Adoniram Judson: Bound for Burma

Chapter 1
Something Was Wrong

Twenty-two-year-old Adoniram Judson awoke to the gentle rolling of the Packet, the three-masted schooner that was carrying him from Boston across the Atlantic Ocean to London. It was the fifteenth day of the voyage, and after he’d had breakfast with the captain, Adoniram planned to spend the remainder of the day in his cabin reading. He would have much preferred to sit on deck while he read, but it was mid-January 1811, and a raw, biting breeze straight from the Arctic had been whipping around the ship for several days, making it impossible to stay on deck for more than a few minutes at a time, even when the sun was shining brightly.

As he climbed from his bunk, Adoniram wondered whether the only other two passengers aboard, both men, would be joining him and the captain for breakfast. The other men spoke only Spanish, and it was amusing trying to work out what they were saying from hand gestures and other forms of body language. Normally, the Packet would have had twenty passengers aboard, but the ongoing war between England and France meant that only the most desperate or determined passengers risked crossing the Atlantic Ocean these days, especially aboard a British ship.

As a passenger, Adoniram fit the latter category. He was determined to get to London and meet with the leaders of the London Missionary Society. He had been sent out on behalf of the newly formed Congregational church missionary society, or American Board, as it was called, to ask the London society for money and support so that the fledgling mission could send out the first group of American foreign missionaries. If all went well, Adoniram and the other three missionaries waiting in New England for his return could all be in East Asia by Christmas.

As he splashed some water on his face, Adoniram noticed that something was wrong. Instead of the gentle creaking of the hull of the Packet, he heard the sound of feet pounding across the deck above him. He could hear voices, too. It sounded as if everyone was yelling at once. Pulling his pants and jacket on, Adoniram quickly made his way up on deck to investigate.

Once on deck he saw what all the fuss was. A French ship, its sails billowing in the stiff breeze, was skimming across the water towards them. In response, the crew were darting about the deck hoisting sails and tightening halyards as the captain and first mate barked orders. As he yelled, the captain spun the wheel of the Packet, trying to maneuver the ship to take maximum advantage of the wind.

“A privateer,” yelled the captain when he spotted Adoniram. “She’s armed to the gunwales, and we’re trying to outrun her.”

Within a few minutes, Adoniram realized that despite the crew’s frenzied effort, the French ship was still gaining on them.

Adoniram had heard about French privateers and the way they plundered British ships. He had also heard horror stories of the end some sailors had met at the hands of privateers. Now that it seemed certain that the Packet would be overrun by the French ship, he wondered what his end would be. He was an American, and he hoped that that would protect him. But he knew that it probably wouldn’t protect his belongings from being looted. That thought spurred him to race to his cabin.

Just as Adoniram finished stuffing his three Bibles—one in English, one in Hebrew, and one in Latin—and his fiancee’s last letter to him into a cloth bag, two French sailors burst into the cabin. Adoniram turned, shocked at how fast the French privateers had overtaken and overrun the Packet. When he had left the deck, the French ship was at least one hundred yards behind them. Now, apparently, the privateers had boarded the Packet and taken complete control.

With gestures, Adoniram was ordered up on deck. He was then herded with the rest of the British crew to the starboard side of the ship and forced to climb down a rope over the side and into a waiting longboat. Within minutes of reaching the French ship, Adoniram was thrown into the hold along with the Packet’s crew. The dark and dank hold was overcrowded. There was no food, water, or chamber pots. The only illumination was a dull shaft of sunlight that filtered down through the dusty air of the hold.

Dark thoughts taunted Adoniram Judson as he sat in the overcrowded hold. He would never see New England again. It would be only a matter of time before the French privateers dumped him overboard, as they liked to do with their prisoners. Now he would never see East Asia. All his efforts to become a missionary had been in vain. He had given his all just to drown in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Hot tears rolled down Adoniram’s cheeks. As a child growing up in Wenham, Massachusetts, this was not how he had imagined his life ending.

Chapter 2

Nine-year-old Adoniram Judson lay down the goose quill he had been writing with and picked up the bottle of sand. He shook the sand gently over the paper, blotting the ink. When the ink was dry, he carefully tipped the sand back into the bottle and folded the paper. He placed the paper in an envelope, sealed the envelope with wax, and quietly slipped out of the house. He smiled with relief as he rounded the big elm tree opposite the church and realized that for once his little sister Abigail had not followed him. Adoniram guessed she was probably playing with their baby sister, Mary.

As he walked along the dusty street, Adoniram felt the envelope in the pocket of his woolen pants. He was on a secret mission, a mission that he hoped would bring him fame!

When he reached the general store, he walked purposefully up the three wooden steps that led to the door. He stopped at the top of the stairs to make sure no one from his father’s congregation other than the postmaster was inside. Thankfully, only a farmer and his two children, whom Adoniram did not recognize, were in the store. Adoniram entered the store and walked to the back where the post office was located. He placed the envelope on the counter. “I would like to mail this to Boston, sir,” he said politely.

“Boston, eh? And what would a young man like you be wanting with someone in Boston?” quizzed the postmaster. After reading the address on the envelope, he added with a chuckle, “A newspaper editor, is it? Has something been happening around Wenham that I should know about?” He reached over and tousled Adoniram’s curly, chestnut brown hair.

Adoniram felt himself blushing. He had not imagined he would have to explain himself to the postmaster.

Just then the door opened and several men entered the store. “You got any of that apple cider left, Jonah?” one of them asked in a booming voice.

To Adoniram’s relief, the postmaster took his attention off him. “Sure have, I’ll be right with you,” he said to the man, placing the letter on the back counter and smiling at Adoniram. “It’s as good as sent, young man,” he said. “Now be sure and give my regards to your father. He preached a mighty fine sermon last Sunday.”

Adoniram nodded politely and headed out the door into the early fall air. As he walked home, he hoped winter would not arrive too soon. The last two winters, 1795 and 1796, had been particularly harsh in Wenham. Although Adoniram liked to play in the snow, sometimes it had fallen so heavily he hadn’t been able to get to Master Dodge’s school. More than anything else, Adoniram loved going to school.

“Adoniram, it’s dinnertime,” he heard his mother call later that day.

Adoniram put down the book he was reading and hurried into the kitchen. It was Wednesday, which meant that his mother had roasted a large leg of beef in the open fireplace in the kitchen. The savory aroma of the cooked meat greeted him as he entered the kitchen. As he sat down at the table, he caught a glimpse of something white in his father’s hand. Adoniram froze in terror. It was the letter he had mailed two hours before.

“Does this belong to you?” his father boomed, waving the letter in the air.

“Yes, it does,” stammered Adoniram.

“What is it about?” asked his father, changing to the flat tone Adoniram had long ago learned meant trouble.

“It’s the answer to the weekly ‘enigma’—you know, the one that’s in the newspaper each week. I solved it and was sending in the answer.”

“But those puzzles are for adults, not nine-year-old boys,” said his father. “Open it and let me see what kind of fool my oldest son was about to make of himself. It’s just as well the postmaster had the good sense not to mail it without my permission.”

With trembling hands Adoniram took the envelope from his father and broke the seal. He unfolded the page he had written on so hopefully earlier that afternoon.

“Read it out loud to me. This will be the last time you try to do anything behind my back, young man,” growled his father.

Adoniram read aloud the letter he had written to the editor explaining the solution to the enigma of the week. He held his breath when he finished, waiting to hear what his father would say.

“Get me the newspaper,” ordered his father.

Adoniram scurried away to the room he shared with his younger brother, Elnathan, to retrieve the newspaper, glad to be out of his father’s presence for a moment. He grabbed the paper from his bed and walked with dread back to the kitchen. “Here it is, sir,” he said, handing the newspaper to his father.

Mr. Judson read the puzzle and then compared it to his nine-year-old son’s answer. He repeated the process a second and a third time. “Huh,” he finally said, laying the paper down and staring at the fire for a few moments.

Adoniram waited for him to say more, but the only sound in the room was the crackle of the fire and the occasional tiny cough from Mary, tucked in her crib in the corner.

After what seemed like the longest minute of Adoniram’s life, his mother finally said in an overly cheerful voice, “Husband, would you be so kind as to carve the meat, and then we’ll be ready to eat. I’ve cooked some fine carrots that Mrs. Grady brought in this morning. Wasn’t that kind of her?”

“Hand me the knife,” replied Adoniram’s father.

After dinner, Adoniram’s father read a passage from the Bible, as he always did, and then the three children were dismissed to do their cleanup chores. Adoniram emptied the water that had been heating over the fire into a large wooden bucket and began washing the dishes. Abigail, who had hardly spoken a word the whole meal, dried the dishes and stacked them neatly on the sideboard. Four-year-old Elnathan put the dishes away, except for the breakable china, which Adoniram put back on the shelf above the pantry cupboard.

Not another word was said about the letter, and as Adoniram curled up in bed next to Elnathan that night, he wondered what his punishment would be for sending the letter without his father’s permission.

The following morning nothing was said about the letter, and Adoniram was more nervous than ever. Finally, when he arrived home from school, his father called to him, “Adoniram, come here.”

Adoniram walked into the living room, where his father was seated in his brown leather wingback chair beside the fire. “I have something for you,” his father said.

Adoniram stared in astonishment as his father offered him a book.

“I have bought you a book of puzzles. When you finish it, I will buy you a more difficult one.”

Adoniram took the book, unable to think of what to say.

“You are a very smart boy,” continued his father. “Your mother and I have known that since you learned to read when you were three. Train your mind, son, and you will be a great man someday.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” stammered Adoniram, hardly able to take in such praise from his father.

“And one more thing. I am going to enroll you in Captain Morton’s School of Navigation. How would you like that?” asked his father.

“Yes, sir, very much,” replied Adoniram, wanting more than anything to escape to his room where he could be alone to think.

Finally, in his room, Adoniram sat on the bed and thought about the things his father had and hadn’t said. He hadn’t said anything about how well Adoniram had done answering the enigma in the newspaper, but from his father’s reaction, he decided he must have done reasonably well. And what his father said about his being smart was true. Everyone in school knew it. The other students had nicknamed him “Virgil” because of the speed at which he could read and write Greek and Latin, and arithmetic was so easy for him that he had all the answers figured out before his teacher had finished explaining the lesson to the rest of the class. He could name all the thirteen states and their capitals and was able to recite all of George Washington’s inaugural speech by heart. Despite this, his father’s words had surprised him. Did he, Adoniram Judson, have what it took to be a great man? But then, what was a “great” man? Was it a preacher like his father? What about a teacher like Master Dodge? Or a sea captain like his grandfather? Adoniram did not know.