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Two Years Before The Mast -- Richard Henry Dana Jr. Print
Written by Mike Noel   
Monday, 08 September 2008
TwoYears Before The Mast is an autobiographical account of a little more than two years of the life of Richard Henry Dana Jr.  During this period he lived the life of a working sailor on a merchant ship that travelled from Boston to the Californian coast.  The book goes into incredible detail about a sailor's life and the hardships endured in that trade.  It also sheds some light on the historical dawning of the west coast of the United States.  The California from the 1830's is nearly unrecognizable from the California that we all know today.  Dana's followup essay title "24 Years Later" tells of his return to California after the gold rush had completely transformed the coast.  Probably the most striking change was the city of San Francisco which went from a few houses to 120,000 people in a span of less than 25 years.

This book was extremely popular in the mid to late 19th century.  This is probably why it was identified as one of the Harvard Classics.    There were two aspects of the book that struck me most significantly.  First, the life and everyday tasks of a sailor were very far from what I expected, or imagined, that it was like to be a sailor.  It was most definitely not the romanticised life of Errol Flynn.  The sailors' life was full of hard work, little sleep, and very little food.  On top of that, there was no certainty in their lives.  The author signed on in Boston for a single trip on the ship the Pilgrim.  This was to take about two years.  However, once the Pilgrim got to California, a six month journey, the plans changed and the Pilgrim was required to stay on the California coast for another 3 years.  It would still take six months to get back to Boston after that.  So the two year trip was to become a 4 year trip.  All of this without the sailor having any say. Fortunately for the author, he was able to transfer to a different ship and made it back on schedule.   Most other sailors did not have this same opportunity.

During a sailors' time on a ship he never got more than 4 or 5 hours of sleep at a time.  This was due to the watch schedule which had the sailors rotating watches frequently.  If a change in the weather required a change in the sails (which happened frequently) or some other emergency response was required, then the sailors were expected to wake and go "aloft" regardless of the time of day.

Food was often an issue for sailors as well.  Ships were run as a business and as such they were trying to decrease their costs while maximizing their revenue.  This meant that sailors got the cheapest food that they could get.  This was mostly salted beef.  Day in and day out, that's what they had to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  For special occasionals, like Christmas, the sailors would get duff.  Duff is a mixture of flour, water and molasses. 

In the face of significant sleep deprivation and malnutrition, the sailors were doing extremly difficult labor.  Someone whose only knowledge of sailing ships comes from Hollywood really doesn't understand the work involved.  A three-master has nearly two dozen sails that need to be managed nearly all of the time.  Many times the management of the sails is a life and death issue.  Having too much sail out in the face of a strong wind can damage the ship to the point of leaving it adrift while having too little sail means that the helmsman doesn't have enough forward movement to effectively steer the ship. It is a delicate balance that is constantly being adjusted at the command of the captain.

Dana's depiction of the California coast was remarkably different from what California looks like now.  It was interesting to read early accounts of places like Santa Barbara, San Diego, and San Francisco.  I was amazed to read about Los Angeles as well.  Even 25 years after Dana's voyage Los Angeles was only a smallish mission and a few residences.  It is surprising that Los Angeles is now the largest Californian city. 

Much can be said about the changes that Dana noticed in California between his first and second visits.  Based on the reception he received there on his second visit, I can't help but wonder if the success of California's acension to become one of the powerhouse states of the Union wasn't due in large part to Dana's book.  Virtually everyone knew about it and had read it.  

Two Years Before The Mast was a landmark book.  Nothing like it had ever been published.  It opened the eyes of the non-sailing public to the life of the average sailor.  It also pulled back the curtain on the promising new west coast and sparked a desire in US citizens to see and settle this area.  While the narrative is at times overwhelming with nautical details, the overall impact of the book is significant in what it reveals.  It seems that it had and immense impact on turning our country into what it is today.


Last Updated ( Monday, 08 September 2008 )

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