In our homeschool curriculum this year, my kids and I are studying early American history, and part of our lessons are a few chapters each day of a novel set in the years we're on. Last week we finished one of my favorites thus far, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch.
The novel is based on the life of one of a brilliant mathematician native to Salem, Massachusetts, who was a child during the Revolution and grew up in the years when America's place in the world--and on the seas--was far from determined. Though I had never heard of Nathaniel Bowditch before reading this, I can promise you I'll never forget him--nor has America.
Born into a family who had fallen into hard times, Nat was always brilliant with numbers, and he enjoyed nothing more than school. But when his older brother went to sea, Nat had give up his formal education to help his father in his cooperage...and then, when he was only 12, his father indentured him to a local shop. No more school, no more dreams of Harvard, no more freedom.
|Nathaniel Bowditch, 1773-1838|
It was in this shop that catered to the sailing industry though that Nat made friends who helped him learn all the things he most longed to know. Latin and French, higher mathematics, science and philosophy. One of the more surly patrons told this young boy that he was becalmed--that life had taken the wind out of his sails, and he'd never recover from it.
But another told Nat that when there was no wind, a determined captain merely sailed by ash breeze--he got out the oars, made of ash, and made his own way.
That was how Nat lived his life, and what an inspiration it is. This young man served out his indenture, soaking up knowledge and learning like the proverbial sponge. Once he was free, he signed on as second mate on a ship, where he proceeded to win both captain and crew by teaching all the men the science behind navigation. He revolutionized the way they navigated, coming up with a way for the first time to get both accurate readings on latitude and longitude--which enabled their captain to cut voyage times significantly and navigate in conditions others never would have dared.
But what he's most remembered for is daring to find mistakes in what was then considered the navigator's bible--and correcting them. He spend years working on his own version, which was published in 1802. The New American Practical Navigator soon had its place on every American ship...and then every ship.
And it's still found on every American naval vessel today.
Nat Bowditch was a boy with nothing who grew to a man with everything--respect, honor, love, and wealth. And he's a man who earned it by living out that ultimate American dream. He worked hard, then harder. He never gave up. He never accepted the answers handed to him.
And he changed the world, saving the lives of innumerable sailors in the process. It's no wonder author Jean lee Matham won the Newbery Award for this book...and no wonder either that she chose such a worthy historical figure to write about! I only pray that when my wind fails and I am becalmed, I too have the strength of character to sail through life on an ash breeze.