Two Years Before The Mast is an excellent memoir of life at sea at the beginning of the "Golden Age of Shipping" when tall ships sailed the world. It is followed by an account of the author's second trip to California, twenty years later, after it had vastly changed as a result of both American conquest and the California Gold Rush. I'd recommend Two Years, claimed to be the first book about life onboard, to anyone interested in seafaring life, social history, "a good rippin' yarn," or to any woman who wonders why men aren't great about expressing their feelings.
Richard Henry Dana Jr. was an eighteen-year-old Harvard student who had to cease his studies due to weak eyes caused by measles. Although from a monied family, rather than taking a "tour of the continent" (Europe) as many of his social class might, in 1833, Dana sailed to California as a common seaman, bunking "before the mast" (as opposed to the ship's officers and passengers, whose safer cabins were aft). He kept a diary of his experiences as his ship sailed on a return voyage from Boston to California, where its cargo of merchandise was sold to the Californios (California was still part of Mexico), then replaced with cowhides to be used for leatherwear. A long period of his voyage was spent off ship, loading hides in California.
Dana was a fine writer, and carries the reader along through seasickness, adventure, backbreaking labour, moments of leisure, long spells of boredom, and brutal injustice. He was a curious person, who picked up languages, including Hawaiian, from people around him, while absorbing a great deal about both the cultures that surrounded him and the lands his fellow sailors had seen. That being said, though he was liberal for his time, his attitudes toward people of other cultures can be offensive. Still, they were mild for a man of his time and place, when many sailors from the American South would have been slaves. As well, Dana has so little to say about the women he met on land, and so much about a particularly attractive man that one wonders if he was more attracted to males than females.
Because he kept diaries, Dana was able to provide detail often lacking from sea stories. Anyone familiar with sea songs has heard versions of the following floating verse:
"And when you sail
Around Cape Horn,
You'll wish to hell
You'd never been born."
The dangerous trip is often described in novels and movies. If you've seen "Master and Commander", you'll remember the British man-o'-war's crew climbing up the riggings like many monkeys during Antarctic blizzards. However, Dana, who rounded the Horn twice, describes working barehanded in ice and snow (frozen mittens were slippery and dangerous), in a shorthanded crew with only four or five on a watch (shift above deck), on a temperance ship with not even a warming tumbler of rum to look forward to, while dealing with a terrible toothache.
Dana wrote this book as an expose of the brutal treatment of sailors by captains and ship's officers, who were absolute despots at sea. He later became a lawyer, working for seamen's rights and for the freedom of escaped slaves. However, his book is often regarded today only as a document of life at sea. Dana's writing inspired many other writer, notably Herman Melville. Two Years Before The Mast has been edited so that today's editions use standard modern American spelling, so is easy to read. Furthermore, though there is considerable technical language, one can get the gist of his story without knowing a great deal about ships. Though the book is slow at times, as was the sailor's life, it's worth persisting for the return voyage around Cape Horn and home to Boston. You'll be nearly as happy as the ship's crew when they finally arrive in Boston Harbour.
Dana was a Harvard student who went to sea for two years and kept a journal, which he published as "Two Years Before the Mast." It was originally meant as a protest of the harsh conditions sailors endure, but it became much more than that: a travelogue, an autobiography, a valuable contribution to nautical literature. Melville, who would find his great theme at sea, was a fan. While some of Dana's observations about other races strike us as misguided, his commentary on California before it was a state are fascinating. My favorite line is "Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves." So bashing California has a long history. Originally I was reading this because of its historical importance, but found it much more engaging and insightful that I expected.
An extraordinary gap year (2 in fact) in the 1830s when California was still part of Mexico.
A very interest biographical account of a seavoyage from Boston to California in the mid 1830's. Well written and gives a very good sense of what it must have been like to be a sailor in those days. I have read many seafaring adventure novels so it was quite interesting to read an informative true telling of a voyage. I would recommend this for anyone who enjoys reading about sailing from this historical period.
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