American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

BURTS, ROBERT (17??-1839). Robert Burts was born in Maryland and entered the navy in 1833 as a midshipman. He sailed to the Mediterranean on the sloop Ontario, but upon return in 1836 he began a string of extended leaves. After fourteen months of continuous leave he was assigned to the Navy School in New York and then, briefly, to the Brandywine. After spending several days in a naval hospital in September 1839, Burts received three months’ leave and joined his family in Cincinnati, where he died in December. Burts probably wrote much of his fiction while on leave, drawing on his experiences in the Mediterranean.

Burts’ melodramatic stories, such as The Scourge of the Ocean (1837), feature piracy, naval battles, and forbidden—but eventually requited—love. Burts’ heroes, like himself, serve in the navy, though in The Scourge of the Ocean New York colonist George Everett quickly turns to patriotic piracy after striking his tyrannical first lieutenant. The British lieutenant is engaged to a young woman with whom Everett is in love, but in the end Everett wins the woman and national acclaim following the Revolution.

Burts’ best-known work is The Sea-King: A Nautical Romance (1851). The book’s hero, Harry Sutherland, leaves home and joins the navy, moving rapidly through the ranks following exemplary service during the War of 1812. Sutherland finds himself battling against the famed privateer Manly, who had successfully wooed Sutherland’s mother from his father, apparently ruining the reputation of his beloved Anna Hamilton, and Frederick Montgomery, who resented being forever in Sutherland’s shadow. Burts died before The Sea-King was completed; Frank Marryat, the son of Frederick Marryat, finished the work for the publishers.

Peter H. McCracken