William Carey: Obliged to Go

Chapter 1
Sailing Away Without Him

William Carey stared at the pile of wooden crates and leather trunks that had been dumped onto the Portsmouth dock beside the Earl of Oxford. He recalled the excitement he had felt as his belongings were loaded onto the ship in London a month earlier. An adventure had laid ahead for him and his oldest son, Felix. Now the dream was shattered. The two of them stood side by side on the dock, watching the ship being made ready to sail, only this time it was going to sail without them.

As sailors scurried up and down the rigging, William begged Captain White to reconsider. The captain would not. It simply wasn’t worth his career to take unlicensed passengers to India.

An hour later, the Earl of Oxford cast off and drifted away from the dock. As she did so, the crew hoisted her sails into position. William squeezed Felix tightly beside him, knowing that his son wouldn’t understand what was happening. How could he? William could hardly make sense of it himself. The Earl of Oxford had set sail for India without them.

William watched as the vessel joined the other six ships that would form the convoy. Despite his disappointment, William was captivated by the magnificent sight of white sails flapping in the afternoon’s soft, spring sunlight. The ships headed down Portsmouth Harbor toward the English Channel. A tear slid down his cheek as William watched them go.

A thousand questions and doubts flooded William’s mind as the ships sailed toward the horizon. Had the British and French not been at war, William and his son wouldn’t have had to stop in Portsmouth in the first place. Instead, they would be halfway to India by now. Or if they had sailed a day earlier from London, they would have been able to sail with the earlier convoy and not wait for a month while a new one was assembled. And what was going to happen now? William had been commissioned and sent out as a missionary to India, but instead he was stuck in Portsmouth. What would he tell the missionary society now? Would he ever get to India?

As the ships slid over the horizon, William turned his back on the sea. He hired a small cart to take their belongings to the boardinghouse where he and Felix were staying. As he walked alongside the cart, he thought about how far he’d come from the small boy growing up in Paulerspury. But he still had a long way to go. He had to get to India, and he had to get there soon. He knew there was much work for him to do in that far-off place.

Chapter 2
The Flitting

“William. William. It’s time for the flitting,” a woman’s voice called across the open field.

“Coming, Mother,” called back six-year-old William Carey as he swung himself down from the oak tree he had been climbing, being very careful not to rip his pants like he had done the week before. Once safely on the ground, William ran eagerly across the field in the direction of the gray stone cottage, where he’d lived all his young life. Before entering the cottage, he brushed some twigs from his shoulder-length brown hair and straightened his collar. Even during a flitting, his mother expected him to look tidy. When he was satisfied that he would pass inspection, he stepped excitedly inside. He’d dreamed of this moment for weeks, and now it was finally about to happen.

Paulerspury, in the heart of the midlands of England, was not a particularly exciting place for a six-year-old boy, or anyone else for that matter, in 1767. About eight hundred people lived in the town. They were mostly humble folk, like William’s parents, Edmund and Elizabeth Carey, who ran a small business in their tiny cottage from which they barely made enough money to feed their growing family. William’s parents were both weavers and spent their days, and a good part of their nights, weaving a woolen cloth called “tammy,” which was then sold to middlemen who traded it in London. At least, that’s how things had been up until today. But today, things were going to change. Today was the day of the flitting. Everything in William’s life was about to change, and William knew it.

Flitting was the eighteenth-century name for moving house, and as he stepped inside the cottage, William found his father and the church rector carrying the family’s sturdy table and chairs outside into the bright summer sun. As they did so, William thought about all the changes his father’s being appointed the clerk of the Church of St. James the Great would bring. (The Church of St. James the Great was part of the Church of England, the only religion officially recognized by King George III.)

William was most excited about the opportunity he would have to go to school. Up until this point, it had been out of the question for him to think of attending a private school. There wasn’t enough money in the house to buy new shoes for everyone, let alone to pay for schooling. In England at that time, there were few free schools. As a result, most villagers did not know how to read or write, and most of them had little need to anyway. Thankfully, though, the town of Paulerspury was different from most towns. Two very rich men who had grown up there and then moved away to make their fortunes in London had sent back enough money for the church to set up a free school in the village for twelve children. Since Edmund Carey was to be the new church clerk, William was given one of the places in the school. Of course, while attending school, he would be seeing a lot of his father, since one of the clerk’s duties was to be the schoolmaster.

William’s father’s new job also meant a change in housing, hence the flitting. Up until then, William, his four-year-old sister Ann, and his parents had all been squeezed into the two tiny rooms that made up their weaver’s cottage. The loom had filled nearly all of the downstairs room. From a young age, William and Ann had learned how to play around the loom while avoiding their parents’ elbows and knees as they operated the weaving monstrosity. But now they would be moving out of the small, damp cottage at Pury End on the western end of the mile-long village to Church End, across the bubbling stream that divided the town in half. There they would move into the house that came with their father’s new job.

This house was a two-story thatched cottage with two fireplaces and four lattice windows in the front. Compared to what they had been living in, it was a palace. The move came just in time, too, because William’s mother was expecting another baby any day. While there was no room for another child, not even a tiny baby, in their weaver’s cottage, the new house was much bigger, so much so that William was going to have his own bedroom. He would be one of the few children in town who had a room all to himself.

Of course, William knew exactly how he was going to fill it. Even at six, he had collected more things than most adults do in a lifetime. Not things that cost money, but natural things from all around him. He would go on long walks in the Royal Whittlebury Forest that grew to the edge of the village. He loved to wander under the enormous oak trees looking for crickets, worms, bird’s eggs, and butterflies, which he could add to his collection. If he saw an unfamiliar insect, he would dive into the hawthorn undergrowth to capture it. Some of the things he found were dead, and some were alive. He brought them all back home and kept them in little wooden boxes and cages his father had made for him. As he carried the washboard and a leather bucket along the road to his new house, William planned out how he would arrange all his treasures in the new bedroom.

Before night fell, everything had been moved, including many of William’s favorite plants that he had dug up from the old house and replanted under his bedroom window. When he went to bed that first night in his new bedroom, the scent of his favorite rosebush was just outside his window to keep him company.

William quickly grew used to his new life, though there was one thing he didn’t like about it. During Sunday services at the Church of St. James the Great, William had to sit with his family in a special gallery behind the pulpit from which the Reverend Jones preached his long sermons. True, it was fun to be higher than everyone else, and William could see over everyone’s head, all the way to the bell ringers who stood at the back of the church. But although he could see all that was going on, at the same time, he felt he was on display. His mother constantly reminded him to mind his manners because everyone was watching. During services, many of his school friends would make faces at him from the pews. William had to try his hardest to ignore them. He knew he’d be punished if he dared return their looks. Unless he had to stay home and watch over his new baby sister, Polly (her real name was Mary, but no one ever called her that), William was in church every Sunday.

William’s father had several special duties to perform during Sunday services. He led the congregation in prayers and chants and announced the sermon. He was also responsible for making sure that the church was kept clean and that dogs did not run through it. As well, he entered births and deaths in the church register. While the church itself did not pay him much, he was allowed to keep the fee he charged for making entries in the register.

While the family still did not have much money to spare, there was one thing about his father’s new job that excited William—the books. There were few books printed in England in the 1760s. Producing a single book during this period was time-consuming and expensive. As a result, most books were owned by rich people and clergymen. But now that his father was both schoolmaster and the church clerk, William got to know many people who loaned him books. He was a quick learner, and it was not long before he was engrossed in the adventure stories of the day, such as Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. And not just adventure stories. William read everything he could get his hands on, especially books about foreign lands. Such books fired his imagination. Often when he was alone, he would pretend to be Sir Francis Drake passing through the Straits of Magellan in the Golden Hind, or Christopher Columbus sailing off to discover new worlds in the name of Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen of Spain. In fact, some friends found William acting out Columbus discovering America one day and nicknamed him “Columbus,” a nickname that stuck with him into adulthood.

William’s love of foreign lands was also fueled when his long-lost Uncle Peter returned from Canada, where he had fought against the French, helping to capture the province of Quebec for the British Empire. No one had ever thought that Uncle Peter would come home again, but one fall day, he just showed up in Paulerspury with amazing tales to tell of where he had been and the things he’d seen. He had fought alongside General James Wolfe and traded with Algonquin Indians.

The now eight-year-old William was fascinated by his Uncle Peter and asked him to tell and retell his many stories. He especially liked to hear about the sea voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Even though he had pretended to be Sir Francis Drake and Christopher Columbus, William had always had difficulty trying to imagine what the ocean really looked like. Uncle Peter told him to think of it as a million streams all running side by side and stretching as far as the eye could see. William tried to imagine, just like he tried to imagine a city as huge as London with six hundred thousand people living in it. But try as he may, it was not easy to imagine for a young boy who’d never been more than ten miles away from the country village where he had been born.

William spent many hours with Uncle Peter, who had no family of his own. Besides being a wonderful source of information about the world, Uncle Peter knew a lot about plants. In fact, soon after his return to Paulerspury, he was hired by the village squire to be a gardener. From then on, whenever William and his uncle got together, they would discuss their gardens and often swapped plant cuttings, bulbs, and gardening hints.