Peleg Bunker was a Quaker from Nantucket and one of the whalers who worked for William Rotch. He is not obscure, so mentions of him in published works appear on Internet searches, including but not limited to the following:
- Nantucket Doorways by Edward A. Stackpole and Christopher B. Summerfield, 1992
- Why Nantucket Quakers? by Robert J. Leach and Willard C. Heiss, 1979
- The History of Nantucket: county, island, and town, including... by Alexander Starbuck, 1969
- Catalogue of Nantucket Whalers: and Their Voyages from 1815 to 1870, Hussey & Robinson, printers, 1876
- Whales and Destiny: the Rivalry Between America, France and Britain... by Edward A. Stackpole, 1972
- Les Baleiniers français, de Louis XVI à Napoléon by Thierry Du Pasquier, 1990
- Ships Employed in the South Sea Whale Fishery from Britain: 1775-1815... by Jane M. Clayton
Edward A. Stackpole Collection, 1750-1990 (the author of two of the above books)
Research Library & Archives
Nantucket Historical Association
The main source for biographical information is the “sketch” of his life by Peleg Bunker's great-granddaughter, Lydia Bunker Gardner. However, the letters from Peleg are her copies and the account of his capture by the French is hers, as told to her and written many years after the fact.
Lydia Bunker Gardner wrote in her sketch that:
- Peleg Bunker was a whaling captain from Nantucket
- During the American Revolution, Bunker took his family to New York state, and returned to Nantucket and to whaling when the war ended
- He then worked for William Rotch in London
- During the Napoleonic Wars, while sailing the Falkland, an English whaler, Bunker was "captured in the English Channel by the French"
- He was marched to Verdun prisoner of war camp with the Falkland's officers and men
- He spent five years in the camp
- The United States government made "every effort...for their release"
- "Appeals were sent to Bonaparte from the Friends Society, of which Peleg Bunker was a member" for his release
- Upon receiving the news of his release, "the joy of it... was too much for Peleg Bunker...and he died instantly...."
The copied letters, one to Peleg's wife and one to an unnamed son, are dated 1805 and 1806; both are from Verdun. They mention:
- A Christopher Bunker who had been in hospital but was recovered and returned to prison
- That Peleg had received two letters from his sons, Obed and Tristan
- That Benjamin Hussey in Dunkirk was the person through whom Peleg's wife could send letters to him
This is a lovely summary of his life, career, capture and death but, as will be seen, there are a couple of discrepancies. Yet, this is the source used by the authors of some of the published materials that mention Peleg Bunker.
Source: United States Department of State, Despatches from United States Ministers to France, 1789-1906, Vol. 9. Microfilm copy, 1958, roll 250 Mi 5. (Seen in the Archives nationales de France, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine), Letter dated 4 March 1804
Among the microfilmed diplomatic dispatches, we find copies of letters from Peleg Bunker himself, asking the American Minister to France to intercede on his behalf. In the letter above, Bunker states that:
- He arrived in England from America during the Peace [of Amiens, 1802-3]
- The ship he had arrived on was sold [leaving him with no return voyage]
- He took a job as Chief Mate on an English ship sailing to the South Seas
- During the voyage, the Master died and he assumed command
- He was captured on the return voyage as his ship was entering the English Channel, by the French privateer, the Vaillant, of Bordeaux
- He encloses a notarized copy of his Seaman's Protection Certificate by way of proof of his American nationality [not filmed at this point but later]
Captain Bunker is bending the truth a bit here, as we shall see. He implies that he was a mate and seaman, when he had been a master for some years. He implies that he had simply taken a job on an English vessel when he had been sailing for Rotch's English whaling companies exclusively for at least ten years. It is true that the master on his vessel died and he assumed command, and it is true that his ship was captured by the Vaillant.
It is apparent that the Minister in Paris, Robert R. Livingston, wrote to the French authorities claiming Peleg Bunker as an American citizen who should be released, for the reply, dated the 30th of April, appears in the dispatches. The Director of Administration in the Ministry of War wrote to Livingston:
"As Captain Bunker...was taken while sailing under the British flag and in the service of England, it is the intention of the First Consul [Napoleon] that he be considered as a prisoner of war."
From this, it would appear that Peleg's great-granddaughter was mistaken that he died of joy at having been released.
Though American by birth, Bunker was sailing a British vessel, he was considered to be a British prisoner of war by the French. He was also considered to be one of their own by the British, and appears in some British documentation. The Times newspaper lists him, as do the Admiralty records on prisoners in France.
The Times printed a list on the 5th of June 1804 of masters of British vessels who were alive and well in French prisons (above). It included a P. Bunker, master of the vessel William Bruce, of London, not the Falkland. In fact, no Falkland appears on the list.
The Admiralty received reports from the French about the deaths of prisoners of war. These are available on FindMyPast.co.uk. The page above shows the death of Peleg Bunker, capitaine marchand, or captain in the merchant marine, at Verdun on the 24th or 25th of February 1806.
The next post continues the case study with the French documentation on Peleg Bunker.
©2020 Anne Morddel