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Friends without borders

In 2011, the United Nations declared July 30 an International Day of Friendship. Different countries observe it at different times, but it’s intended to celebrate the ties that unite people across boundaries. Two centuries earlier, a man from Old Mystic embodied that global spirit. As a successful merchant, ship builder, and packet line owner, Silas Burrows conducted business on five continents. Along the way, he extended the hand of friendship to world powerbrokers and non-celebrities alike.

Silas grew up in a mansion across from today’s Old Mystic Mill. Burrows Street in Mystic is named for his extended family. Several years ago, I wrote about his international enterprises and his commitment to worthy causes. Recently, I read a collection of his correspondence (“Silas Enoch Burrows 1794-1870, His Life and Letters,” by Don Steers), which gave me an even better appreciation of his humanity and the scale of his benevolence.

There was a special place in Silas’s heart for people fighting colonialism. While on a whaling trip off Chile, he met Simon Bolivar, the South American revolutionary leading the resistance against Spain. Silas became a supporter and sent Bolivar many practical supplies. But when his friend was waging a losing battle against tuberculosis, Silas sent a different kind of gift: a shipment of champagne, cordials, and fine cheeses.

Silas risked more than his wealth to help others. He and his son faced real danger running supplies for Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian nationalist, who was in Uruguay fighting for that country’s liberation. (Silas’s business interests had taken him to Montevideo; he and Garibaldi were neighbors.)

In 1838, when his old friend, Capt. Robert Johnson of Groton, was lost off Antarctica, Silas mounted a search for him. The effort was futile, but during a storm, Silas and his men were marooned for three harrowing days on an iceberg. Before finally being rescued, they endured blizzard conditions, inadequate clothing, and wakeful nights trying to avoid freezing to death.

Next, apparently undeterred by this brush with death, Silas offered to take part in an American-led expedition to find Sir John Franklin, the British explorer missing for years in the Arctic. Silas had met Lady Franklin and was moved by her determination to save her husband. The United States didn’t accept his offer, probably because realistic hope for Franklin’s survival had faded.

Friendships can have their ups and downs. In 1847, Silas sent technicians to Russia to install that country’s first telegraph system. He underwrote the cost and only required repayment if the czar was satisfied with the result. This was a gracious gesture because, years earlier, Silas faced financial ruin when he’d repaired the czar’s yacht. The yacht had been severely damaged in a storm, but Silas was never thanked or compensated for the expense involved in restoring it. Eventually, the czar sent Silas an oil portrait of himself, but Silas gave the painting away in a fit of pique because it hadn’t been presented to him personally.

In the 1850s, one of Silas’s schooners rescued a Japanese sailor, the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Silas brought the young man into his own home to recuperate, then took him back to Tokyo. The timing was interesting because, when Silas sailed into Tokyo Bay, Commodore Matthew Perry had left just three weeks earlier. Perry’s assignment was to open up trade between Japan and the United States, and his heavy-handed tactics were the very definition of gunboat diplomacy. Silas’s respectful demeanor and the young sailor’s enthusiastic account of his treatment by Americans ensured a warm reception. A Hong Kong newspaper, reporting on the event, quoted Silas as saying that the good opinion of one ordinary person could sometimes do more than scores of ambassadors to promote international friendship.

I noticed in the book of correspondence that Silas typically signed his letters with the phrase, “Your most obedient servant.” It was probably a social convention of the times and a reflection of his commitment to public service, but a better closing would have been simply, “Your friend.”



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