Dodges Island Dreams

The letter begins: “Honolulu, Sandwich Islands, December 5th, 1852, My dear Parents and Grandparents, I take this opportunity to write you these few lines to inform you that I am in excellent health and have not been sick a day since I left home, except seasick … We have been very successful this season, more so I believe than any other ship from Mystic or New London, having taken 19 Polar Whales …”

The author was 15-year-old Albert Burrows, writing from the whaleship, Romulus, four months into a three year voyage. This trip was Albert’s first step toward realizing his dream of a career at sea.

Albert’s mother died when he was an infant. He lived with his maternal grandmother in Colchester until his father and new stepmother brought him to live with them on Dodges Island, off Latimer Point. Albert’s stepmother was goodhearted but brusque, and his father was reserved, so the little boy entertained himself by exploring the beaches, collecting shells, and watching ships pass by. He’d never seen the ocean before, and he liked to imagine where the boats had been and where they were going.

One day, the whaleship Bingham stopped at Dodges Island before proceeding up the Mystic River. Father rowed Albert out to see the vessel and to meet his old friend, Capt. Thomas Eldredge. Capt. Eldredge hauled Albert up on deck by a rope and showed him around. The 9-year-old never forgot that extraordinary day.

In 1851, Father consented to Albert’s becoming cabin boy on the whaler Romulus. Albert went wild! In his (unpublished) memoir, he recalled with amusement how he had a “new full appreciation of my own superiority” over his schoolmates. He swaggered around wearing a rope belt, red flannel shirt and wool cap, although it was July, and practiced walking with a rolling gait.

Cabin boys were basically servants. Albert worked in steerage, serving meals, de-worming biscuits, polishing boots, sharpening knives and trimming lamps, but he tried to get up on deck as much as possible to watch the real action. Once, when a squall came up, the captain ordered the men to furl the sails. Albert scrambled up the rigging, too, but a gust of wind flung him downward. Some sails broke his fall, saving him from almost certain death. On other exciting days, he was allowed to go with the men to catch whales. His memoir describes the terror — and thrill — of chasing angry leviathans.

After three long years, Albert had learned a lot, but he hadn’t seen much of the ports they’d visited. The few times he was ashore, he felt like rolling around in the grass. It was time to go home.

His beloved paternal grandparents prepared a celebratory welcome feast. (Albert was glad the biscuits didn’t have to be de-wormed.) His parents welcomed him warmly, too, but, although he thought he looked nice, his stepmother said he smelled awful and his clothes should be discarded.

Mingled with the joy of being home was a gnawing, restless feeling, so when Mystic’s legendary Capt. “Kicking Jack” Williams offered Albert a place on the Eliza Mallory carrying cargo from New York to Rotterdam, Albert accepted.

Getting to his new job was harder than expected. After taking a boat from Stonington to New York, Albert hired a hack to take him to the pier where the Eliza Mallory was berthed. The driver overcharged him and then dropped him a half-mile from the ship. In his memoir, Albert described himself as a lanky, unimpressive-looking kid, trudging along with a heavy sea chest hoisted on his shoulder. When he got to the Eliza Mallory, the First Mate asked what town he called home. When Albert replied, “Mystic,” the officer chuckled, “So, did you walk all the way?”

That was a bad day, but Albert possessed within him the cool-headed courage to face far greater challenges. The future Capt. Burrows’ illustrious career lay just ahead.

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