Two Years Before the Mast

I’m not sure how I managed to avoid reading Richard Henry Dana’s classic work chronicling his two years at sea, but Melville tipped me off to it again recently (Dana recites the 39th chapter of Job to keep himself entertained during his watch on board). Dana’s voyage began in 1834 out of Boston on a ship bound for California to collect hides. Once they get to San Diego, Dana is tasked with curing the cattle hides on shore and becomes familiar with the other beach denizens, learning piecemeal Hawaiian and mastering Spanish. He finagles his way onto a different ship when he learns that his original ship was going to stick around the California coast for an extra year or two, and Dana was concerned about missing too much of his “real” life (he took a few year sabbatical from Harvard studies to go oceaning).

It’s an interesting work—priceless descriptions of early California pre-Gold Rush, detailed information about the running of a ship from a worker’s perspective—but nothing nearly as astonishing as Melville’s blend of tale and poetry. I was struck by one possible coincidence/influence—did Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” originate out of Dana’s Indians who were asked to help and shook their heads saying “no quiero” ?? (Chapter XIV)

Dana’s treatment of the natives is as racist and ridiculous as you’d expect. He calls their language “the most brutish and inhuman language, without any exception, that I ever heard or that could well be conceived of. It is a complete slabber. The words fall off of the ends of their tongues, and a continual slabbering sound is made in the cheeks, outside of the teeth. It cannot have been the language of Montezuma and the independent Mexicans.”

I learned that sailors call tea “water bewitched,” which I love. And his use of “holyday” made me realize that this is where “holiday” derives from.

Great quote about California that I wish were still true: “Revolutions are matters of constant occurrence in California. They are got up by men who are at the foot of the ladder and in desperate circumstances…” Also prescient is his comment about the Bay Area (circa 1935): “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 any in the world, and its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring-grounds in the whole western coast of America, all fit it for a place of great importance.”