Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
(Review by CB commenter Gary Snodgrass, whose blog is here)
In 1834 a young Harvard undergrad from the upper class of Boston left school to become a common merchant sailor. Sailing around Cape Horn to California aboard a Yankee Clipper, “Two Years before the Mast” is the memoir of that trip.
While a student at Harvard, Richard Dana contracted measles and was in danger of losing his sight. Hoping to improve his condition he signed on to the Merchant Vessel “Pilgrim” for a two year trip. I think it was more for the adventure, and chance to prove himself than for the stated “Health” reasons.
Dana describes in detail the day to day duties of the common sailor and what they went through. In the opening pages he captures the fact that he is an outsider hoping to measure up.
“… and while I supposed myself to be looking as salt as Neptune himself, I was, no doubt known for a landsman by everyone on board as soon as I hove in sight. A sailor has a peculiar cut to his clothes, and a way of wearing them which a green hand can never get. … doubtless my complexion and hands were enough to distinguished me from the regular salt, who, with a sunburnt cheek, wide step, and rolling gait, swings his bronzed and toughened hands athwart-ships, half open, as though just ready to grasp a rope.”
His adventure quickly becomes a hard life as he loses a shipmate and friend overboard and two other sailors are viciously flogged for minor offenses. Yet still, he is able to take pride in his new life.
“… But if you live in the forecastle, you are “As independent as a wood-sawyers clerk, and are a sailor. You hear sailors’ talk, learn their ways, their peculiarities of feeling as well as speaking and acting. … No man can be a sailor, or know what sailors are, unless he has lived in the forecastle with them – turned in and out with them, eaten of their dish and drank of their cup. After I had been a week there, nothing would tempt me to go back to my old berth”
It was the comradeship he felt and the atrocities he had witnessed that later led the attorney Richard Dana to become a champion of the Common Sailor and a leading abolitionist later in life.
His descriptions of Spanish California, the geography, business, social aspects, all became required reading and would be devoured by the miners and traders that descend upon California after the discovery of gold. Dana Point in Southern California is named for the beach where he carried hides down to the ship’s boat for transfer.
While Dana easily captures the romance, and majestic power of the sea and enough nautical details to make the reader feel the pitch and roll of each wave. It is the flogging scene that truly stands out. A splash of reality that grabs the reader and reminds them that this is the truth, what it is really like.
“… Swinging the rope over his head and bending his body so as to give it full force, the captain brought it down upon the poor fellow’s back. Once, Twice, — Six times. “Will you ever give me any more of your jaw?” ….
The man writhed under the pain, until he could endure it no longer, when he called out with an exclamation more common among foreigners than us. ___”Oh Jesus Christ? Oh Jesus Christ!’
Don’t call on Jesus Christ,” shouted the captain: “He can’t help you. Call on Captain T____________ He’s the man! He can help you! Jesus Christ can’t help you now!”
At these words which I never shall forget my blood ran cold. I could look on no longer. Disgusted, sick, and horror-struck, I turned away and leaned over the rail….”
It is not long after this that Dana is discharged from the vessel and put ashore in San Diego to help gather hides. It is here that he learns Spanish, becomes a part of the community and describes in detail the population, harbor, and economy of this little back water village.
When an opportunity arises he signs onto another Merchant vessel destined for home and joins the crew of the Alert bound for Boston. It is on this return trip where he captures the full fury of an Antarctic winter off Cape Horn and the truly herculean task of beating against constant raging storms. Herman Melville wrote – “But if you want the best idea of Cape Horn, get my friend Dana’s unmatchable Two Years Before the Mast”
Richard Dana wrote a book for the ages, a classic that should be read by every Annapolis mishipman and anyone interested in knowing what it was like to be a sailor sailing before the mast.
It was a small comment in an otherwise unremarkable paragraph about arriving off California that caught my attention the most. “… At length we began to heave-to after dark, for fear of making the land at night on a coast where there are no light-houses and but indifferent charts.”
As a man who has sailed those waters, I can promise you it is not that way today. You can see Los Angeles fifty miles out at sea by the glow of its lights. There is almost no point on the coast from San Diego to San Francisco that is dark.
The book is full of such moments. Points that make you step back and realize how much has truly changed. Yet it is Dana’s keen observations about the pride, hard work, and comradeship of the men around him that shows how much some things haven’t.