Wednesday, 16 December 2015 11:34

Writers for Conservatives, 49 - Two Years Before the Mast

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Writers for Conservatives, 49 - Two Years Before the Mast

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. He writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Beginning his third year at Harvard, Richard Dana, of distinguished New England ancestry, contracted measles that affected his eyesight. Facing the tedium of a long convalescence, he chose to embark as a common sailor aboard the brig Pilgrim, sailing to California for trading purposes. Returning to Boston in 1836 after two years, he resumed his studies, graduated and went on to law school, during which he wrote this account of the voyage, published in 1840. Shipboard life had never been described from such a viewpoint. It was a great success, and it is rightfully regarded as an American classic.

What makes the book so interesting is Dana's character: he's intelligent, curious, sensitive, warmhearted, strong-minded, and amazingly adaptable, but what makes his character clear to us is the writing style, which is clear, concise, unambiguous, supple, and sensitive. Nothing is vague or false. Dana's prose is not so subtle as Thoreau's nor so masterful as Teddy Roosevelt's, but it is in that tradition.

Of course he is seasick at first and unused to the labor, but he knows how important it is for him, privileged and educated, to be seen sharing the common burdens, and he soon catches on and becomes inured to the work, and later even volunteers for hazardous tasks. His account of the sailing is exciting, even breathtaking, as when he describes furling a frozen topsail high above the pitching deck, at night in a gale off Cape Horn. To most of us today the names and functions of the sails and rigging must be opaque, but by naming them and describing the sailor's efforts we get a vivid sense of the tasks and the whole voyage.

Beside the voyage itself and the incidents of life aboard ship, the book is fascinating because it is a full account of life in California, then a sparsely settled province of Mexico. The brig is engaged in trade, selling goods from an improvised store set up in the ship.

Our cargo was an assorted one; that is, it consisted of everything under the sun. We had spirits of all kinds (sold by the cask), teas, coffee, sugars, spices, raisins, molasses, hardware, crockery-ware, tinware, cutlery, clothing of all kinds, boots and shoes from Lynn, calicoes and cottons from Lowell, crepes, silks; also shawls, scarfs, necklaces, jewelry, and combs for the ladies; furniture; and in fact, everything that can be imagined, from Chinese fire-works to English cart-wheels - of which we had a dozen pairs with their iron rims on.

The sailors are kept busy freighting customers and their purchases back and forth from ship to shore, but their main activity is collecting cowhides (as well as tallow and horns) for shipment back to Boston. Hides were the main product of California then, and some idea of the commerce will be gained when you know that the ship on which Dana returned home was heavily laden with 40,000 hides. The inland missions were the sellers. There the cattle were slaughtered, the hides were dried, and then they were transported to the shore where ships picked them up to take them to San Diego where they were cleaned, cured and stored in large warehouses. It was the job of the brig (and other ships from other buyers) to sail up and down the coast, trading and collecting hides.

It must be kept in mind that the places where the sailors pick up the hides, the ports so to speak - Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Diego, San Francisco - were insignificant, merely open beaches. The small population lived inland at the mission or presidios. But at San Juan they must toil up a steep hill, 400 feet high, carrying trade goods, and then they have to throw the hides downhill to the shore.

Down this height we pitched the hides, throwing them as far into the air as we could; and they were all large, stiff, and doubled, like the cover of a book. The wind took them and they swayed and eddied about, plunging and rising in the air, like a kite when it has broken its string. As it was now low tide, there was no danger of their falling into the water, and as fast as they came to ground, the men below picked them up, and taking them on their heads, walked off with them to the boat. It was really a picturesque sight: the great height; the scaling of the hides; and the continual walking to and fro of the men, who looked like mites, on the beach! This was the romance of hide-droghing!

Ashore on liberty, the sailors walk inland to San Diego and immediately go to a pulperia, a crude saloon, and here Dana displays his tact. He and his Boston friend want to go horseback riding, but he knows that if they don't follow the drinking customs of their shipmates (paying for a round) they'll be looked at askance as effete snobs. So they pay their dues, as it were, and go riding afterwards.

The fine air of the afternoon; the rapid rate of the animals, who seemed almost to fly over the ground; and the excitement and novelty of the motion to us, who had been so long confined on shipboard, were exhilarating beyond expression, and we felt willing to ride all day long.

Dana is always alert to the life around him on his occasional days of liberty, and when he is put ashore in San Diego for four months to help with the curing of the hides we learn a great deal more. There are six workers: Dana, a Frenchman, and four Kanakas from Hawaii, or as they were called then, the Sandwich Islands; the author explains them (he had great respect for them) as well as the task, thus pleasing this reader at least (I am always vexed when a writer mentions a procedure but doesn't explain it). First they soak the hides in seawater for two days, then they immerse them in vats filled with a very salty brine for another two days. They stake them out to dry, trimming and cleaning them, finally scraping the hides to remove any grease. They are beaten with flails to remove any dust and then are stacked in the warehouse. Each man processed twenty-five hides each day. Having approximately the same amount of work to do every day and leisure afterwards, they worked with a will, finishing early in the afternoon. Dana spent most of his spare time reading, writing, and mending his clothes. They kept a horse that they used to catch others for rides about the country and to the presidio.

He goes back to sea duty at the end of the summer by joining the crew of the Catalina, where he meets new shipmates, men of varied, even amazing, backgrounds, not uncommon at a time when ship's crews were composed of men from all over the world.

When they sail for home down the coast of South America, they reach Cape Horn in the depth of the southern winter, a fearsome time, and Dana's account of their passage is hair-raising.

The final chapter tells of his visit to California in 1859, of course registering the profound changes wrought in those twenty some years.

Dana became a distinguished lawyer, known for his advocacy of seamen's rights, and Lincoln appointed him U.S. District Attorney of Massachusetts. He argued before the Supreme Court the famous "Prize Cases" dealing with the depredations of the Confederate commerce raiders built in Great Britain during the Civil War. He died in 1882, full of honors, but he is best remembered for what he did and wrote about when he was a twenty-year-old sailor. *

Read 1772 times Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2015 17:34
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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