Monday, February 1, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST” by Richard Henry Dana Jr. (first published 1840).
In exploring literature, one of the most curious things that can happen is to read a book about which one has heard for years, and to discover that in reality it is not very much like its public reputation. This has been my experience with Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast.
Only recently did I get around to reading it.
Over the preceding years, I had acquired the impression that it was a great work of protest – that the main purpose of its young author was to expose and condemn the harsh conditions under which sailors had to toil in the early nineteenth century. Now I discover by reading Dana’s own words (as opposed to brief references to him in literary histories) that this is only a minor part of Dana’s concerns. The major impact of Two Years Before the Mast is not as a work of protest, but as an interesting and varied travel book, more akin to such Victorian works as Kinglake’s Eothen than to vigorous muckraking expose.
And yet elements of protest there are.
Some background. Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1815-1882) was a New England Brahmin, associated with some of the foremost Yankee writers of his day. His father was also Richard Henry Dana and was also an author – for which reason the younger man was usually billed as Richard Henry Dana Junior. The younger man was taught by Ralph Waldo Emerson. James Russell Lowell was a classmate. One of his sons married the daughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This was American literary aristocracy. Dana Junior was a lawyer and an abolitionist who fought the good fight against slavery, rose to high position at the bar and was one of those who prosecuted the leaders of the defeated Confederacy after the American Civil War in the 1860s. Yet despite his achievements, and despite some other travel books, he would always be remembered chiefly for Two Years Before the Mast, which appeared when he was only 25.
Dana was a Harvard freshman in danger of ophthalmia after a severe bout of measles. Rather than take a rest cure by going to Europe, in 1834, when he was 19, he chose a more strenuous encounter with different climes by signed on as a sailor with the brig Pilgrim. The merchantman sailed from Boston in August 1834 and Dana did not see his home again until September 1836. But he did not spend all of those two years at sea.
The Pilgrim sailed around Cape Horn to California. It took the best part of six months (August 1834 to January 1835) to get from Boston to Santa Barbara in Alta California (remember, it was another 80 years before there was a Panama Canal). Only after they had been aboard for four months were Dana and S-, the two trainees, allowed to move from steerage to the forecastle where the other sailors slept - in other words, only then were they literally “before the mast”. After this six-month outward voyage, Dana spent most of the following year in Alta California ashore and engaged in the long toil of gathering and hauling aboard the tons of cowhides that were valuable for their leather. For some months, he was put in charge of the whole process of drying and curing the hides, as well as ensuring their haulage to the merchantman, and he describes this process in great detail. Coastal runs acquainted him with the long distances between the old Californian mission stations and the inland settlement of Los Angeles. He observed and wrote about the locals and the region’s flora and fauna. All the time, he believed he had signed on for two years, and would return to Boston to resume his legal studies. He was therefore horrified to realise that his employers could bind him over for four years and he began to fret that he would never see home until he was too old to be a student. After months on shore, he managed to get transferred to the ship Alert and once again looked forward to the voyage home, but he was almost forced to re-join the crew of the Pilgrim. He escaped this fate by getting somebody else to sign on in his place. So he made the six-month journey back to Boston on board the Alert.
In effect, Two Years Before the Mast is the narrative of a year working on the coast of California sandwiched between narratives of a six-month outward voyage and a six-month homeward voyage.
In what respect in this a work of protest, as it is so often described? Only inasmuch as it describes honestly the hard-working and sometimes dangerous lives of sailors.
Dana and his readers would have been aware that harsh discipline was to be expected on naval vessels, but both the Pilgrim and the Alert are private merchantmen. Dana explains that on a merchantman the captain is “lord paramount”, and the first mate carries out his orders; but being the second mate is “a dog’s berth… he is neither officer nor man”. The steward is the captain’s personal servant. “The cook, usually a darkey, is the patron of the crew, and those who are in his favour can get their wet mittens and stockings dried, or light their pipes at the galley in the night watch”. The other skilled men aboard are the carpenter and sail-maker. It is a very hierarchical micro-society, and the sailors have, in effect, no say in how the ship is run. There is the principle of constant work for sailors – very little time is allowed for conversation or lounging on the deck. “In no state prison are the convicts more regularly set to work, and more closely watched.” (Chapter 3)
Once these truths are established, however, Two Years Before the Mast spends many chapters simply recording the hard work of the crew without registering protest at it – setting the sails, greasing the masts, holystoning the deck, keeping watch etc.
The major blow falls in Chapter 15. The captain (identified throughout only as “Captain T-”) flogs a simple-minded sailor who spoke a word out of turn. Another sailor attempts to intervene and he too is flogged. The special horror of this comes from the sadistic delight of the captain, who says he flogs as he enjoys it; and the denial of medical help to the men whose backs have been scoured; and the practical impotence of the crew, who know they would be tried for mutiny if they resisted the captain, or for piracy if they attempted to take over the ship. Shortly after this (Chapter 17) a sailor called Foster, who has been unfairly demoted from officer to mere sailor, takes the opportunity of a port visit to desert. But by Chapter 20, when Dana is ashore in California, the Pilgrim visits with a new and more affable captain, and the implication is that, in spite of the necessarily hard life of sailors, and the nasty misuse of power by “Captain T-”, this was a matter of a flawed captain rather than of a flawed system.
However, something goes wrong aboard the Alert as well. When Dana speaks of the mistreatment of another young and impressionable sailor on the homeward voyage, he remarks: “The truth is, the unlimited power which merchant captains have upon long voyages on strange coasts takes away the sense of responsibility, and too often, even in men otherwise well disposed, substitutes a disregard for the rights and feelings of others.” (Chapter 29)
On this return voyage (Chapter 31), members of the crew believe the captain of the Alert is behaving irresponsibly in not setting the correct course when they are threatened by icebergs. They appeal to the mate, who is almost ready to relieve the captain of his command. Technically, this would be mutiny. Fortunately, the captain responds diplomatically – after giving the mate a stern warning – no mutiny occurs, and the Alert sails peacefully on with a crew whose main focus is getting home.
These passages are as strident as Dana’s “protest” gets. Doubtless they would have been shocking to the memoir’s first readers, and Dana’s outrage at flogging is consonant with a man who worked so long for the abolition of slavery. But even so, these passages occupy only a very small part of the book, though they have featured greatly on the more lurid covers of cheap reprints, which would mislead readers into thinking that Two Years Before the Mast was entirely about sadistic discipline and the lash.
What surprises (and dismays) me much more in this book is the space given to what amounts to advance publicity for an American takeover of California. It is true that the chapters dealing with Alta California say some pleasant things about the region’s Hispanic inhabitants. There is a chapter rejoicing in the fiesta accompanying a wedding. There are pleasant accounts of being fed fine meals by priests at the mission stations. Dana diverts us (as 21st century readers) by explaining things that we would now take for granted. He explains what a strange vessel called a “catamaran” is, and tells us that Mexicans use “long leather ropes, called lassos” (Chapter 13) and discourses on “beach-combers” (Chapter 19) and describes the wild dog, the “coati” (coyote), and rattlesnakes.
But there is a subtext about how much better California would be if it were part of the USA. Remember, in 1840 when the book was published, Alaska was still owned by Russia and the contiguous states of the USA occupied approximately half the space they do now. All of Alta California was still Mexican territory. But (Chaps. 11 ff.) you can hear the drumbeat of “manifest destiny” and American imperialism when Dana describes Hispanics as lazy:
“The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves. The country abounds in grapes, yet they buy, at an immense price, wine made in Boston and brought round by us, and retail it among themselves at a real (twelve and a half cents) for the small wine glass. Their hides, too, which they value at two dollars in money, they barter for something which costs seventy-five cents in Boston; and buy shoes (as like as not made of their own hides, which have been carried twice around Cape Horn) at three and four dollars….” (Chapter 13)
Dana gives (in Chapter 21) his whole account of the government of California. He says the old church-run missions, in the days when Mexico was part of the vast Spanish Empire, began as genuine charities catering to the welfare of the indigenous people, but that they were spoilt by success and became exploitative and concerned for their own status. Their lands were largely expropriated by the new Mexican government when Mexico became independent. However, the new government administrators were even more exploitative than the church had been, and their administration of justice was arbitrary. In Mexican California, says Dana, a group of American and English hunters took the law into their own hands when a murder occurred and the Mexican administration was too lazy to do anything about it. “Forty Kentucky hunters, with their rifles, and a score of Yankees and Englishmen, were a match for a whole regiment of hungry, drawling, lazy half-breeds.”
Chapter 21 ends with what amounts to a call for American annexation when Dana says:
“Such are the people who inhabit a country embracing four or five hundred miles of sea-coast, with several good harbours; with fine forests in the north; the waters filled with fish, and the plains covered with thousands of herds of cattle; blessed with a climate than which there can be no better in the world; free from all manner of diseases, whether epidemic or endemic; and with a soil in which corn yields from seventy to eighty fold. In the hands of an enterprising people, what might this country be!”
Dana’s description of San Francisco Bay reads almost like the prospectus of a real-estate agent:
“If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity. The abundance of wood and water: the extreme fertility of its shores; the excellence of its climate, which is as near to being perfect as nay in the world; and its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring grounds in the whole western coast of America – all fit for a place of great importance.” (Chapter 26)
This was written less than a decade before the 1848 war of annexation, in which the United States basically appropriated (i.e. stole) about half the territory of Mexico – and then there was the gold rush of 1849 and the influx of non-Hispanic miners to seal the American grip on the territory. Dana’s book was certainly one impetus for all this.
I should add that while Dana could not reasonably be called racist by the standards of his day, was on the side of the underdog (slaves; mistreated sailors) and did say many positive things about both Hispanics and Pacific Islanders, there are other passages in the book which suggest an attitude of cultural superiority. We are told how lazy Italian crews are, over-staffing their ships with underworked men, unlike the efficient Yankees and British (Chapter 18). There is a very unflattering view of a Russian crew (down from “Russian America” – i.e. Alaska) as slovenly and unwashed and covered in grease (Chapter 26).
If Dana is to be credited as a reformer, let us also recall his implicit American imperialism and his cultural chauvinism.
Having noted these two aspects of Two Years Before the Mast, however, I must admit that I am being far too hard on Dana. His most famous book, when it engages with the sea, is simply delightful. Of course one has to match wits with a host of obscure sea-faring terms. I already knew what a few of the following terms meant, but others I had to work out by context, and still others remain a mystery to me. See how you do:
Slings, yard-arms, bunts, bow ports, futtock shrouds, hawser holes, knight-heads, topgallant, studding rail, tarring, “riding down”, martingale, spirit sail, trysail, courses, afteryards, royal, main royal, studding sails….
No jargon impedes the descriptions of the moods of the sea and life aboard and ashore, however.
As a novice, young Dana vomits copiously when he first has to go aloft during a storm, and the stench of bilge water is “like a good emetic”. (Chapter 2) Rounding Cape Horn on the outward voyage, he rejoices to hear whales breathing and singing. He is nearly knocked overboard by swaying jib. He enjoys “a tin pot full of hot tea (or, as the sailors call it, ‘water bewitched’) sweetened with molasses”. Great albatrosses lie sleeping on the sea swell. (Chapter 5) A sailor falls overboard and drowns (like so many sailors, he could not swim). (Chapter 6) Passing the island of Juan Fernandez inevitably brings out a reference to Robinson Crusoe.
In Alta California, Dana and his shipmates learn how to manage small boats coming in through the surf by watching how “Sandwich Islanders” do it. (Never once are the terms “Hawaii” or “Hawaiian” used.) (Chap. 9) The “Sandwich Islanders” call themselves “Kanaka” and also seem to apply the term to all other Polynesians. American sailors tease them about being cannibals and having eaten Captain Cook. The Hawaiians indignantly reply that they are not cannibals, saying “New Zealand Kanaka eat white man: Sandwich Island Kanaka – no. Sandwich Island Kanaka all ‘e same a’ you.” (Chapter 19) It is interesting confirmation of the fact that, to non-Maori, New Zealand was once regarded as one of the more dangerous places in the Pacific.
While revelling in at least some aspects of life afloat, Dana also rhapsodises the sailor’s sense of liberty when he is left ashore with a day’s leave to wander: “I shall never forget the delightful sensation of being in the open air, with the birds singing around me, and escaped from the confinement, labour, and strict rule of a vessel – of being once more in my life, though only for a day, my own master. A sailor’s liberty is but for a day; yet while it lasts it is entire….”(Chapter 16)
At sea on the voyage home, there is a sublime description of a huge and threatening wind blowing when the night sky is absolutely clear and the stars are shining and, but for the buffeting the ship was getting, one would imagine that it was a peaceful night (Chapter 25). Chapters 31 and 32 convey vividly the heavy storms before rounding Cape Horn and the threatening beauty of a huge iceberg and the howling gale and the perils of having to reset ice-covered rigging (these particular scenes were greatly admired by Herman Melville, who thought he could not match Dana’s description of rounding the Horn). But, in the midst of the violence of the sea, there is the added and poignant detail of Dana having to endure a dreadful toothache and, after much pleading, being allowed to spend a few days lying in the tiny space of the forecastle to recover. This is one of the most painful passages of illness endured during travel, standing comparison with Henry Fielding’s account of suffering gout and dropsy in his Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon.
There are, too, the quieter things which remind us of the loneliness and sense of isolation which sailors had to endure, and their desperation for diversion. Dana mentions frequently the joy of receiving newspapers from home. Early in his book, he is delighted to find on ship a copy of an English novel, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s recent (1830) Paul Clifford, which he devours in his rare hours off duty below deck. In Chapter 29, he is lucky enough to acquire a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Woodstock. The young man reads it aloud to fellow sailors, to pass their time and his. He also listens to yarns spun by crewmates, such as the one about the harpooner whose legs became entangled in the rope attached to his harpoon, and who was almost dragged under by the sinking corpse of the whale, which had ceased to be buoyant because it had been gutted (Chapter 5). In later chapters (especially when homeward bound) many such stories are told, including the varied career of the English sailor Tom Harris with whom Dana often kept watch. Harris impresses Dana with his wide learning despite his lack of formal education, and becomes almost the book’s image of a noble and capable sailor.
At this point I’m almost tempted to make a snarky comment about how there is no reference or allusion whatsoever to any sexual activity on board ship or in the freer times of shore leave – but there isn’t so, think what you will of sailors and their ways, that’s that.
Two lame points to conclude:
One odd quality, for the modern reader, is the “ghost” effect created when Dana mentions tiny little Hispanic settlements in California that are now megalopolises - Los Angeles, San Francisco etc. We can’t help visualising the modern freeway-torn urban monsters even when the words are describing villages.
There is also the sheer unevenness of the book, with many longueurs as Dana skips from topic to topic. This seems at least in part the effect of the memoir’s having been built up from diary entries. Even so, the descriptions of sea and the sailor’s life make it worth reading.
Informative footnote: 25 years after its first publication, Dana added a long postscript to Two Years Before the Mast, which apparently elaborated on his reformist ideas. He also emended the text somewhat. It is, however, the book in its original form upon which I have been commenting here.
Silly and impudent footnote: A book like Two Years Before the Mast, being a plotless collection of observations, descriptions and self-contained anecdotes, is essentially unfilmable and impossible to dramatise. In 1946, however, Old Hollywood brought out a film of the same name and claiming to be based on “the world famous novel”[sic]. Alan Ladd stars as a shanghaied sailor, William Bendix is a sadistic captain, Brian Dunleavy is a passive character who happens to be a writer called Dana. There are flogging scenes, love interest and a full-scale mutiny. In short, it has absolutely nothing to do with Dana’s book apart from the title, and plays like a standard piece of juvenile yo-he-ho maritime adventure; or maybe like a cheaper remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. Again one notes that those were the days when Hollywood still liked to capitalise on the titles of well-known books, even if they hadn’t the faintest idea what to do with them.