some of them had been arrested by the municipality under the decree for the detention of British subjects, and the Convention ordered their release. On the 15th of September, 1795, a hatted Quaker, perhaps Marsillac, perhaps Rotch, was observed in the gallery of the Council of Elders, and one member would have had him ejected, but the Council left him unmolested.
Spasmodic attempts to revive the whale fishery were made during the short Peace of Amiens, and again in 1815, 1830, and 1836, but were fruitless. The present generation, however, has witnessed a revival, and there are now 100 or 120 boats, with 1500 sailors. But the Nantucket Quakers, with their (to French ears) outlandish Christian names,—Levi, Benjamin, Eliezer, Samuel, Laban, Shubael, — must either have quitted the town or have left no male issue, for I detect no trace of them in the Dunkirk directory.