Two Years Before the Mast (Richard H. Dana)

Two Years Before the Mast – Twenty-Four Years After
by Richard Henry Dana
Everyman’s Library – 1912 (1977)

“Perhaps someday…”

It was now nearly three months since the Alert arrived at Santa Barbara, and we began to expect her daily.  About half a mile behind the hide-house was a high hill, and every afternoon, as soon as we had done our work, some one of us walked up to see if there was a sail in sight, coming down before the regular trades.  Day after day we went up the hill, and came back disappointed.  I was anxious for her arrival, for I had been told by letter, that the owners in Boston, at the request of my friends, had written to Captain Thompson to take me on board the Alert, in case she returned to the United States before the Pilgrim; and I, of course, wished to know whether the order had been received, and what was the destination of the ship.  One year, more or less, might be of small consequence to others, but it was everything to me.  It was now just a year since we sailed from Boston, and, at the shortest, no vessel could expect to get away under eight or nine months, which would make our absence two years in all.  This would be pretty long, but would not be fatal.  It would not necessarily be decisive of my future life.  But one year more might settle the matter.  I might be a sailor for life; and although I had pretty well made up my mind to it before I had my letters from home, yet, as soon as an opportunity was held out to me of returning, and the prospect of another kind of life was opened to me, my anxiety to return, and, at least, to have the chance of deciding upon my course for myself, was beyond measure.  Besides that, I wished to be “equal to either fortune,” and to qualify myself for an officer’s berth, and a hide house was no place to learn seamanship in.  I had become experienced in hide-curing, and everything went on smoothly, and I had many opportunities of becoming acquainted with the people, and much leisure for reading and studying navigation; yet practical seamanship could only be got on board ship, therefore I determined to ask to be taken on board the ship when she arrived.  By the first of August we finished curing all our hides, stored them away, cleaned out our vats (in which latter we spent two days, up to our knees in mud and the sediments of six months’ hide-curing, in a stench which would drive a donkey from his breakfast), and got all in readiness for the arrival of the ship, and had another leisure interval of three or four weeks.  I spent these, as usual, in reading, writing, studying, making and mending my clothes, and getting my wardrobe complete readiness in case I should go on board the ship; and in fishing, ranging the woods with the dogs, and in occasional visits to the presidio and mission.  A good deal of my time was passed in taking care of a little puppy, which I had selected from thirty-six that were born within three days of one another at our house.  He was a fine, promising pup, with four white paws, and all the rest of his body of a dark brown.  I built a little kennel for him, and kept him fastened there, away from the other dogs, feeding and disciplining him myself.  In a few weeks I brought him into complete subjection, and he grew nicely, was much attached to me, and bade fair to be one of the leading dogs on the beach.  I called him Bravo, and all I regretted at the thought of leaving the beach was parting from him and the Kanakas. (146-147)


Another, and a more amusing, specimen was one whom we saw at San Francisco.  He had been a lad on board the ship California, in one of her first voyages, and ran away and commenced Ranchero, gambling, stealing horses, etc.  He worked along up to San Francisco, and was living on a rancho near there while we were in port.  One morning, when we went ashore in the we found him at the landing-place, dressed in California style – a wide hat, faded velveteen trousers, and a blanket thrown over his shoulders – and wishing to go off in the boat, he was going to pasear with our captain a little.  We had doubts of the reception he would meet with; but he seemed to think himself company for any one.  We took him aboard, landed him at the gangway, and went about our work, keeping an eye upon the quarter-deck, where the captain was walking.  The lad went up to him with complete assurance, and, raising his hat, wished him a good afternoon.  Captain Thompson turned round, looked at him from head to foot, and, saying coolly, “Hallo! who the hell are you?” kept on his walk.  This was a rebuff not to be mistaken, and the joke passed among the crew by winks and signs at different parts of the ship.  Finding himself disappointed at headquarters, he edged along forward to the mate, who was overseeing some work upon the forecastle, and tried to begin a yarn; but it would not do.  The mate had seen the reception he had met with aft, and would have no cast-off company.  The second mate was aloft, and the third mate and myself were painting the quarter-boat, which hung by the davits, so he betook himself to us; but we looked at each other, and the officer was too busy to say a word.  From us he went to one and another of the crew, but the joke had got before him, and he found everybody busy and silent.  Looking over the rail a few moments afterwards, we saw him at the galley-door talking with the cook.  This was indeed a come-down, from the highest seat in the synagogue to a seat in the galley with the black cook.  At night, too, when supper was called, he stood in the waist for some time, hoping to be asked down with the officers, but they went below, one after another, and left him.  His next chance was with the carpenter and sail-maker, and he lounged round the after hatchway until the last had gone down.  We had now had fun enough out of him, and, taking pity on him, offered him a pot of tea and a cut at the kid, with the rest, in the fore-jostle.  He was hungry, and it was growing dark, and he began to see that there was no use in playing the caballero any longer, I came down into the forecastle, put into the grub in sailor’s style, threw off all his airs, and enjoyed the joke as much as any one; for a man must take a joke among sailors.  He gave us an account of his adventures in the country – roguery and all – and was very entertaining.  He was a smart, unprincipled fellow, was in many of the rascally doings of the country, and gave us a great deal of interesting information as to the ways world we were in. (210-211)


The packet was sent down into the cabin, and every one waited to hear the result.  As nothing came up, the officers began to feel that they were acting rather a child’s part, and turned the crew to again; and the same strict discipline was restored, which prohibits speech between man and man while at work on deck; so that, when the steward came forward with letters for the crew, each man took his letters, carried them below to his chest, and came up again immediately, and not a letter was read until we had cleared up decks for the night

An overstrained sense of manliness is the characteristic of sea-faring men.  This often gives the appearance of want of feeling, and even of cruelty.  From this, if a man comes within an ace of breaking his neck, and escapes, it is made a joke of; and no notice must be taken of a bruise or a cut; and any expression of pity, or any show of attention, would look sisterly and unbecoming a man who has to face the rough and turn of such a life.  From this cause, too, the sick are neglected at sea, and whatever sailors may be ashore, a sick man finds little sympathy or attention, forward or aft.  A man, too, can have nothing peculiar or sacred on board ship; for all the nicer feelings they take pride in disregarding, both in themselves and others.  A thin-skinned man could hardly live on shipboard.  One would be torn raw unless he had the hide of an ox.  A moment of natural feeling for home and friends, and then the frigid routine of sea life returned.  Jokes were made upon those who showed any interest in the expected news, and everything near and dear was made the common stock for rude jokes and unfeeling coarseness, to which no exception could be taken by any one.

Supper, too, must be eaten before the letters were read; and when, at last, they were brought out, they all got round any one who had a letter, and expected to hear it read aloud, and have it all in common.  If any one went by himself to read, it was – “Fair play, there, and no skulking!”  I took mine and went into the sailmaker’s berth, where I could read it without interruption.  It was dated August, just a year from the time I had sailed from home, and every one was well, and no great change had taken place.  Thus, for one year, my mind was set at ease, yet it was already six months from the date of the letter, and what another year would bring to pass who could tell?  Every one away from home thinks that some great thing must have happened, while to those at home there seems to be a continued monotony and lack of incident.

As much as my feelings were taken up by my own news from home, I could not but be amused by a scene in the steerage.  The carpenter had been married just before leaving Boston, and during the voyage had talked much about his wife, and had to bear and forbear, as every man, known to be married, must, aboard ship; yet the certainty of hearing from his wife by the first ship seemed to keep up his spirits.  The California came, the packet was brought on board, no one was in higher spirits than he; but when the letters came forward there was none for him.  The captain looked again, but there was no mistake.  Poor “Chips” could eat no supper.  He was completely down ln the mouth.  “Sails” (the sailmaker) tried to comfort him, and told him he was a bloody fool to give up his grub for any Roman’s daughter, and reminded him that he had told him a dozen times that he’d never see or hear from his wife again. (212-213)


“Ah!” said Chips,” you don’t know what it is to have a wife, and – “

“Don’t I?” said Sails; and then came, for the hundredth time, the story of his coming ashore at New York, from the Constellation frigate, after a cruise of four years round the Horn; being paid off with over five hundred dollars; marrying, and taking a couple of rooms in a four-story house; furnishing the rooms (with a particular account of the furniture, including a dozen flag-bottomed chairs, which he always dilated upon whenever the subject of furniture was alluded to); going off to sea again, leaving his wife half-pay like a fool; coming home and finding her “off, like Bob’s horse, with nobody to pay the reckoning;” furniture gone, flag-bottomed chairs and all; and with it his “long togs,” the half-pay, his beaver hat, and white linen shirts.  His wife he never saw or heard of from that day to this, and never wished to.  Then followed a sweeping assertion, not much to the credit of the sex, in which he has Pope to back him.  “Come, Chips, cheer up like a man and take some hot grub!  Don’t be made a fool of by anything in petticoats!  As for your wife, you’ll never see her again: she was ‘up keeleg and off’ before you were outside of Cape Cod.  You’ve hove your money away like a fool; but every man must learn once, just as I did; so you’d better square the yards with her, and make the best of it.”

This was the best consolation “Sails” had to offer, but it did not seem to be just the thing the carpenter wanted; for, during several days, he was very much dejected, and bore with difficulty the jokes of the sailors, and with still more difficulty their attempts at advice and consolation, of most of which the sail-maker’s was a good specimen.

Thursday, February 25th.  Set sail for Santa Barbara, where we arrived on Sunday, the 28th.  We just missed seeing the California, for she had sailed three days before, bound to Monterey, to enter her cargo, and procure her licence, and thence to San Francisco, etc.  Captain Arthur left files of Boston papers for Captain Thompson, which, after they had been read and talked over in the cabin, I procured from my friend the third mate.  One file was of all the Boston Transcripts for the month of August 1835, and the rest were about a dozen Daily Advertisers and Couriers of different dates.  After all, there is nothing in a strange land like a newspaper from home.  Even a letter, in many respects, is nothing in comparison with it.  It carries you back to the spot better than anything else.  It is almost equal to clairvoyance.  The names of the streets, with the things advertised, are almost as good as seeing the signs; and while reading “Boy lost!” one can almost hear the bell and well-known voice of “Old Wilson,” crying the boy as “strayed, stolen, or mislaid!”  Then there was the commencement at Cambridge and the full account of the exercises at the graduating of my own class.  A list of all those familiar names (beginning as usual with Abbot, and ending with W), which, as I read them over, one by one, brought up their faces and characters as I had known them in the various scenes of college life.  Then I imagined them upon the stage, speaking their orations, dissertations, colloquies, etc., with the familiar gestures and tones of each, and tried to fancy the manner in which each would handle his subject.  _____ handsome, showy, and superficial; _____ with his strong head, clear brain, cool self-possession; _____ modest, sensitive, and underrated; _____ the mouth-piece of the debating clubs, noisy, vaporous, and democratic; and so following.  Then I could see them receiving their A.B.s from the dignified, feudal-looking President, with his “auctoritate mihi commissa,” and walking off the stage with their diplomas in their hands; while their classmate was walking up and down California beach with a hide upon his head.

Every watch below, for a week, I pored over these papers, until I was sure there could be nothing in them that had escaped my attention, and was ashamed to keep them any longer. (214-215)


We left here the young Englishman, George Marsh, of whom I have before spoken, who was wrecked upon the Pelew Islands.  He left us to take the berth of second mate on board the Ayacucho, which was lying in port.  He was well qualified for this post, and his education would enable him to rise to any situation on board ship.  I felt really sorry to part from him.  There was something about him which excited my curiosity; for I could not for a moment doubt that he was well born and in early life, well bred.  There was the latent gentleman about him, and the sense of honour, and no little of the pride, of a young man of good family.  The situation was offered him only a few hours before we sailed; and though he must give up returning to America, yet I have no doubt that the change from the dog’s berth to an officer’s was too agreeable to his feelings to be declined.  We pulled him on board the Ayacucho, and when he left the boat he gave each of its crew a piece of money except myself, and shook hands with me, nodding his head, as much as to say “We understand each other,” and sprang on board.  Had I known, an hour sooner, that he was to leave us, I would have made an effort to get from him the true history of his birth and early life.  He knew that I had no faith in the story which he told the crew about them, and perhaps, in the moment of parting from me, probably for ever, he would have given me the true account.  Whether I shall ever meet him again, or whether his manuscript narrative of his adventures in the Pelew Islands, which would be creditable to him and interesting to the world, will ever see the light, I cannot tell.  His is one of those cases which are more numerous than those suppose who have never lived anywhere but in their own homes, and never walked but in one line from their cradles to their graves.  We must come down from our heights, and leave our straight paths for the by-ways and low places of life, if we would learn truths by strong contrasts; and in hovels, in forecastles, and among our own outcasts in foreign lands, see what has been wrought among our fellow-creatures by accident, hardship, or vice.

Two days brought us to San Pedro, and two days more (to our no small joy) gave us our last view of that place, which was universally called the hell of California, and seemed designed in every way for the wear and tear of sailors.  Not even the last view could bring out one feeling of regret.  No thanks, thought I, as we left the hated shores in the distance, for the hours I have walked over your stones barefooted, with hides on my head; for the burdens I have carried up your steep, muddy hill; for the duckings in your surf; and for the long days and longer nights passed on your desolate hill, watching piles of hides, hearing the sharp bark of your eternal coyotes, and the dismal hooting of your owls.

As I bade good-bye to each successive place, I felt as though one link after another were struck from the chain of my servitude.  Having kept close in shore for the land-breeze, we passed the Mission of San Juan Capistrano the same night, and saw distinctly, by the bright moonlight, the cliff which I had gone down by a pair of halyards in search of a few paltry hides.

“Forsitan et haec olim,”

thought I, and took my last look of that place too.  And on the next morning we were under the point of San Diego.  The flood tide took us swiftly in, and we came to opposite our hide-house, and prepared to get everything in trim for a long stay.  This was our last port.  Here we were to discharge everything from the ship, clean her out, smoke her, take in our hides, wood, and water, and set sail for Boston.  While all this was doing, we were to lie still in one place, the port a safe one, and no fear of south-easters.  Accordingly, having picked out a good berth in the stream, with a smooth beach opposite for a landing-place, and within two cables’ length of our hide-house, we moored ship, unbent the sails, sent down the topgallant yards and the studding-sail booms, and housed the topgallant masts.  The boats were then hove out, and all the sails, the spare spars, the stores, the rigging not rove, and, in fact, everything which was not in daily use, sent ashore, and stowed away in the house.  Then went our hides and horns, and we hardly left anything in the ship but her ballast, and this we made preparations to heave out the next day.  At night, after we had knocked off, and were sitting round in the forecastle, smoking and talking and taking sailors’ pleasure, we congratulated ourselves upon being in that situation in which we had wished ourselves every time we had come into San Diego.  “If we were only here for the last time,” we had often said, “with our topgallant masts housed and our sails unbent!” and now we had our wish.  Six weeks, or two months, of the hardest work we had yet seen, but not the most disagreeable or trying, was before us, and then – “Good-bye to California!”  (216-217)