© 2020 Anne Morddel
By the end of the American Revolution in 1783, the town of Nantucket, which had remained neutral, was impoverished and its economy was struggling, in part because its Quaker seafarers were suspected of having traded with the British throughout the war. On the other side of the Atlantic, the fishing fleet based at the French port of Dunkirk had just received royal permission to establish a whaling base on the coast of Brazil, a fishing ground that was unfamiliar to the French but that the Nantucket whalers knew well.
Positioned in the far north of France, on the Channel but facing the North Sea more than England, Dunkirk at that time had some 27,000 people, about six times more than the population of Nantucket. The city's medieval fortifications had been dismantled long before and the influence of the large Flemish and Spanish communities could be seen in the new houses being built by prosperous and cosmopolitan merchants, and their presence seen in the civil registrations, where more names were Flemish than French. Unlike Nantucket, Dunkirk had a healthy economy, based on the fishing and whaling industries and on the commerce derived from a variety of imports, such as sugar and cotton, from France's colonies.
A Dunkirk ship owner and official translator, François Coffyn, had the idea of hiring expert whalers from Nantucket to help develop Dunkirk's whaling industry and expertise the better to exploit the new opportunities in the waters off Brazil. Remarkably, this man apparently is of no relation to the numerous Coffins of Nantucket and New Bedford,  but the happy coincidence of the similarity of his name may have acted in his favour when he made his proposal. William Rotch, a canny businessman of Nantucket, had been seeking ways to expand his whaling business. He had already established some of his whaling men and ships in Halifax, Nova Scotia but had failed in his negotiations to do the same in England. He readily agreed a deal with Coffyn to bring a number of American whalers to Dunkirk.
With the supervision of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote many calculations as to the financial viability of the enterprise, and with the aid and advice of Benjamin Franklin, who was representing America in France at the time, the deal was approved by both the French and the American governments. The whalers were granted the freedom to worship as Quakers in Catholic France, and were promised full exemption from military service. They were to receive a bounty per ton per ship, and were guaranteed the duty-free entry of their whale oil into France. They also won the privilege that every one of their vessels, though it might be manned by men from Dunkirk, would be captained by one of the "Nantucket men".
Peleg Bunker, a Quaker in his late thirties, was among those "Nantuckois", as they became known to the French, who moved to Dunkirk, along with his son, Obed. They were leaving behind Peleg's wife, Lydia Gardner, and some ten children in their house on Trader's Lane in Nantucket. For about nine years, both men sailed on whaling expeditions around the world, Peleg as captain of the Ardent, and Obed as captain of the Leverette.
The events of the French Revolution and especially the Terror soon overwhelmed the pacifist Quakers. William Rotch and his son, Benjamin, along with one of France's few home-grown Quakers, Jean de Marsillac Lecointe, together wrote a petition to the French National Assembly in 1791 suggesting, rather naively, a non-violent approach to revolution and, practically, seeking to have their religious practices and privileges protected.
On the whole, their practical request was granted and their philosphy rejected. As the Revolution progressed to the Terror, life for dissenters, even those who were foreign, to any aspect of the Revolution became exceedingly dangerous. Rotch the businessman may also have noted that the French revolutionary currency, the assignat, was worth only twenty per cent of its face value and of no value at all outside of France. This would have devalued his business significantly if the bounties and oil purchases were paid in assignats. He and many of the Nantucketers abandoned Dunkirk to establish a new outpost in Wales with a business base in London, for he had finally succeeded in making a deal with Britain. Some of the group decided to return to Nantucket while some remained in France, but not Peleg. He went with Rotch to Britain.
From 1793, Peleg Bunker was sailing as the captain of the whaler, Falkland. Though Bunker was living in and sailing from London in the employ of Rotch at the time, his ship seems to have been registered with Rotch's business in Halifax. Every voyage would have carried the risks of dangers not only from whaling and the elements but from Europe's wars that extended out onto the high seas.
The French Atlantic fleet had been much reduced by its loss in the sea battle that the victors call the "Glorious First of June" but her privateers were numerous and highly successful in their attacks on British shipping. The British Royal Navy kept a blockade of the French Atlantic coast, especially around the harbour of Brest, yet French naval vessels and privateers often managed to slip through the blockade. On every voyage out of and into the Channel, Peleg Bunker would have had to negotiate waters full of patrolling Royal Navy squadrons and the many French privateers that had slipped through the blockade. Almost certainly, he would have been stopped at sea often by Royal Navy vessels and would have had to show his ship's papers. To be caught by the French, however, meant being taken prisoner and sent to the nearest French port with his ship being sold as a prize.
Peleg Bunker must have been quite a skilled sailor as he was never caught by the French during the Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802). He may have had sets of ship's registration papers and flags from different nations, perhaps both American and British papers. After his many years in France, it is reasonable to assume that he spoke French and knew her seafaring customs thoroughly. It is also reasonable to suspect that he had retained a set or two of French papers and flags as well. Showing false flags and carrying false papers was not at all condoned by the maritime laws of the day, yet it is hard to find an account of a vessel, whether contemporary, historical, or fictional, that did not have them.
In March of 1802, France and Britain signed the Treaty of Amiens, known generally at the time as "The Peace". It brought relief from the trials of war to the population of Britain, and many rushed to Paris to see just how much it had been changed by the Revolution. It would seem that Peleg Bunker had been visiting his family in Nantucket in about 1801. In early 1802, he sailed on a ship (whose name is lost) from the United States to Britain, where the owner then sold the ship. In July, Bunker took a job as the chief mate on the William Bruce, an American snow built in 1798, and registered in London. She headed to the South Sea Whale Fishery, but the captain, Francis Baxter, died on the outward voyage and Bunker took command. The William Bruce worked the fishery for a year or more. With a full cargo of oil, the William Bruce began the voyage back to London, under Captain Peleg Bunker. Like many who had been long at sea and in a region remote from Europe, he may not have known that The Peace had ended when the Treaty of Amiens expired in May of 1803, and France and Britain were again at war.
As the William Bruce sailed north (at 48.5N 15W, in the Atlantic, west of the Celtic Sea), she was captured, in October 1803, by the French privateer, the Vaillant, Captain Etienne, of Bordeaux, and was taken in to the Spanish port of Cadiz. The Vaillant had had a successful cruise. She had left Bordeaux with a crew of 278 men and armed with twenty-two 18-pounder cannons and six 4-pounders. Her Letter of Marque was for six months. She captured the William Douglas, the Union, Bunker's William Bruce, and the valuable Cleopatra. 
It is not clear how Bunker arrived at Bordeaux; he may have been taken onto the capturing Vaillant or held on the William Bruce, which was taken from Cadiz to Bordeaux and sold. From there, he and his crew were marched to the prison depots, the crew to Givet and Bunker to Verdun. Bunker's great-granddaughter wrote that they were marched "like cattle". The distance to Verdun was over 850 kilometers and would have taken about a month, marching under guard and with other prisoners, through the rain and snow as they worked their way north in the late autumn and early winter.
These brutal marches have been described by a number of British prisoners of war who afterward wrote accounts of their time in France. The prisoners were marched from dawn to dusk, often chained together and occasionally with convicted felons being sent elsewhere. The marches were done in stages that were rather short in the beginning, until the prisoners became more used to walking all day, then grew longer. They rested at midday but there was not always food. They slept in local jails, dungeons or barns along the way. They were not given clothes or shoes and their own often wore out so that, when they arrived, they were in rags and barefoot. That December, Peleg Bunker turned fifty-six. Though he had lived a mariner's life and was certainly hardened to the elements, the march most likely weakened his health.
Peleg Bunker was sent to Verdun, which held most British merchant captains. Almost immediately after Bunker arrived at Verdun, the American representative in Paris tried to help him. The United States Minister Plenipotentiary at the time was Robert Livingston, a wealthy New Yorker who had been very involved in the arrangements for the purchase of France's Louisiana territory by the United States. He wrote to the French Minister for War in March of 1804, asking that Bunker be removed from the list of English prisoners of war and released, on the grounds that he was a citizen of a country not at war with France.
He included a notarized copy of Peleg’s Seaman's Protection Certificate. The website of the Mystic Seaport Museum of America and the Sea explains the importance of these certificates to their bearers: "In response to the impressment of American seamen by British ships, Congress passed an “Act for the Relief and Protection of American Seamen” in 1796. The Act required customs collectors to maintain a record of all United States citizens serving on United States vessels. Each seaman, once registered with the customs collector, was given a Seaman’s Protection Certificate. These certificates vouched for the citizenship of the individual and included identifying information such as age, height, complexion, place of birth, and in some cases eye and hair color. The intention of these certificates was to discourage impressment." Bunker's Seaman's Protection Certificate, part of which survives in translation, states that he was born in Sherborn, Nantucket County, Massachusetts and was a citizen of the United States of America and that, in 1795, he was forty-seven years old.
The French Minster for War responded to Livingston, writing that Captain Bunker “was captured on an enemy ship, on which he was working in the service of England" and that he must therefore "be considered a prisoner of war." Bunker had sailed from London, in a vessel registered in London, and was returning with cargo bound for London. His nationality did not matter; in working for and trading with the enemy, he was -- so far as France was concerned -- the enemy. He remained a prisoner at Verdun.
During his captivity, he attempted to help at least one other American to gain his release having signed, in 1804, an affidavit confirming the American nationality of a Job LePrevost, of Philadelphia. LePrevost had been the mate on the same Union that had been captured by the Vaillant shortly before she took the William Bruce. It is probable that LePrevost and Bunker had made the long and arduous march to Verdun together. Bunker's efforts came to nothing, for LePrevost was sent to a harsher prison at Sarrelibre (now Saarlouis).
Peleg Bunker encountered a relative at Verdun, Christopher Bunker, also a merchant captain caught sailing a British whaler, the Kent.  Though the Bunkers had surely seen many sins in their travels, Verdun, that town of gambling and partying English detainees, or détenus (British civilians in France who had been rounded up and interned when hostilities broke out again in 1803), may yet have shocked the Quakers. Though the town itself was insignificant and fairly small, it then held hundreds of wealthy British gentry, their families, and their servants as well as an even larger number of British naval and merchant-service officers and seamen. The gentry, with their money and boredom, had inspired the locals to establish casinos, restaurants, cafes and brothels for the English. There were duels and balls, gentlemen's clubs and an endless supply of wine. The commandant in charge, Wirion, was outrageously corrupt, demanding bribes from all, punishing those who did not pay with solitary confinement or transfer to a more brutal prison. It took years for the numerous letters of complaint about him finally to be read by the Minister for War and proceedings against him were begun in 1810. Before they could proceed, Wirion shot himself. The wealth brought to the people of Verdun by the prisoners was so great that other towns requested that they have a prison depot also.
In his two letters home, transcribed by his great-granddaughter, Lydia Bunker Gardner, Peleg Bunker spared his wife and made no mention of the people or conditions at Verdun. He wrote of his longing for release, for news of his family, and of his need for money. Two years after his capture, on the 22nd of December 1805, Peleg wrote to his "Dear Loving Wife" to say that he "had been very ill for five weeks with the fever and ague" but that he was well again. Illness weakened many of the prisoners. He went on to write that "Christopher Bunker hath been in the hospital for 6 weeks, but hath got the better of it and returned to the prison again." (No letters home from Christopher Bunker have surfaced.) He wrote that the letters he had received from his sons, Obed and Tristram, gave him great consolation.
At some point, he was given permission to live in town, rather than in the overcrowded dungeons of the stone fortress, and he resided in rue de la Patrie, with a young tanner, Jean Joseph Nicolas. On the 21st of January 1806, he wrote to one of his sons, identified only as "Captain Bunker" who had also been taken prisoner in France, saying that he was well, had received the money sent, and asking after others. A month later, he was dead.
He died in the tanner's house on the 24th of February 1806. His wife was named on his French death registration as Lidey [Lydia] Gardner. His place of origin was given as "Antiquet [Nantucket] en amérique" and his age as sixty-one. His parents are not named. Afterward, his belongings were given to Christopher Bunker, identified by the French as "a relative of his". He had been a mariner and whaler all of his life, sailing from Nantucket, from France, from Great Britain and from Brazil. A merchant captain and a Quaker pacifist, he died far from home, a prisoner of a war in which his native country was not engaged.
(N.B. I would like to thank Professor Peter Clark and Dr. Brian Cooper for their invaluable assistance with research in British records and publications, and Gil Bunker for permission to reprint this article, much of which first appeared in the “Bunker Banner”.)
 Greene, Ralph, "Timothy Folger, 1732-1814 : Whaling Captain, Merchant, Loyalist", Newsletter of the Canadian Friends Historical Association, November 1978, no. 23, pp1-10, http://www.cfha.info/newsletter23.pdf, accessed 27 April 2017.
 de Saint-Léger, A., La Flandre maritime et Dunkerque Sous la Domination Française (1659-1789) : Thèse de Doctorat Présentée à la Faculté des Lettres de l'Université de Lille, Paris : Tallandier, 1900, pp376-7 (e-book on The Internet Archive)
 Christian Pfister and Christine Harbion, "Le Siècle des Lumières", Dunkerque et Vous", https://www.ville-dunkerque.fr/decouvrir-sortir-bouger/histoire-patrimoine/lhistoire-de-dunkerque/le-siecle-des-lumieres, accessed 27 April 2017, no date.
 He was born in Dunkirk on the 6th of February 1742 to Joseph Coffyn and to Anne Jacqueline Vanacker, both "natives of this city". (See Registres paroissiaux et d'état civil (Parish and Civil Registers), microfilm no. 5 MI 027 R 018, "Dunkerque. Baptêmes 1741-1751", online image no. 118, Archives départementales du Nord: http://www.archivesdepartementales.lenord.fr/)
 Van Hille, Jean-Marc. "Les baleiniers quakers du Nantucket à Dunkerque en 1786, un pionnier :William Rotch" (Synthèse d’une conférence faite à Bruxelles le 24 mai 2014) Acta Macionica, Vol. 24, 2014, p.3, (http://www.swiss-quakers.ch/ge/library/e-documents/8378-BaleiniersQuakersDunkerque.pdf : accessed 26 April 2017)
 See "Jefferson's Memoranda Concerning the American, British and French Fisheries", The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition, eds. Barbara B. Oberg and J. Jefferson Looney (Charlottesville, Virginia, 2008) http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/TSJN-01-14-02-0064-0003, accessed 26 April 2017.
 Wyer, Henry Sherman, ed; Hart, Joseph C, Spun-yarn from old Nantucket : consisting mainly of extracts from books now out of print, with a few additions, Nantucket : The Inquirer and Mirror Press, 1914, p170, (Read on The Internet Archive)
 Gardner, Lydia Bunker, undated manuscript biography of Peleg Bunker, Edouard Stackpole Collection, Nantucket Historical Association Research Library and Archives, Nantucket, Massachusetts, hereinafter Gardner manuscript.
 Catalogue of Nantucket Whalers : And Their Voyages from 1815 to 1870, Nan-tucket : Hussey & Robinson, printers and publishers, 1876, p53. See also Du Pasquier, Jean-Thierry, Les baleiniers français de Louis XVI à Napoléon, Paris: H. Veyrier, 1990, p172.
 Louis, Jeanne H., "The Nantucket Quakers' Message as an Alternative to Benjamin Franklin's Message to the French Revolution", Quaker Studies, vol 5 issue1, article 2, pp15-16, http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/quakerstudies/vol5/iss1/2, accessed 27 April 2017.
 Andress, David, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution, Abacus, Little, Brown, 2005, p64.
 Catalogue of Nantucket Whalers, p172. See also, the Gardner manuscript.
 Gardner manuscript.
 Du Pasquier, Les baleiniers français , p170.
 Peleg Bunker dossier, Prisonniers de Guerre anglais (English Prisoners of War), Service Historique de la Défense, Vincennes, hereinafter POW dossier.
 "A snow... is a square rigged vessel with two masts, complemented by a snow- or trysail-mast stepped immediately abaft (behind) the main mast." See Wikipedia, referencing Hans Haalmeijer: Pinassen, fluiten en galjassen Uitgeverij De Alk B.V., Alkmaar, the Netherlands 2009. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_(ship)
 Clayton, Jane M., Ships Employed in the South Sea Whale Fishery from Britain: 1775-1815, Hastings : Berforts Group Ltd, 2014, p246.
 There is a discrepancy on the dates; Clayton, p246, has the William Bruce in the South Seas until 1804, but Du Pasquier, p120, has her capture in October of 1803. Bunker was certainly in Verdun by March 1804, the date of the earliest document in his prisoner of war file.
 E-mail message from Brian Cooper, who discovered the Lloyd's Register mention of the capture, dated 20 December 1803, and in the Morning Post dated 21 December 1803.
 "Armenents en Courses, 5ème Arrondissement", code FF2/12, Service Historique de la Défense, Vincennes.
 E-mail message from Professor Peter Clark, creator of the database, "British Prisoners of Napoleon", 1 May 2017.
 See Donat Henchy O'Brien, My Adventures During the Late War..., New York : Edward Arnold, 1902, and John Tregerthen Short and Thomas Williams, Prisoners of War in France from 1804 to 1814..., London: Duckworth, 1914, (e-books on The Internet Archive)
 It must have been among the worst of such marches. Of the six seamen from the William Bruce, all sent to Givet, three died in the spring of 1804: Robert Osborn and Edward Kendle, both of Cornwall, and Richard Richardson of Norfolk. William (surname unknown), the only American, died in April of 1806. The remaining two, James Barnet of Gravesend and William Rabsen, seem to have survived. I am indebted to Professor Peter Clark for this information from his database, "British Prisoners of Napoleon", quoting the Admiralty files in The National Archives (Kew) nos. ADM 103/467/1 and 2. The French records do not confirm these deaths for online deaths registers of Givet do not show them.
 Mystic Seaport Museum of America and the Sea, Collections & Research, Registers of Seamen’s Protection Certificates,
 Peleg Bunker POW dossier
 Peleg Bunker POW dossier and the Gardner manuscript.
 Job LePrevost dossier, Prisonniers de Guerre anglais (English Prisoners of War), Service Historique de la Défense, Vincennes.
 Prisonniers de Guerre Anglais, code: Yj29, Service Historique de la Défense, Vincennes.
 "Tribunal de Commerce - Armements en Course, Liquidations Particulières, 1804-1814", code 6U1/247, Archives départementales de la Seine-Maritime, Rouen.
 Lewis, Michael, Napoleon and His British Captives, London : George Allen & Unwin, 1962, pp 126-134.
 Verdun. Meuse, Registres paroissiaux et d'état civil (Parish and Civil Registers), 1806, décès de Peleg Bunker (death of Peleg Bunker) 25 février 1806 (25 February 1806), code 2E558 (52), digital image, Archives départementales de la Meuse, http://archives.meuse.fr/, accessed 6 April 2017.
 "Etat des effets et argent Provenant l'inventaire d'officiers ou autres prisonniers de guerre anglais décédés en France" (List of effects and money Belonging to officers or others English prisoners who died in France), Prises et Prisonniers de Guerre, (Prizes and Prisoners of War) FF2, SHD.
 Gardner manuscript.