Two Years Before The Mast
I picked up this book after reading Quintus’s review. It’s about a Harvard man named Richard Henry Dana who takes a break from his studies to become a sailor for a two-year stint, with the hope that it will help his failing eyesight. The journey started off rough for him…
I had often read of the nautical experiences of others, but I felt as though there could be none worse than mine; for in addition to every other evil, I could not but remember that this was only the first night of a two years’ voyage.
There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life.
This is a story that makes you feel like a weak man, ashamed for living a comfortable life where most of your time is spent sitting in front of a glowing screen on a comfortable chair to read pleasant articles at your leisure. The entirely of your soft existence will not come close to the difficulty that sailors faced in the 19th century, and I don’t know if that’s a compliment to mankind’s progress or an insult to how we have chosen to lead our modern lives.
It is the officers’ duty to keep every one at work, even if there is nothing to be done but to scrape the rust from the chain cables. In no state prison are the convicts more regularly set to work, and more closely watched. No conversation is allowed among the crew at their duty, and though they frequently do talk when aloft, or when near one another, yet they always stop when an officer is nigh.
The [pirate] vessel continued in pursuit, changing her course as we changed ours, to keep before the wind. The captain, who watched her with his glass, said that she was armed, and full of men, and showed no colors.
Our clothes were all wet through, and the only change was from wet to more wet. It was in vain to thin of reading or working below, for we were too tired, the hatchways were closed down, and everything was wet and uncomfortable, black and dirty, heaving and pitching. We had only to come below when the watch was out, wring our wet clothes, hand them up, and turn in and sleep as soundly as we could, until the watch was called again.
We had long ago run through all our dry clothes, and as sailors have no other way of drying them than by the sun, we had nothing to do but to put on those which were the least wet.
As difficult as it sounded, this book offered a romantic view of manual labor, that through hard work comes a sense of masculine purity and goodness. The phrase to “earn your salt” had real meaning among these American sailors, where intellectual or service labor by comparison seems much less fitting for reward. We’re not craftsmen or sailors now but internet marketers, computer programmers, office clerks, and the like. Less pride and fulfillment come from these professions, which is why modern man has to create random goals like riding across South America in a motorcycle or climbing an African mountain in order to fill his spirit.
By chronicling the voyage across Cape Horn and to California, Dana unwittingly becomes a Californian historian, offering great detail about life on the coast while it was in Mexican hands…
Yet the least drop of Spanish blood, if it be only a quadroon or octoroon, is sufficient to raise them from the rank of slaves, and entitles them to a suit of clothes—boots, hat, cloak, spurs, long knife, and all complete, though coarse and dirty as may be,—and to call themselves Espanolos, and to hold property, if they can get any.
The men in Monterey appeared to me to be always on horseback. Horses are as abundant here as dogs and chickens were in Juan Fernandez. There are not stables to keep the in, but they are allowed to run wild and graze wherever they please, being branded, and having long leather ropes, called “lassos,” attached to their necks and dragging along behind them, but which they can be easily taken. The men usually catch one in the morning ,throw a saddle and bridle upon him, and use him for the day, and let him go at night, catching another the next day. When they go on long journeys, they ride one horse down, and catch another, throw the saddle and bridle upon him, and after riding him down, take a third, and so on to the end of the journey.
The women have but little virtue but then the jealousy of their husbands is extreme, and their revenge deadly and almost certain. A few inches of cold steel has been the punishment of many an unwary man, who has been guilty, perhaps, of nothing more than indiscretion of manner.
His own journey takes a negative turn when he’s told he may have to sail for four years instead of two…
Still worse was [the news] for me, who did not mean to be a sailor for life; having intended only to be gone eighteen months or two years. Three or four years would make me a sailor in every respect, mind and habits, as well as body—nolens volens; and would put all my companions so far ahead of me that college and a profession would be in vain to think of; and I made up my mind that, feel as I might, a sailor I must be, and to be master of a vessel, must be the height of my ambition.
It was interesting to note the cold management style of the captain, who minimized his interaction with the crew and left most of the commanding to the first mate, though he did not hesitate to regain order when he felt the crew became loose with their labor and attitude.
“Can’t a man ask a question here without being flogged?”
“No,” shouted the captain; “nobody shall open his mouth aboard this vessel, but myself;” and began laying the blows upon his back, swinging half round between each blow, to give it full effect. As he went on, his passion increased, and he danced about the deck, calling out as he swung the rope,—If you want to know what I flog you for, I’ll tell you. It’s because I like to do it!—because I like to do it!—It suits me! That’s what I do it for!”
I thought of our situation, living under a tyranny; of the character of the country we were in; of the length of the voyage, and of the uncertainty attending our return to America; and then, if we should return, of the prospect of obtaining justice and satisfaction for these poor men; and vowed that if God should ever give me the means, I would do something to redress the grievances and relieve the sufferings of that poor class of beings, of whom I then was one.
While a sailor could bring charges against a captain on shore, he has no means of redress while in a voyage, for he is considered property of the shipping company, and any attempt to escape or fight the captain would put him in jail. He is not allowed to quit. Dana notes that some captains, who may be gentlemen on land, go somewhat mad with power while on their ship.
A sailor’s [day off] is but for a day; yet while it lasts it is perfect. He is under no one’s eye, and can do whatever, and go wherever, he pleases. This day, for the first time, I may truly say, in my whole life, I felt the meaning of a term which I had often heard—the sweets of liberty.
Their journey had them engaged in the cattle hide trade, where they would sail up and down the California coast to collect hides from missionaries or Indian traders brought from the interior to store them in the company depot. They could not leave the coast until the depot was full of hides. Other ships off the coast were also engaged in this trade and usually manned by men from the Sandwich Islands (the former name of Hawaii). The Islanders would work on sailing rigs for the short-term to earn just enough money to drink, smoke, and live, never getting attached to any one place.
…no one who has not been on a long, dull voyage, shut up in one ship, can conceive of the effect of monotony upon one’s thoughts and wishes. The prospect of a change is like a green spot in a desert, and the remotest probability of great events and exciting scenes gives a feeling of delight, and sets life in motion, so as to give a pleasure, which any one not in the same state would be entirely unable to account for.
Our forecastle, as usual after a liberty-day, was a scene of tumult all night long, from the drunken ones. They had just got to sleep towards morning, when they were turned up with the rest, and kept at work all day in the water, carrying hides, their heads aching so that they could hardly stand. This is sailor’s pleasure.
We accordingly made up a packet of letters, almost every one writing, and dating them “January 1st, 1836.” The governor was true to his promise, and they all reached Boston before the middle of March, the shortest communication ever yet made across the country.
Masculinity is assumed among sailors, and nothing is worthy of praise…
A sailor knows too well that his life hangs upon a thread, to wish to be always reminded of it; so, if a man has a [lucky break from death], he keeps it to himself, or makes a joke of it. I have often known a man’s life to be saved by an instant of time, or by the merest chance,—the swinging of a rope,—and no notice taken of it.
An overstrained sense of manliness is the characteristic of searfaring men, or, rather, of life on board ship. This often gives an appearance of want of feeling, and even of cruelty. From this, if a man comes within an ace of breaking his neck and escapes, it is made a joke of; and no notice must be taken of a bruise or cut; and any expression of pity, or any shot of attention, would look sisterly, and unbecoming a man who has to face the rough and tumble of such a life. From this, too, the sick are neglected at sea, and whatever sailors may be ashore, a sick man finds little sympathy and attention, forward or aft. A man, too, can having nothing peculiar or sacred on board ship; for all the nicer feelings they take pride in disregarding, both in themselves and others. A think-skinned man could not live an hour on ship-board. One would be torn raw unless he had the hide of an ox.
Even with such a culture, you still notice that the dominant male cream rises to the top. One story had the first mate standing up to encroachment of the captain. There was no passive aggressive grumbling or vague Facebook updates, but a man-to-man confrontation where the strongest won. The weak are not supported by anyone, and if you are unable to fulfill your duties, whether through laziness or sickness, you are not considered worthy to be on ship.
Finally the journey comes to an end after Dana was able to switch ships (partly thanks to his family connections back home) on one that had a shorter length of duty…
A year before, while carrying hides on the coast, the assurance that in a twelvemonth we should see Boston, made me half wild; but now that I was actually there, and in sight of home, the emotions which I had so long anticipated feeling, I did not find, and in their places was a state of very nearly entire apathy.
There is probably so much of excitement in prolonged expectation, that the quiet realizing of it produces a momentary stagnation of feeling as well as of effort.
I’m sure those who traveled for long away from their home can relate to the anti-climatic return home.
Twenty-five years after his journey, he revisited California, now in American hands. He was disappointed at the change and rapid growth.
The past was real. The present, all about me, was unreal, unnatural, repellent. I saw the big ships lying in the stream, the Alert, the California, the Rosa, with her Italians; then the handsome Ayacucho, my favorite, the poor, dear old Pilgrim, the home of hardship and hopelessness; the boats passing to and for; the cries of the sailors at the captain or falls; the peopled beach; the large hide-houses with their gangs of men; and the Kanakas [Indians] interspersed everywhere. All, all were gone! not a vestige to mark where one hide-house stood. The oven, too, was gone. I searched for its site, and found, where I thought it should be, a few broken bricks and bits of mortar. I alone was left of all, and how strangely was I here! What changes to me! Where were they all? Why should I care for them,—poor Kanakas and sailors, the refuse of civilization, the outlaws and beach-combers of the Pacific! Time and death seemed to transfigure them. Double nearly all were dead; but how had they died, and where? In hospitals, in fever-climes, in dens of vice, or falling from the mast, or dropping exhausted from the wreck.
One downside of this book is that he goes into technical detail of sailing and operating a ship, most of which you have no choice but to glaze over, but I recommend this book to give you perspective and show you how our modern civilization has made us into mush. Very few of us could right now perform the labor or endure the hardships that those men have faced, and while we’re lucky that we don’t have to endure it, I wonder how much this benefit damages our development as men.
Read More: “Two Years Before The Mast” on Amazon