Two Years Before the Mast
Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
Until recently a widely read classic, Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea (first published in 1840), by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1815-1882) retains its impact.
Dana, a Harvard undergraduate, went to sea intending to regain his strength after a debilitating illness. In 1834, at the age of 19, he sailed from Boston as a common sailor on the small brig Pilgrim, along with a multinational and multiracial crew. There were a total of fifteen men and boys, including the captain and officers.
The Pilgrim sailed around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America, to California, which was then part of Mexico. At that time, the only practical way to get from New England to California was by sea. In California, the Pilgrim's crew sold the goods they brought and bought the hides of cattle from California's ranches and missions.
Dana spent a summer in a "hide-house" on the beach at San Diego, where he worked curing hides. Here he met Hawaiians, called Sandwich Islanders at the time. His admiration for them--"the most interesting, intelligent, and kindhearted people that I ever fell in with"--is affecting. The Hawaiians are just a few of the personalities he describes, along with his shipmates and the Mexican Californians.
The sailors' work was dangerous, unrelentingly hard, and exploitive. And, the Pilgrim planned to stay on the coast of California for an indefinite period of time. Dana in fact returned from California--after fears that the Pilgrim's captain would not release him--in 1836, as a sailor on the ship Alert. Some would not return; for example, sailors who were ill were left behind in California.
Thousands of Americans read this book as they prepared to go to California during the 1849 Gold Rush, as it was one of the few available sources of information about California. It remains one of the few historical sources about California before the Gold Rush. Since the European population of California was small, Dana encountered many of the key individuals of Mexican California.
Dana conveys authenticity in event and emotion, in what was for its time a very direct and straightforward narrative. Many passages famous in their day are still of more than historical interest: the shipboard flogging that Dana witnessed; the Californians he met and the fandango he attended; his friendship with the Hawaiians; sailing home around Cape Horn in the South American winter.
Dana also conveys in an almost contemporary way a sense of the author's personality and his middle-class New England background. In a book considerably more entertaining and informative than novels of its era, I felt I received a glimpse of the past.
Copyright © 2007 by Heidi Boudro