Two Years before the Mast

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Two Years before the Mast

by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.


Narrative set along the California coast from 1834 to 1836; published in 1840.


Richard Henry Dana, Jr. chronicles two years of his life as a merchant seaman on board a trade vessel voyaging from Boston to California and back.

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Takes Place

The Narrative in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Was Written

For More Information

Born into an illustrious and prosperous family, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. resisted an inclination to join the navy and instead entered Harvard College at age sixteen, in 1831. He, however, interrupted his studies after three years, leaving Harvard because of an eye ailment. At the time, New England merchant ships were sailing to California to take advantage of a recent trade boom along the Pacific Coast. Dana decided to become a seaman on one of these merchant ships. Two years later he returned to his studies at Harvard, graduated, and took up teaching and the study of law. It was while he was in law school that Dana completed Two Years before the Mast, a narrative in which he reported in vivid detail what day-to-day life was like for a merchant seaman of his era.

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Takes Place

Merchant ships of the 1830s

The period in which Dana grew up was one of marked changes in world shipping. The steamship was gradually being tested, improved, and put to use for longer voyages. Most of the world trade was still transported by sailing vessels, but these vessels, too, were changing, becoming larger and faster. In the 1830s, by far the largest number of ships visiting or leaving New England’s ports were brigs, two-masted, square-rigged wooden vessels. But various factors combined to push the brigs from their preeminent position. The competition for trade with China, which included transporting furs from the West Coast of North America, stimulated the development of a larger, slimmer ship, the clipper. A three-masted vessel outfitted with triangular sails, the clipper competed favorably with the steam-powered ships and could be managed by fewer crewmen. In Dana’s time, clippers of wood and metal were rapidly replacing the older brigs. These clippers were later replaced by steam-powered vessels.

The Pilgrim, the vessel on which Dana served, was a brig of considerable size, but at that time did not technically qualify as a “ship.” The ship designation was reserved for vessels with three or more masts. Richard Dana therefore sailed on a less than up-to-date vessel for his time, and one that required constant labor by its crew.

Sea trade in the 1830s

By the early 1800s, trade possibilities on the West Coast were well established. California was still a part of Mexico, but American fur traders had long moved about in the region and shipped furs to New England merchants and to China. As the fur trade began to be exhausted, new possibilities arose. Spain had claimed much of California by establishing a series of missions that stretched from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north. These missions, fueled largely by Indian labor, grew into agricultural and industrial centers operated by the Catholic Church. Twenty-one thriving missions were established between 1769 and 1830.


1769: Spain founds the first of a string of twenty-one missions. visible evidence of its claim to the territory

1821: Mexico gains independence from Spain

1822: Control of California shifts from Spain to Mexico

1834-40: Mexican government sells its large mission lands to private individuals, a process known as secularization.

Meanwhile, in 1810, Mexico made attempts to withdraw from Spanish rule. By 1821 Mexico was an independent nation that assumed control of California, which was soon divided into two provinces with capitals at Monterey and San Diego. The former rulers of the region, the Spanish, had established market centers at


In Two Years before the Mast, Dana recalls the conditions among the workers at one California mission: “We rode out to the Indian huts. The little children were running about amongst the huts, stark naked, and the men were not much better; but the women had generally coarse gowns, of a sort of tow cloth. The men are employed, most of the time, in tending the cattle of the mission, and in working in the garden, which is a very large one, including several acres, and filled, it is said, with the best fruits of the climate” (Dana, Two Years before the Mast, p. 173).

the missions and protected them with presidios (military bases). The new Mexican nation had little time to be concerned with the missions initially, but they soon realized their economic value and pushed for their military to succeed the Catholic Church as administrators of the missions. By the 1830s, the missions were beginning to fall under the control of the Mexican military and Mexican civilians. In 1831 Mexican Governor José María Encheandía officially placed the rule of the missions in government rather than church hands. The secularization of the missions had been ordered only two years before the Pilgrim appeared on the California coast. When the vessel arrived in California, it found a region beset by military-church tensions, and the influence of the church’s long-time rule was still very much evident.

New England leather

Back in New England, leather businesses were growing and in need of more raw material. The missions operated cattle enterprises that provided a good, if distant, source of leather for the New Englanders. Ships sailed from Boston, Massachusetts, around South America’s southern tip, Cape Horn, and back north to the coast of California. There they stopped at San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Monterey to bring back thousands of hides from the mission cattle ranches.

These voyages were high-risk ventures. The trip from Boston to California might take six or seven months, to which stops in ports for trading had to be added. Part of the journey was spent in the treacherous waters around the southern tip of South America, and the vessels had to stop for supplies at little-known South American ports. It was one of these long, hazardous trips for which Richard Dana signed on as a deck hand on the Pilgrim.

Two-way trade

The brigs left Boston heavily laden with trade goods. Much of the outgoing cargo consisted of leather goods that the New Englanders sold to Californians—shoes, belts, and hats manufactured from hides obtained in previous trading voyages. Californians bought not only leather goods but a variety of manufactured items, including coffees and teas, spices, jewelry, textiles, clothes, tools, and building materials, paying for the products in cattle hides rather than silver. In return the Californians sold more than cattle hides. Their mission cattle also produced tallow, a fat used to manufacture soaps, lubricants, candles, and margarine. California exported about a million hides and more than 60 million pounds of tallow between 1826 and 1848. California’s business leaders depended on the cheap, mostly forced labor of area Indians. The low cost of labor made their businesses very profitable.

The Narrative in Focus

The contents

On August 14, 1834, the merchant ship Pilgrim sets sail from Boston around the southernmost tip of South America, Cape Horn, to the coast of California. On board is Richard Henry Dana Jr., taking a two-year break from his college studies at Harvard to experience the life of a merchant sailor. Dana will later recount in painstaking detail what is expected of each and every man on board, explaining the duties of the officers and sailors alike.

Dana grows extremely ill during his first few days of sea life, but eventually adjusts to being on the merchant brig. He quickly realizes that a vessel needs constant maintenance and that a sailor’s work is never finished. Among the daily tasks are washing down the decks, coiling up the rigging, making and setting the sails, tarring the holes in the hull, and greasing, oiling, varnishing, scraping, and painting various portions of the vessel. Even when all major tasks are accomplished, the first mate keeps the sailors busy by having them spin yarn and ropes.

Besides the continual work, the seamen contend with the weather. A few days into the voyage the Pilgrim experiences a squall and the sailors must stay on constant watch. As the ship travels further into southern waters, dipping below the equator and around Cape Horn, more squalls occur. Dana recalls the leaky forecastle (a section of the upper deck, located at the bow in front of the foremast) and the misery of being soaked through to the skin for days on end. He remembers removing and putting on wet clothing as the storms persist. On one of the blackest days of the journey, two months into the voyage, a crew member falls overboard and disappears at sea. Aside from such danger, the crew members deal with daily hardships as well. So carefully rationed is the food that if the ship rocks and a sailor happens to drop his portion, there is no food available to replace it. In sympathy, though, fellow sailors shared their portions with any such unfortunate ones.

Despite the hard work and the sometimes unbearable weather, Dana records a few beautiful moments at sea:

The first time that I had heard the near breathing of whales…. Some of the watch were asleep, and the others were perfectly still, so that there was nothing to break the illusion, and I stood leaning over the bulwarks, listening to the slow breathings of the mighty creatures.

(Two Years before the Mast, p. 69)


Yet a sailor’s life is at best but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain. The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous.

(Two Years before the Mast, p. 94)

After a voyage of 150 days from Boston, the Pilgrim drops anchor off Santa Barbara on January 14, 1835. Dana describes the mission community’s adobe houses and tile roofs. At the Pilgrim’s next stop, Monterey, the trading begins. Dana gives detailed descriptions of the Californian men and women who are taken in small boats to the ships and allowed to browse through the cargo of merchandise from New England. He marvels at how easily the Californians pay for common goods that are priced far above what any Bostonian would pay.

The vessel spends several months traveling up and down the California coast, trading manufactured goods for silver and hides. Dana’s work changes when he goes ashore near the port of San Diego to live and cure hides for a time. It is at this point that he grows familiar with daily life in California, native peoples such as the Kanakan Indians, and the missions.

Dana observes that mission society is largely paternal, with the missionaries adopting a fatherly attitude to the Indians. The missionaries, though, resort to physical punishment when the mission Indians commit various offenses, defending this form of discipline as the only way they have of exerting control. In describing the Indians themselves, Dana reflects biases of his time. He notices that the Indian women and children perform much of the drudgery at the missions, but ignores the hunting and herding skills of the men, describing them as a lazy bunch that is more prone to drinking than the Mexicans of the area.


Haze is a word of frequent use on board ship…. It is very expressive to a sailor, and means to punish by hard work. Let an officer once say, “I’ll haze you,” and your fate is fixed. You will be “worked up,” if you are not a better man than he is.

(Two Years before the Mast, p. 94)

Dana and other crew members continue to cure hides at the port while their ship gathers additional hides along the coast. After several weeks, Dana grows anxious about when he will return home. It is rumored that the Pilgrim will not be returning to Boston soon. But its chief officer, Captain Thompson, gets assigned to the helm of another ship, the Alert, which plans to sail to Boston, carrying a full cargo of hides and tallow. Dana arranges to join the crew of the Alert, and it voyages around the treacherous Cape Horn in record time. Not only is the Alert much larger and better equipped than the Pilgrim, but it also enjoys a more harmonious crew; both the captain and the seamen respect the first mate, which was not the case on the Pilgrim. Just 135 days after leaving San Diego, California, the Alert arrives in Boston. On September 19, 1836, the crew leaves the ship. A year later, Dana begins to write his narrative.

Officers vs. the crew

In Two Years before the Mast, Dana notes that the camaraderie among the members of the crew was notable. Because these seamen were perpetually subjected to the mood swings of the captain and any disharmony that may or may not have existed between him and the first and second mates, they sustained a silent brotherhood among themselves. Their unity was also strengthened by the fact that officers exercised the right to discipline sailors on a whim.

To disobey an order, no matter how unreasonable, was regarded as pure insubordination or mutiny. A seaman would not disobey his superiors under any circumstances unless he was prepared to pay the price. In some cases, insubordination was punished by flogging (whipping). Dana’s narrative reports Captain Thompson as being in a particularly bad humor not long after entering Californian waters. Sam, a crew member who was slow in speech and motions but in Dana’s view a good sailor nonetheless, suffered the consequences of the captain’s bad mood. He was hazed for insignificant mistakes.

On one occasion the captain, already in a foul mood, was preparing to go ashore when he encountered Sam and became irate with him for no reason. When Sam protested, the captain decided to flog him. At hearing the shocking news, another sailor, John the Swede, asked the captain in earnest, “What are you going to flog this man for?” (Two Years before the Mast, p. 153). This questioning of the captain’s authority was enough to have John immediately thrown in irons and flogged following Sam. Dana expressed horror at the sound of the painful cries coming from his fellow sailors, whom the captain mercilessly whipped. Dana’s description of this flogging proved very influential in changing the maritime laws to better protect a sailor’s human rights.


There are no fictional characters in Dana’s narrative. All the people he wrote about were real, and he did not use pseudonyms. Drawn from his own personal experience, his narrative became a major source for later writers. Herman Melville drew from Dana’s account of his experiences as a sailor in order to compose his masterpiece Moby Dick. Other, less enduring works that were influenced by Dana’s narrative include Forty Years at Sea by William Nevens and A Voice from the Main Deck by Samuel Leech.

Events in History at the Time the Narrative Was Written


Four years after Dana’s return from sea, Two Years before the Mast was published. In that short period both shipping and California had changed drastically. Steamships had begun to travel across the Atlantic Ocean, although continued reservations about the reliability of steam power led many to fully rig their steamships as sailing vessels as well. Faster and trimmer sailboats appeared. By the start of the 1840s, easier-to-handle triangular sails were in use and experiments were underway to create metal hulls. Soon sailing vessels were strong enough to carry as many as seven masts. Such developments made a seaman’s work a little less difficult, and the size of the crews smaller. Two Years before the Mast thus documented an already disappearing era in which square-rigged sailing vessels had been dominant.

In California, control of the mission lands and cattle had shifted from the Catholic administrators to a few hundred ranchers. Mexico still ruled the region, but the westward movement of U.S. citizens was stimulating the growth of its non-Mexican population. The growing American population in the area, coupled with the country’s hunger to expand its land holdings, set the stage for the takeover of the area by the United States. In 1846 America declared war on Mexico. Two years later, in February 1848, the U.S. received California and a vast block of additional land at the conclusion of the Mexican War.

Life at sea

Conditions of the seamen had improved only slightly by 1840. Few land dwellers knew or cared about their plight. Dana, however, embarked on a mission to bring their working conditions to the attention of the public. In 1840 he began a law practice in Boston, and in 1841 he published The Seaman’s Friend, a book about the legal rights and duties of sailors. In fact, this was only one of Dana’s many writings concerning the rights of seamen. He became known as a sympathetic supporter of sailors, and seamen sometimes trooped into his law office for legal aid. These sailors sought help in a variety of areas. Some hoped to recover wages owed to them or sought to punish a captain who had flogged them, while others looked to Dana after fights with shipmates.

Dana’s Two Years before the Mast became one of the strongest weapons in the effort to publicize the plight of the journeyman sailor. During the early 1840s there was an increasing movement toward seamen’s reform. Public speakers promoted antiflogging legislation, and seaman’s aid societies praised Two Years before the Mast to further their cause. Dana’s book was touted as perhaps the only sea narrative based totally on fact and as one that portrayed sea life from the perspective of a seaman rather than a tourist or ship’s officer. For these reasons, it had an immediate impact.

The narrative as propaganda

The historian Robert F. Lucid addresses the issue of whether Two Years before the Mast truly influenced the reforms of maritime laws, or just simply served as propaganda for the reformists. He points out that although Dana describes the harsh action of flogging and the humiliation of the flogged sailors in sympathetic terms, he in no way makes a judgment regarding the actual legitimacy of flogging in his narrative. Nor does Dana ever advocate the abolishment of flogging. Yet Lucid notes that Dana’s reputation as a champion of seamen’s rights was fostered to a great extent by the publication of his personal narrative.


The laws of the United States provide that if any master or officer shall unjustifiably beat, wound, or imprison any of the crew, or withhold from them suitable food and nourishment, or inflict upon them any cruel or unusual punishment, he shall be imprisoned not exceeding five years and fined not exceeding $1000 for each offense.

(Dana, The Seaman’s Friend, p. 201)

Thanks largely to the publication of his book, Dana was lionized by various reform societies…. His career at the bar, furthermore, identified him to many as the champion of the rights of seamen... and the reputation which he made this way undoubtedly became inextricably bound up with his literary reputation…. He accomplished much. Credit for his accomplishments should go to him, and should not confuse the already vexing question of literature’s influence upon society.

(Lucid, pp. 402-03)

Reform took many years. Flogging continued to be administered at the discretion of the seaman’s superiors even after Dana’s death in 1882. Not until the passage of an act of Congress in 1898 were flogging and all other forms of physical punishment by a ship’s officers outlawed. The penalty for violating the new legislation was imprisonment.


The popularity and success of Two Years before the Mast was immediate, and the book went on to become one of the most highly regarded narratives in American history. Dana’s document was praised for its clean, lyrical literary style as well as for its powerful social commentary.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had conducted the grammar school in Cambridge that Dana attended in 1826, lavished praise for the work in the journal the Dial in 1840:

It will open the eyes of many to the conditions of the sailor, to the fearful waste of man, by which the luxuries of foreign climes are made to increase the amount of commercial wealth…. It will serve to hasten the day of reckoning between society and the sailor, which though late, will not fail to come.

(Emerson in Lucid, p. 392)

In 1869 Dana supplemented the narrative with a closing chapter entitled “Twenty Four Years After,” in which he recounts a trip back to the California coast in 1860. Continuing to revise the book, Dana issued three more amended versions of the manuscript. But his original 1840 version is the one lauded as a classic in narrative American literature.

For More Information

Adams, Charles Francis. Richard Henry Dana: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1890.

Bauer, K. Jack. A Maritime History of the United States: The Role of America’s Seas and Waterways. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Brooks, Van Wyck. The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865. New York: World, 1936.

Dana, Richard Henry, Jr. Two Years before the Mast. Boston: Harper & Bros., 1840.

Dana, Richard Henry, Jr. The Seaman’s Friend. 1851. Reprint. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholar’s Facsimiles & Reprints, 1979.

Lucid, Robert F. “Two Years before the Mast as Propaganda.” American Quarterly (December I960): 392-403.

Rolle, Andrew. California History. Arlington Heights, 111.: Harlan Davidson, 1963.