This Day In Writing History
On August 14th, 1834, the famous American writer Richard Henry Dana Jr. set sail from Boston, Massachusetts on an ocean journey where he would write his most famous book. His ship, the brig Pilgrim, was bound for California, which was still Mexican territory at the time.
Dana was a boy of nineteen when, like so many other young men, he heard the romantic call of the sea. He decided to keep a diary of his experiences as a sailor, which he would later turn into a book.
Two Years Before the Mast (1840) would prove to be one of the most popular and best selling non-fiction books of the 19th century, a classic work of American literature. It would inspire the legendary American writer Herman Melville to write his classic novel, Moby Dick (1851).
Before he signed on to the Pilgrim, Richard Henry Dana Jr. had envisioned life as a sailor to be a grand romantic adventure. The journey he chronicled in his diary was an adventure, but one fraught with hardship, ruthless oppression, and terror.
He quickly realized that "There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor's life." Common sailors were quartered "before the mast" - on the upper deck at the front of the ship.
While the captain and his main crew lived in comfortable quarters, common sailors were packed in like sardines and forced to brave the elements to do their work, which included standing outside on deck in the middle of storms to monitor the weather.
The captain was a cold blooded sadist and looked upon common sailors as expendable lower class scum. He beat them for pleasure, screaming at them, "If you want to know what I flog you for, I'll tell you... it's because I like to do it! Because I like to do it! It suits me! That's what I do it for!"
Although the captain had declared the Pilgrim a "temperance ship," he and his cronies kept a stock of rum for themselves. They also kept a stock of coffee, but denied the common sailors hot coffee to warm themselves in the freezing weather.
The journey took the Pilgrim and her crew around Cape Horn, where Richard Dana was awestruck by the "thundering sound" and "true sublimity" of the mammoth icebergs that seemed to surround his ship.
The Pilgrim was ill prepared for frozen waters and icebergs. One day, Dana, suffering from a badly infected tooth that swelled his mouth so much that he couldn't eat, went below deck for treatment. While recovering, he contemplated his situation.
"It was not easy to sleep," Dana wrote, "lying, as I did, with my head directly against the bows, which might be dashed in by an island of ice, brought down by the very next sea that struck her..."
When the Pilgrim landed on the coast of California, Dana explored the territory and got to know its people. In his book, he wrote the following about the people of 1830s Mexican California:
The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves. The country abounds in grapes, yet they buy bad wines made in Boston and brought round by us, at an immense price, and retail it among themselves at a real (12 1/2 cents) by the small wine-glass. Their hides, too, which they value at two dollars in money, they give for something which costs seventy-five cents in Boston; and buy shoes (like as not, made of their own hides, and which have been carried twice around Cape Horn) at three or four dollars...
After his two year tour of duty was over, Dana returned to Boston, where he would study law at Harvard and become a respected attorney specializing in maritime law. He defended many common sailors in court.
Dana's experiences on the Pilgrim instilled in him a deep compassion for the poor and oppressed. He was also a prominent and ferocious abolitionist. In 1840, the year he passed the bar, his classic book Two Years Before the Mast was published.
Richard Henry Dana Jr. would publish other non-fiction books and articles. In 1841, he published The Seaman's Friend, a handbook on seamanship and the legal rights and responsibilities of sailors. It became the standard textbook for all seamen.
Dana died of influenza in 1882 at the age of 66. His most famous book, Two Years Before the Mast, would be adapted as a feature film in 1946, co-starring Brian Donlevy as the author.
If you would like to download the free public domain e-book version of Richard Henry Dana Jr's classic book Two Years Before the Mast, you can find it at Munsey's Archive.
If you would like to download the free public domain unabridged audiobook version of Two Years Before the Mast, you can find it here at the LibriVox Archive.
Quote Of The Day
“Better to be driven out from among men than to be disliked by children.” - Richard Henry Dana Jr.
Today's video features the original theatrical trailer for the 1946 feature film adaptation of Richard Henry Dana Jr's classic book, Two Years Before the Mast. Enjoy!