In the early 19th century it was, and for a long time had been, illegal for apprentices to resign. A "runaway apprentice" could be arrested and returned to his master, to continue working for room and board and instruction until he was 21. Hiring someone else's runaway apprentice was a tort under the law, and the rightful master would sue the illicit employer and be awarded money damages.

On the web I find it asserted that in the early 19th century, two teenagers from Boston signed on as crewmen aboard a ship bound for China, and it is hinted that some illegalities were involved, and I suspect they were runaway apprentices. The story goes on to say that two years later when the ship returned to Boston, one of these two had risen to the position of captain of the ship. That makes me suspect there was a violent encounter along the way, perhaps in Polynesia, resulting in the deaths of the captain and some other officers.

I don't want to include a link to the story since it would give away spoilers to a novel inspired by this episode.

Is it possible to locate the story of what happened based on this much information?

Spoiler below:

ok, Here's a link. Near the end of the introduction by William Patterson, it is asserted that the story was inspired by this situation in the early 19th century. In Starman Jones the protagonist falsifies his work record in order to get a job aboard a starship. Patterson should not have given away the secret, but there it is.

  • 3
    Please include the link to the story. You can hide it behind spoiler tags using the syntax >!.
    – Semaphore
    Feb 6, 2018 at 19:48
  • 1
    Citation s are essential
    – MCW
    Feb 6, 2018 at 19:49
  • Its possible they were Shanghaied.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 6, 2018 at 20:25
  • @Semaphore : ok, I've added the spoiler. Feb 6, 2018 at 22:04
  • 2
    I think it's unlikely that a landsman would have risen to the position of ship's captain in just two years under anything but extraordinary circumstances. I'd imagine that not only would all of the officers have to become incapacitated but all of the experienced seamen too.
    – Steve Bird
    Feb 6, 2018 at 22:09

1 Answer 1


I have not found an original historical event which covers all aspects of the background story you are questioning, but there is similarity to a story published in 1838. The link provided in the spoiler says this:

Two American teenagers took off in a sail boat, were picked up by a China Clipper, were gone two years—and returned to Boston with one of them in command.

The Edgar Allen Poe story The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket , 1838 has a remarkably similar beginning:

One night, the two boys become drunk and decide, on Augustus's whim, to take advantage of the breeze and sail out on Pym's sailboat, the Ariel. The breeze, however, turns out to be the beginnings of a violent storm. The situation gets critical when Augustus passes out drunk, and the inexperienced Pym must take control of the dinghy. The Ariel is overtaken by the Penguin, a returning whaling ship. Against the captain's wishes, the crew of the Penguin turns back to search for and rescue both Augustus and Pym.

If the Heinlein story isn't based on the Poe story, they may have at least had a common source. No triumphant return in two years as Captain for Pym, but there was illness and mutiny, also mentioned as part of the background story in the note on the site brought up in comments by @Steve Bird.

The Poe story's Wikipedia page says this:

Poe, who intended to present a realistic story, was inspired by several real-life accounts of sea voyages

This may relate more to materials taken from publications by Jeremiah N. Reynolds concerning scientific expeditions and hollow earth theories, and/or from Benjamin Morrell's A Narrative of Four Voyages.

There may be a common source for Poe's story and Heinlein's, but I haven't been able to come up with one. If theses stories are based on the same event, however, anyone continuing this research might focus before Poe's story was published in 1838.

This was also asked on Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack .

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