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10 thoughts on “Two Years Before the Mast

  1. Brian Brian says:

    “The utmost was required of every man in the way of his duty.”

    “Two Years Before The Mast” was not always an enjoyable read for me, but overall it was a good one, and maybe even a necessary one. Published in 1840, this book is the account of Richard Henry Dana, a Harvard graduate, who spent two years as a regular sailor on a merchant ship in the mid-1830s.
    This text is a slow read at times and often, especially early on, very repetitive. Thus it took me a while to really get into it. However, it is an interesting anthropological study of the life of an American merchant vessel in the 1830s. Mr. Dana was not really a writer, so I can forgive some of the elements of his style that I found grating to read. For example, for most readers Mr. Dana gives too much specific and very detailed information on the smallest details of sailing, pulling in sails, (especially during storms) minute details of ship life, etc. I could not begin to understand a lot of it. Historically valuable, Yes. Interesting to me, No.
    Some praises for the book- I really enjoyed the chapter “California and its Inhabitants. This chapter focuses on the people of what was at that time a foreign country. It reveals a lot about the attitudes of the period, and was fascinating. I also liked how much the text kept reinforcing the Yankee work ethic. Hard work and hardship did not bug these men. The only thing that seems to really upset them is treatment that denies them dignity. I love that!
    I believe the book really hits its stride in the last quarter. Dana’s descriptions of icebergs is simply beautiful writing. No way around it. In chapter 32, “Doubling Cape Horn” we read one of the most exciting and interesting aspects in the entire piece. Dana is concise and to the point in this chapter, and it works well.
    The original last chapter of the text also offers some interesting thoughts on religion and its ability to aid the life of a sailor and it also cautions the reader against judging the economic value of sailing or overregulating it when they don’t know much about it. It is fascinating.
    “Two Years Before The Mast” was an intriguing read. I feel my understanding of the world, and early America, is a little broader. For that, I am glad I read it.

  2. Rick Skwiot Rick Skwiot says:

    In a way, the best thing for a writer is misfortune. In that regard, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. got lucky.

    A young Harvard man, he signed on as a common seaman aboard the brig Pilgrim, bound for California from Boston, to help improve his health. Had it been smooth sailing over benign seas under a wise and beneficent captain, with good food and a leisurely stay on California beaches, we likely would never have heard of Dana.

    But, thanks to the treacherous and icy waters of Cape Horn, a power hungry captain keen on flogging his men on slight pretence, a year of hard labor hauling hides in anarchic California (still part of Mexico in 1834, the year Dana sailed), and shipboard living conditions that today's Supreme Court would find cruel and unusual, Dana and his work have remained icons in American literature and history. (To wit, re living conditions: When he and his shipmates mistakenly believe war has broken out with France and they might be captured and spend time in a French prison, they view the prospect as a pleasant break from their hard routines and shipboard incarceration.)

    Part of the lasting success of this book lies in its rich complexity: part memoir of a privileged youth's right of passage into full manhood; part sociological treatise on the people and politics of Mexico; part polemic and muckraking journalism exposing the indignities, injustices and virtual slavery suffered by merchant sailors; part technical manual on sailing; part travel narrative; and part detailed history of commerce on the high seas circa 1835.

    For example:

    -We learn much about mizenmasts, marlinespikes, and the how-to of sailing a brig (more, perhaps, than a landlubber cares to know).

    -We see a California without streets or, for that matter, firm laws, but with a rigid Mexican social hierarchy of criollos, mestizos, and Indians--the last often literal slaves--as well as a smattering of Yankees, Hawaiian sailors, drunks, deadbeats, murderers, and rogues.

    -We are given the particulars of a booming hide trade--the tanning, hauling, and loading in which Dana is forced to participate.

    -We glimpse the endless work of the common seaman and the absolute power of ship captains, which, in the case of the Pilgrim's skipper, culminates in a mean-spirited tyranny.

    -We share a perilous winter passage around Cape Horn and the Straits of Magellan, through great, iceberg-littered fog banks, driving rain and snow, and mean seas, where the perpetually sodden and frigid seamen must negotiate pitching iced decks and rigging to perform their never-ending, life-threatening tasks.

    -We view avarice, duplicity, ignorance, and cruelty, albeit leavened by loyalty, generosity, friendship, and perseverance. In that way, and more, Dana's tale is a microcosm of the human condition: a seemingly endless and at times pointless journey on a small ark afloat in perilous seas, filled with ceaseless toil yet anointed with sublime natural beauty.

    Dana's descriptions of the seas, skies, and landscapes often turn poetic. In fact, most all the language of Two Years Before the Mast tends toward the formal and writerly. For despite it being a journal of a common seaman, Dana is an uncommon jack-tar, with a Harvard education, bourgeois manners, and Boston connections that keep him, just barely, from spending another two years in California hauling hides. (Some of his not-so-well-connected mates, from whom he always keeps a distance, at least in his mind and in his journal, were not so lucky.)

    The reader never forgets Dana's Boston background, as he spouts Latin and quotes English poets. Although this book was the first to give us a seaman's, not the captain's, point of view, the language is not that of a seaman, and it will be another 45 years before Huck Finn comes to free us all from formal Boston English.

    Though nominally an American, Dana exhibits a tone, demeanor and delicacy more English than Yank. (A possible influence: his lawyer father, who argued for an American monarchy and a House of Lords.) This delicacy also leads Dana to omit from his narrative most anything that might cast him in a common light--such as his consorting with Indian prostitutes in California.

    But Dana's great fortune as a writer was, seemingly, his misfortune as a gentleman. Upon returning to Boston, he graduated first in his class at Harvard, became a celebrity with the publication of Two Years Before the Mast in 1840, married, and became a prosperous Boston lawyer. However, he never seemed to settle into a life of propriety, as if inoculated against it on his rough and formative two-year voyage. This unresolved inner conflict apparently resulted in a series of nervous breakdowns, which he cured with long sea voyages.

    Yet we sense this conflict between his upper-crust snobbery and his genuine affection for the rigorous life and his vigorous shipmates seething beneath the surface throughout his journal. We see a young man made over by his experience--a patrician who, in his heart, becomes a common sailor, but one who never comes to relinquish his previous social status and persona.

    For most memoirs to succeed, the reader must be convinced that the author has set off on a sincere sojourn of personal discovery, to find his or her true self. Here, in Two Years Before the Mast, we see that discovery take place before our eyes, even if the author never fully admits it.

  3. Quo Quo says:

    By my own reckoning, there are 2 books held within the sea tale by Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before The Mast, one being a delightful account of the landscapes & the people encountered ashore & the other a virtually baffling & rather overwhelming collection of nautical terminology, nomenclature & jargon that would have been most familiar to any seaman working on a mid-19th century merchant ship, such as the brigantine Pilgrim, (a two masted, square sailed ship), the one that a young Dana shipped out on in August 1834, leaving Boston's harbor & bound round the horn of South America for California.

    However, my own version of the book had no helpful commentary, footnotes, glossary or other aids but having long ago bought a copy of the nicely-bound Harvard Classics Edition for $1 at a local library sale, after dusting it off, I decided to muddle through. An interlinear edition of the sort I used for Horace, Virgil & Cicero while laboring through school Latin, would have been most useful! Here is just one example:

    We got up tricing-lines from the jib-boom-end to each arm of the fore yard & thence to the main & cross-jack yard-arms. Between the tops & the mast-heads, from the fore to the main swifter & then to the mizzen rigging & all directions athwartships, tricing-lines were run. Then the head-stays, guys & spitsail-yard were lined & we got out the swinging booms to the forward after-guys. If the weather took hold, the royals were clewed up, fore & aft, top-gallant yards clewed down & the flying-jib hauled down.
    At the risk of putting readers off on reading this classic book, I still feel compelled to give fair warning. You either skip all of this detail or spend ages attempting to master the inner workings of such a ship.

    Suffice it to say by way of an introduction, having entered Harvard, Mr. Dana contracted measles & had a discomforting loss of sight. So instead of taking a modified gap-year from Harvard by touring Europe in style or joining the French Foreign Legion, the young man, a certified Boston Brahman, signed on to be a merchant seaman, ordinary class, a voyage that lasted 2+years & proved to be a growthful experience that affected the rest of his life.

    On board such a ship, the work detail is almost constant, especially since to save the company money, it was understaffed. The ship's captain is lord & master but more like a god, with the chief-mate akin to a prime minister in charge of men, supplies & the ship's log, while the 2nd-mate is looked on as dog's berth or sailors waiter & disliked by all. There is also a cook & a steward who acts as the captain's servant + a carpenter & a sailmaker.

    The social distance between the captain & the crew was extreme, something that must have entailed a great adaptation for a well-bred Harvard man used to some degree of luxury. Dana seems to have headed into all of this with a considerable amount of energy, self-reliance & an ability to assimilate life on board rather quickly.

    Every day a sailor's life hangs in the balance due to frequently shifting weather patterns, sometimes unpredictable ropes & sails, lack of sleep, occasional outbreaks of scurvy, tightly rationed food & water and the relationship among the seaman can make a critical difference. One young sailor falls overboard & with heavy winter togs & unable to swim, he perishes. Even a sudden misstep by a seaman that brings him close to death while furling sails in treacherous weather is never acknowledged by his mates, for a sailor, not being free-agent, is indifferent to the rights of others. It is all just part of the job, with compassion & commiseration in very short supply.

    The Pilgrim has been enlisted to sail far around South America via Tierra del Fuego & the Drake passage with its severe winds, rogue waves & seasonal ice & snow in order to reach California, a most hazardous endeavor but at this time, the fur & hide trade at various ports in California was still quite lucrative. At the point of the voyage, California was still Mexican territory but many Americans & others were attracted by the lure of gold, among other commodities & the appeal of the unknown.

    While ferrying back & forth along the California coast, Dana's ship encounters a ship from Sitka in what was then still Russian Alaska. Part of the charm of Two Years Before The Mast comes in considering just how perilous such a voyage was before the Panama Canal was completed & modern navigational equipment came to be and also how different America was before Manifest Destiny caused its eventual expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

    Alas, the book details a period toward the middle of the 19th century, a time when even a Harvard man who believes in the abolition of slavery in America refers to the African-American cook as a darkie, sees all Mexicans he encounters as shiftless & lazy, with their color like an Irish man's pig & their form of speech a creole drawl while also being untrustworthy knaves.

    Meanwhile, Indians Dana meets ashore speak speak a brutish, inhuman language and the Irish who found their way to California in an attempt to better their fortunes are described as of low collective intelligence in relation to the number of faces. In spite of this seeming aversion to diversity, Dana does take a particular & very keen interest in a group of Sandwich Islanders he encounters (Hawaiians who were then part of Great Britain) & seems to genuinely embrace them one & all, calling them the most interesting, intelligent & kind-hearted people I'd ever met.

    Dana attempts to teach himself Spanish to enhance the trading of tobacco, cloth & other items for the hides that the ship will transport back to Boston to be rendered into shoes & gloves. He also learns to sew, repairing his own clothes & making some new togs from cloth acquired along the way.

    En route to California, the captain of Dana's ship becomes irascible and severely flogs both a younger sailor & an older Swede who speaks in his shipmate's defense, something that gravely offends Dana, so much so that when given an opportunity, he switches to another much more amenable ship, the Alert. On board the new sailing ship, he befriends & learns from a man named Tom Harris, 20 years at sea but someone with an amazing memory & an interest in books. The new ship is also due to return to Boston a year sooner than the Pilgrim, something that will allow Dana to re-enroll at Harvard much sooner.

    The return trip after 18 months away at that point, including a great many weeks ashore salting & curing hides for the long transit home, proves to be perilous, with occasional doldrums but also including a winter (southern summer) transit of the Horn of S. America in the midst of gale force winds, fog, icebergs, snowstorms and then later hurricanes after safely clearing the Horn & finally heading north.
    We stood hour after hour, until our watch was out. During all of this time hardly a word was spoken, not a bell was struck & the wheel was silently relieved. The rain fell in heavy showers & we stood drenched & blinded by the flashes, which broke the Egyptian darkness with a brightness that seemed almost malignant; while the thunder rolled in peals, the concussions of which appeared to shake the very ocean.

    A ship is not often injured by lightening, for the electricity is separated by the great number of points she presents. We went below at 4 o'clock leaving things in the same state but it is not easy to sleep when the very next flash may tear the ship in two, or set her on fire or take the masts down.

    Some but not all seamen do survive such voyages & upon his return, R.H. Dana was the toast of his Harvard campus. After completing his degree at Harvard, writing Two Years Before The Mast & gaining a law degree, Dana spent a great deal of time representing the cases of common seamen of the sort that he had once been & proposing legislation that would benefit them, even arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Thus, an elite Bostonian, once the student of Ralph Waldo Emerson & whose own son married Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's daughter & who Herman Melville befriended, feeling a kind of Siamese link of affection for, in time became the benefactor of many he felt were without an advocate. His 1840 book endures, the tale of an adventure at sea that changed the author's life & in so-doing, that of many others because of Dana's experiences during the voyage.

  4. Alan Alan says:

    I read part of this in Jr HS, then all of it after I graduated from college; my Shakespeare teacher (38 plays in the full year course) asked me, as he read it, why so much reference to the lee scuppers. For a beginning sailor like me, an easy answer: those are the drains that fill because of the heel of the boat away from windward. (By the way, sailor's usage for going wrong, say gambling blown hard to Lee.)
    I recall how Dana records the loss of their first crewman off South America; this, from a small crew, perhaps 15? As soon as they got on deck after the news, the sailor's clothes were auctioned. (No time for sentiment onboard, as RHD says.) Then I recall the great joy of their tea and molasses, or after reefing the topsail, some grog (with rum). The weather around Cape Horn was abysmal, with big seas and sleet and snow, but they were on their way to pick up hides dropped down from the high coast of Santa Barbara. Dana observes that if the Californians ever learn to make shoes, their services will no longer be required: shipping hides, taking them around Cape Horn to New England to be made into shoes, which are then shipped around Cape Horn to be sold to the Californians.
    Dana observes that Spanish/Californian culture is not workers: there are the upper class owners, then the servants and slaves of other ethnicities. (A century earlier, John Adams in Galicia observes that the only ones thriving are the clerics of numerous churches, convents etc.)
    The fear of the captain and mates, the appreciation of the cook and his tea, the hard work and danger aloft--these remain with me fifty years after reading Dana.
    On my only trip to the coast south of L.A., I did get down to Dana Point, CA where I was impressed how the mock-up of the brig Pilgrim was even smaller than I envisioned.

  5. brendan brendan says:

    this book is absolutely essential for anyone who has any desire of stepping off the quarterdeck of his historical fiction (O'Brien novels) and heading down to the focs'l to hear about sailing traditional ships from the men who were actually sweating lines, heave-yo-ho-ing, and climbing the rigging to furl the royals before a gale.

    dana passes the equator four times over the two years that he is a merchant mariner sailing to, the then mexican owned california, to load his ship with hides bound for boston's leather factories. the narrative style is straight forward and matter of fact. dana hardly lets his bias sit between the reader and the tale. filled with technical sail handling language the amateur mariner might choose to read up on square sail theory before reading or merely depend upon his imagination.

    dana provides a vivid description of pre U.S. california and the hide trade that provided americans with their first contacts with the pacific coast (not the western colonization or the gold rush) and some supplementary essays by dana show, upon his return 10 or so years later) how the settlements thrived around the embryonic ports of san franscisco, san diego, etc.

    ultimately, an engaging travel narrative, providing a particular flavor for the modern equivalent of the author in the matter-of-fact 1st person narrative characteristic of the genre before twain.

  6. Manray9 Manray9 says:

    Two Years before the Mast is a captivating account of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s service as a common sailor on a voyage from Boston to the California coast in the early 1830s. The long expositions on the technical aspects of navigation under canvas may not be of interest to those without familiarity with maritime life, but his personal narrative of daily life aboard a sailing vessel and the work of the cowhide trade in early California make the book worthwhile. Two Years before the Mast is an excellent non-fiction counterpart to the novels of Patrick O’Brian and Captain Marryat’s Mr. Midshipman Easy. I recommend it to those with an interest in nautical life in the days of sail.

  7. Daniel Villines Daniel Villines says:

    Second Reading: April 11, 2014

    Two Years Before the Mast is somewhat unique in that my enjoyment of this book is mostly related to the fact that this book exists. I say this as a native Californian with roots that reach back into Mexico. Two Years provides a snapshot of one point along my ancestral past.

    It's truly fortunate that Dana, a member of the educated professional class of the early 1800s, decided to remedy his eye fatigue by taking one of the lowest working class positions of the time: a common sailor on board a merchant ship. He was completely out of his element both physically as well as intellectually. The sea-terms used in his new capacity as a sailor must have been just as foreign to him as they are to anyone reading this book today. And yet, he still found time to record his experiences and produce this book.

    The history that this book imparts is mesmerizing. It depicts California as a backwater of Mexico and as an unknown frontier of the United States. The ports that it depicts are unbelievably simplistic in comparison to the development that has transpired over the past 180 years. The only export at the time was cattle hides from ranches located in the vast open plains that are now the inland cities of California.

    Just 10 years after publication, gold was discovered in California and most of Dana's setting was drastically and irreversibly changed. However, if one looks close enough, Dana's past is still easy to find:

    San Juan [now known as Dana Point]:

    San Juan is the only romantic spot on the coast. The country here for several miles is high table-land, running boldly to the shore, and breaking off in a steep cliff, at the foot of which the waters of the Pacific are constantly dashing. For several miles the water washes the very base of the hill, or breaks upon ledges and fragments of rocks which run out into the sea...Having nothing on but shirt, trousers, and hat, the common sea rig of warm weather, I had no stripping to do, and began my descent by taking hold of the rope with both hands, and slipping down, sometimes with hands and feet round the rope, and sometimes breasting off with one hand and foot against the precipice, and holding on to the rope with the other. In this way I descended until I came to a place which shelved in, and in which the hides were lodged. Keeping hold of the rope with one hand, I scrambled in, and by aid of my feet and the other hand succeeded in dislodging all the hides, and continued on my way.


    First Reading: April 28, 2007

    This is the uniquely historic view of California as told by Dana prior to the gold rush invasion of 1849. Descriptions of various coastal cities including Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego are provided at a time when cowhides were the only things worthwhile for ships to trade in along the California Coast. The descriptions of California weather patterns are fascinating in that they describe storms that no longer (at least not yet) exist. Also, if you’re looking for good Mexican food, Dana’s account proves that good Mexican food existed in California long before Taco Bell.

  8. booklady booklady says:

    Mr. Richard Dana Jr. or Dana as his shipmates called him, is a man I would like to know. Based on his autobiographical Two Years Before the Mast, a recounting of his 1834-1836, seagoing-adventures aboard the Pilgrim (outbound) and Alert (return), Mr. Dana was a popular, hard-working, man’s man able to tell a tale. While attending Harvard, he contracted measles weakening his eyesight, choosing to become an ordinary seaman on a two year voyage to California—then the farthest hinterlands—for his ‘recovery’. This wasn’t the only odd (well to me anyway) medicinal prescription used back then either. How does a teaspoon of raw potatoes and onions beaten to pulp, administered every hour and held in one’s mouth as long as possible, strike you as a cure for scurvy, for a patient in the very last stages? When you are desperate, you do what you have to, right? (view spoiler)[It worked! (hide spoiler)]

  9. Andrew Andrew says:

    This book made me cry multiple times, but not for the direct subject matter. I think there were just a few too many references to the California coast described in enough detail that the effect was to pry out long-lingering ghosts haunting the coastline of my own isle of denial. his descriptions are never quite up to the par of his literary contemporaries, but the detail leaves any California-lover desperately lamenting the irretrievable passage of those first rough-and-tumble times that modern man first began journeying to that area of the world.

    Dana's description of first arriving in San Francisco made me shiver, and I still get goosebumps thinking about it. The complete and utter irretrievability of that outpost wilderness fills me with something more than sadness and something less than rage.

    The book itself is a fascinating look at pre-gold rush California, and Dana treats the California coastline and journey there and back from Boston as a sort of seafaring pioneer narrative. it is cast in plain terms and he calls things as he sees them. the concept of an intelligent, thoughtful voice penning such a journey, as opposed to what I would assume might typically be the voice of an ignorant, uneducated sailor, gives the story a fresh slant. as the journey progresses on, there are moments where Dana's amusement with the whole situation wears quite thin and the reality of the possibility in becoming a career sailor inches just too close to reality for his comfort. it is in these moments that his true humanity shines through.

    This is an excellent read for any twentysomething who is still not convinced of what their life and career should look like.

  10. W W says:

    This is supposedly a classic,a sailor's life at sea in the year 1834. A Harvard student enlists as a common sea man to improve his health.He stays onboard a ship for two years and keeps a diary.

    But if I was expecting adventure,I was disappointed. I found it rather boring and monotonous with little action.The writing style didn't engage.

    There is a lot of sailing terminology and technicalities which were of little interest to me.


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Two Years Before the Mast ➥ [Ebook] ➠ Two Years Before the Mast By Richard Henry Dana Jr. ➯ – Two Years Before the Mast is a book by the American author Richard Henry Dana, Jr written after a twoyear sea voyage starting in

While at Harvard College, Dana had an attack of the measles, Two Years Before the Mast Before the PDF Ç is a book by the American author Richard Henry Dana, Jr written after a twoyear sea voyage starting in While at Harvard College, Dana had an attack Two Years eBook à of the measles, which affected his vision Thinking it might help his sight, Dana, rather than going on a Grand Tour as most of his fellow classmates traditionally did and unable to afford Years Before the MOBI · it anyway and being something of a nonconformist, left Harvard to enlist as a common sailor on a voyage around Cape Horn on the brig Pilgrim He returned to Massachusetts two years later aboard the Alert which left California sooner than the PilgrimHe kept a diary throughout the voyage, and after returning he wrote a recognized American classic, Two Years Before the Mast, published in , the same year of his admission to the bar.

    Two Years Before the Mast MOBI ↠ Before the PDF aboard the Alert which left California sooner than the PilgrimHe kept a diary throughout the voyage, and after returning he wrote a recognized American classic, Two Years Before the Mast, published in , the same year of his admission to the bar."/>
  • Paperback
  • 458 pages
  • Two Years Before the Mast
  • Richard Henry Dana Jr.
  • English
  • 09 February 2019
  • 9781402179624

About the Author: Richard Henry Dana Jr.

Dana was born in Cambridge, Before the PDF Ç Massachusetts on August , , into a family that first settled in colonial America in As a boy, Dana studied in Cambridgeport under a strict schoolmaster Two Years eBook à named Samuel Barrett, alongside fellow Cambridge native and future writer James Russell Lowell Barrett was infamous as a disciplinarian, punishing his students for any infraction by flogging He also often pu.