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According to Heinlein, "Starman Jones" was inspired by a real life incident:

This book was written without an outline from a situation in the early 19th century. 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. This incident is true and consequently preposterous. I came across this note card in a file and decided to try to make it plausible in terms of space travel—set up the situation and let the story write itself.

Does anyone know anything about the incident?

  • 1
    The idea of two lads leaving for the sea and coming up in the ranks is quite a common trope; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Valorum Nov 26 '17 at 17:31
  • 4
    Another version of same story here; "2 kids rich & erratic, took off in sail boat, picked up by China Clipper; 2 yrs; mutiny, sickness, one came back in command . . . This actually happened in XIXth Cent. RAH." – Valorum Nov 26 '17 at 17:42
  • Gifford's Heinlein: A Reader's Companion has a note that looks similar except for a few details. It's "late" in the 19th century, and they "rowed out to sea in a small boat." The source is "Heinlein's accession notes to UC Santa Cruz, 1967," so the changes may just be due to Gifford's paraphrasing and/or inaccuracy. Late 19th century sounds wrong, because China Clippers probably no longer existed past about 1870-80. – Ben Crowell Mar 28 '18 at 22:25
  • same question on history.SE: history.stackexchange.com/questions/43377/… – Ben Crowell Mar 28 '18 at 22:29
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It's hard to prove a negative, but I suspect that the story is bogus.

Knoblock, The American clipper ship, 1845-1920: A comprehensive history, p. 106, has this:

Because of the special conditions prevailing aboard the clippers, crew difficulties and mutinies were seemingly on the rise in the 1850s. Historians Howe and Matthews record in their history at least sixteen instances of mutiny, crew difficulties, or murder (there were likely many more that thay do not mention) that transpired between a crew and the ship's officers or captain from 1851 to 1861 aboard the following clippers [...]

He then lists the following mutinies, plus several more that he considers "noteworthy," and describes some of the mutinies in some detail, continuing through p. 112.

  • Challenge 1851
  • N.B. Palmer 1852
  • Aurora, Sovereign of the Seas 1854
  • Undaunted 1854
  • Atalanta 1855
  • Ocean Express 1855
  • John Milton 1857
  • Morning STar 1857
  • Black Prince 1858
  • Tornado 1858
  • Adelaide 1858
  • Golden State 1859
  • Messenger 1859
  • Stag Houng 1860
  • Boston Light 1861
  • White Swallow 1865
  • Dashing Wave 1869
  • Snow Squall 1858

WP says:

The boom years of the clipper ship era began in 1843 as a result of a growing demand for a more rapid delivery of tea from China. It continued under the stimulating influence of the discovery of gold in California and Australia in 1848 and 1851, and ended with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

So neither "early" nor "late" 19th century seems especially likely. Knoblock's book seems to cover the entire time period when the ships existed, but he's only focusing on American ships, and we don't know whether the ship in Heinlein's anecdote was American.

A possible source that Heinlein might have read was Clark, The Clipper Ship Era, An Epitome of Famous American and British Clipper Ships, 1910. Clark discusses, for example, the Challenge mutiny on pp. 181-188. But searching the text and index for "mutiny" didn't turn up much. Another source that Heinlein could have read is La Grange, Clipper ships of America and Great Britain, 1936. I didn't turn up much of interest with keyword searches.

My suspicion is that the story is bogus. Although mutinies were apparently pretty common, the ones with the more lurid details, such as the Challenge mutiny, pop up in every source. The story about the teenager taking command and sailing the ship home is so flashy that it seems hard to believe that it wouldn't be discussed in sources like Knoblock, Clark, and La Grange.

  • 2
    Why the focus on a mutiny? The quote doesn't mention one. – Rob Crawford Oct 31 '18 at 2:48
  • It was common, back in the days of sailing ships, for only the officers to know how to do celestial navigation. If a ship found itself where only the stow-away knew how to know where they were or where to go, they might think it proper to make him captain. This would parallel H's novel. – Jeff Dege Oct 31 '18 at 22:00
  • @RobCrawford - Valorum comments on the question that another source on the same story shows Heinlein mentioning both mutiny and sickness being part of the "adventure". – RDFozz Jan 8 at 18:03

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