Sunday, August 15, 2010

Book #37 - Two Years Before the Mast (Richard Henry Dana)

Aye, maties! Tonight I'm drinking a Mexican beer (Modelo) with lime, which seems appropriate for the book I'm currently reading. Leaving behind the 1848 France in "A Sentimental Education" I decided to step back 16 years earlier, and to another continent. I also left behind dithering young French people who talk a lot but never really do anything, in exchange for hard working, manly sea-faring men.

I'm about half way through "Two Years Before the Mast" by Richard Henry Dana. It's another American autobiography, of which I've read three others so far for this project (by Ben Franklin, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass). This book is about a two year period on the author's life. He was an undergraduate at Harvard when he contracted measles, which caused his eyesight to weaken so that he could not continue his studies. He decided that "hard work, plain food, and open air", and a lack of books, could possibly cure him, so he shipped out of Boston on a merchant sailing vessel bound for the California coast. The vessel carried goods for the white settlers in California, which they would both sell and trade for cow hides which they would then transport back to Boston. The whole trip was to take an estimated 2-3 years. You have to admit, this guy had some balls...his eyesight sucks so this young, seemingly well-to-do guy signs up for a couple of hard years as a sailor, which he seems to have had absolutely no experience in, instead of traveling to France and lounging around with the characters in "A Sentimental Education".

So he sets sail. Interestingly we never hear anything else about his eyesight, so he seems to have done alright on that score. They leave Boston and sail down the coast of North and South America (remember it's 1834 so there's no Panama Canal yet). At one point they're chased by what seems to be a pirate ship (it's painted black and has no flags, and pursues them relentlessly) but they manage to escape. Then they sail through Cape Horn at the foot of South America, enduring its terrible storms and weather, and then sail northward for California.

Once they reach California, they then start to endlessly sail up and down the coast, from San Diego to Santa Barbara to Monterey to San Francisco, and back and forth from one port to another, each time trading goods and stocking up on cow hides to take back. California at that time was owned by Mexico, and the small settlements were all built around a Catholic Mission and a Presidio (fort). The white population was mostly Spanish and very sparse. Numerous Indians lived in the towns, and these people tended to work for the white people. As someone who has lived in California for almost 20 years now, it's fascinating to read the author's descriptions of the small towns and settlements that grew up to be the major cities of this state. He describes sailing into San Francisco Bay and stopping in San Francisco, which was only a few shanties at the time, apart from the Mission Dolores, which is still standing and is about a mile from where I'm writing this. It's incredible that this state has become what it currently is in just 175 years after this was written. Keep in mind too that the author sailed to California 15 years before the gold rush and it's influx of people.

The book is also interesting as a description of the life of a common sailor. However, Dana really gets in to describing some of the details of sailing, and some of this is almost incomprehensible to a landlubber like me. For example, here's a sentence about a time they were sailing in a storm:

"All hands were now employed in setting up the lee rigging, fishing the spritsail yard, lashing the galley, and getting tackles upon the martingale to bowse it to windward."

Uh, say what? Or this one:

"At this instant the chief mate, who was standing on the top of the windlass, at the foot of the spenser mast, called out "Lay out there and furl the jib!""

Clearly this is dangerous and complicated work, and the writing conveys a sense of action and movement, but it would be nice to find an annotated version with diagrams or something so I had at least a faint idea of what was going on.

Dana is very good at depicting how hard the sailors' lives were back then. They basically shipped out on these merchant vessels with only a vague idea of when they were returning. In Dana's case his boat must collect a certain number of cow hides to bring back, and they can't return until they've collected this amount (he actually ends up changing ships because his original ship was going to stay way to long in California). There's only one day off, Sunday, and this is at the mercy of the captain, who can decide that they need to keep working. And the captain has total rule in every other way over these men's lives. There's one striking (no pun intended) episode where the captain is in a bad mood, and ends up brutally flogging two men for the flimsiest of reasons. The crew is not happy about this, but they can't do anything. Even if they mutinied they'd be hunted down, and could never work as sailer again. Ah, the good old days.


SocrMom78 said...

I read this book about five years ago, and was constantly referring to the pictures of the ships and the different parts of the ships, because I was so confused reading words like mizzen, foresail, bowsprit, and fo'c'sle...but I appreciate that Dana really wanted us to be immersed in the world of a sailor. I don't think I enjoyed the book because of having to wade through all of the terminology! But this is a nice review.

Capt. Dan said...

Nice review.

Dana says at the outset that he wants to show life aboard ship from a sailor's point of view. That was something no one had attempted, and he has succeeded in a way that has made his work important to social scientists, writers and historians in the 21st Century.

Your pull quote: "All hands were now employed in setting up the lee rigging, fishing the spritsail yard, lashing the galley, and getting tackles upon the martingale to bowse it to windward."
is an excellent example of how he uses the language to show us that his world is totally foreign, something WE cannot understand. Though we're removed from him by almost two centuries, I doubt that his contemporaries in Boston had much of a notion about what the sailor talk meant.

He makes his point by being obscure.

Robby Virus said...

That's a really interesting point, Captain Dan. It's easy to forget that his contemporary readers probably wouldn't know what the hell he was talking about either.

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