Jul 3, 2010

Two Years Before the Mast

by Richard Henry Dana

In 1834 Richard Henry Dana, a Harvard college student, left his studies due to an illness which had caused "weakness of the eyes" and went to sea on a merchant ship hoping to improve his health. For two years he worked as a common sailor, sleeping in the cramped forecastle with the other seamen, climbing about the rigging, taking the hard knocks and suffering inclement weather. He kept a journal, and after returning home wrote up a narrative of his experiences and observations. Not only is it a rousing adventure story of life at sea, but also a fascinating depiction of a way of life long gone past. There are interesting descriptions of all sorts of characters Dana meets and of the California coast when it was still part of Mexico, a sparsely populated wild and fertile country mostly open land with a few adobe houses, missions or forts (presidios) here and there. One of the more interesting segments of the book takes place when he gets left on shore there engaged in preparing hides for the ship to pick up (its main trade was in cattle hides and tallow). Although the technical terms were difficult to pick through (mostly describing parts of the rigging and actions done thereon), the daily descriptions of the intricate skill of sailing were fascinating. Dana served as a crew member on two different ships, under different captains (belonging to the same company) so he describes the contrasts between how the captains ran their ships. Also every time they ran into another ship there was a sort of contest between them to show off sailing skills, and the sailors would look critically upon how the other ship was manned and rigged, if it was kept clean and tidy, etc.

A lot of the book describes how difficult and hard a sailor's life was- there was pretty much no sympathy for sickness or injury, the men were fed mainly on salted or fresh beef (I wasn't surprised to see that at the end of the voyage one man came down with scurvy), in rainy weather their clothes were constantly wet, their bunks were in darkness and damp, the captain had complete rule (once Dana witnessed a terrible flogging), etc. After its publication, Two Years Before the Mast became widely popular, and Dana was instrumental in working to better the lot of sailors. In my copy, there are two afterwards written by Dana; one describes his efforts to help sailors, the other describes his return to California after twenty-four years, and what had happened in that time to some of his shipmates and the rigs he sailed on. I read an older edition, and I think I'm going to look for a newer one to replace it, hopefully one that has a glossary of unfamiliar terms, a diagram of ship's rigging, and a map of their travels (which would all be helpful in better appreciating the text).

It might interest all you booklovers to know that Dana himself, and many of his shipmates, were also avid readers! Of course they rarely had time to just sit and read but when there were lulls in the work they would trade books from the bottom of their chests. When they ran into other ships they often swapped books with the other sailors. Sometimes Dana was desperate to find something to read, and found himself engrossed in books he never would have tried before- like a romance novel! When he described his reaction to a particularly good read, it was so familiar:
"... each watch below... I spent in the same manner, until I had finished my book. I shall never forget the enjoyment I derived from it. To come across anything with literary merit was so unusual that this was a feast to me. The brilliancy of the book, the succession of capital hits, and the lively and characteristic sketches, kept me in a constant state of pleasing sensations."
This was my last read for the Random challenge. I've had it on my shelf some time, because I recall my father once telling me how good it was. Such an interesting read!

Rating: 4/5 ........ 320 pages, 1840

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Danielle said...

Someone recommended this to me some time ago and I bought a copy (as yet unread), but it does sound very good. Have you seen any of the Horatio Hornblower TV movies? It looks like a hard life indeed, though that would have been a military ship--though the sailing aspect must be very similar. It's funny that he went to sea for his health as it sounds like a really hard life (maybe for the fresh air and exercise?). I really must get this out and read it sometime soon.

Jeane said...

Never heard of that series, but it sounds good! Yes, he went for the fresh air/exercise. He was only seriously ill once while on board ship, and when he returned picked his studies up again right away, so I'm assuming his eyes had improved as well. You really should read it! I'd love to hear what you think.

Cath said...

I need to get this one. I loved Redburn by Herman Melville, which sounds similar, although the 'voyage' is the USA to Liverpool. I thoroughly rec it anyway.

Cath said...

PS. Like Danielle I also rec the Hornblower TV movies - they are wonderful!

Jenny said...

How cool! I love stories about boats and somehow manage to continue romanticizing life on a ship even after I have read about how miserable it was for the sailors. :p

I am fascinated that they were avid readers!

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

This one sounds terrific. It's a new to me author too.