Two Years Before the Mast

Two Years Before the Mast

A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea

eBook - 2012
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After a bout with the measles that left his vision impaired, Harvard undergrad Richard Henry Dana signed up for a two-year engagement as a sailor, thinking that the fresh sea air might improve his vision. The diary that Dana kept during his stint on the open sea formed the basis for this wildly popular memoir, which was later made into a movie. A must-read for fans of rip-roaring nautical tales or social history buffs.
Publisher: [S.l.] : Duke Classics, c2012.
ISBN: 9781620115213
Characteristics: 1 online resource.
Additional Contributors: OverDrive, Inc


From Library Staff

"While at Harvard College, Dana had an attack of the measles, which affected his vision. Thinking it might help his sight, Dana, rather than going on a Grand Tour as most of his fellow classmates traditionally did, he left Harvard to enlist as a common sailor on a voyage around Cape Horn on ... Read More »

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Feb 22, 2018

Eddie Haskel (Ken Osmand) mentions this book while interviewing for a deckhand job on a fishing boat. After reading Over The Edge (Magellan's 1519 circumnavigation of the globe for the 1st time), The Plains Across (1840-1860 first wagon trains venturing to the west coast) This personal narrative of life @ sea by a 19 yr old in 1834 was great reading. I wondered why the Strait of Magellan wasn't navigated vs's going around the dangerous Cape Horn, but there is mention late in the book. Just imagine California's major cities, still under Spanish rule, yet not booming from the soon to be 1849 gold rush. We've really put a footprint since 184 yrs ago, take me back, if only for an evenings read.

Feb 02, 2018

One of the earliest books I´ve ever read, I have great memories of it.

Dec 29, 2017

Awesome book. Tremendous descriptive skills. Describes an adventure in the world of the 1830's that might as well have been to the ends of the Earth, which California effectively was. Wooden ships and iron men. From a personal standpoint, gives life to many places I know in California where I grew up, describing them before they grew into the California of today. I visited Santa Cruz Island a year ago, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura/Santa Barbara. It is howt I imagine that the California that Dana saw and described in the book.

Jun 06, 2017

Two Years Before The Mast is an excellent memoir of life at sea at the beginning of the "Golden Age of Shipping" when tall ships sailed the world. It is followed by an account of the author's second trip to California, twenty years later, after it had vastly changed as a result of both American conquest and the California Gold Rush. I'd recommend Two Years, claimed to be the first book about life onboard, to anyone interested in seafaring life, social history, "a good rippin' yarn," or to any woman who wonders why men aren't great about expressing their feelings.

Richard Henry Dana Jr. was an eighteen-year-old Harvard student who had to cease his studies due to weak eyes caused by measles. Although from a monied family, rather than taking a "tour of the continent" (Europe) as many of his social class might, in 1833, Dana sailed to California as a common seaman, bunking "before the mast" (as opposed to the ship's officers and passengers, whose safer cabins were aft). He kept a diary of his experiences as his ship sailed on a return voyage from Boston to California, where its cargo of merchandise was sold to the Californios (California was still part of Mexico), then replaced with cowhides to be used for leatherwear. A long period of his voyage was spent off ship, loading hides in California.

Dana was a fine writer, and carries the reader along through seasickness, adventure, backbreaking labour, moments of leisure, long spells of boredom, and brutal injustice. He was a curious person, who picked up languages, including Hawaiian, from people around him, while absorbing a great deal about both the cultures that surrounded him and the lands his fellow sailors had seen. That being said, though he was liberal for his time, his attitudes toward people of other cultures can be offensive. Still, they were mild for a man of his time and place, when many sailors from the American South would have been slaves. As well, Dana has so little to say about the women he met on land, and so much about a particularly attractive man that one wonders if he was more attracted to males than females.

Because he kept diaries, Dana was able to provide detail often lacking from sea stories. Anyone familiar with sea songs has heard versions of the following floating verse:
"And when you sail
Around Cape Horn,
You'll wish to hell
You'd never been born."
The dangerous trip is often described in novels and movies. If you've seen "Master and Commander", you'll remember the British man-o'-war's crew climbing up the riggings like many monkeys during Antarctic blizzards. However, Dana, who rounded the Horn twice, describes working barehanded in ice and snow (frozen mittens were slippery and dangerous), in a shorthanded crew with only four or five on a watch (shift above deck), on a temperance ship with not even a warming tumbler of rum to look forward to, while dealing with a terrible toothache.

Dana wrote this book as an expose of the brutal treatment of sailors by captains and ship's officers, who were absolute despots at sea. He later became a lawyer, working for seamen's rights and for the freedom of escaped slaves. However, his book is often regarded today only as a document of life at sea. Dana's writing inspired many other writers, notably Herman Melville. Two Years Before The Mast has been edited so that today's editions use standard modern American spelling, so is easy to read. Furthermore, though there is considerable technical language, one can get the gist of his story without knowing a great deal about ships. Though the book is slow at times, as was the sailor's life, it's worth persisting for the return voyage around Cape Horn and home to Boston. You'll be nearly as happy as the ship's crew when they finally arrive in Boston Harbour.

Jan 20, 2017

Dana was a Harvard student who went to sea for two years and kept a journal, which he published as "Two Years Before the Mast." It was originally meant as a protest of the harsh conditions sailors endure, but it became much more than that: a travelogue, an autobiography, a valuable contribution to nautical literature. Melville, who would find his great theme at sea, was a fan. While some of Dana's observations about other races strike us as misguided, his commentary on California before it was a state are fascinating. My favorite line is "Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves." So bashing California has a long history. Originally I was reading this because of its historical importance, but found it much more engaging and insightful that I expected.

Sep 02, 2013

An extraordinary gap year (2 in fact) in the 1830s when California was still part of Mexico.

Jul 03, 2012

A very interest biographical account of a seavoyage from Boston to California in the mid 1830's. Well written and gives a very good sense of what it must have been like to be a sailor in those days. I have read many seafaring adventure novels so it was quite interesting to read an informative true telling of a voyage. I would recommend this for anyone who enjoys reading about sailing from this historical period.


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