Theodore Lyman was born in York, Maine, and worked in the Kennebunk store belonging to Waldo Emerson, father of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He became a merchant in Boston, making a fortune in the West Indies trade, and was among the first to send ships to the Pacific coast for furs. Many of his vessels were built at Kennebunk, in the Bourne shipyard. In 1800 he launched the Atahualpa, named for a Peruvian hero and martyr. Captain William Sturgis was captain of this vessel. On his second voyage Sturgis by-passed the Pacific coast and sailed directly to China, carrying a cargo of 300,000 Mexican silver dollars. While becalmed in Macao Roads, he found sixteen pirate junks waiting and had to hold off the attackers with his few cannon until a breeze returned, and he was able to sail to the Portuguese fort at Macao. During the encounter, Sturgis stood beside a powder keg with a lighted torch, prepared to blow up his ship rather than let it be taken by pirates. On returning to Boston at the end of the trip, Lyman, the vessel's owner, forced Sturgis to pay freight on the cannon he had used to save the ship from the pirates, because Sturgis had taken the cannon on board without orders.