Two Years Before the Mast

by Richard Henry Dana

Hardcover, 1949

Call number




International Collectors Library (1949), 368 pages


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.

Media reviews

Almost two centuries later, we are all made richer by Dana's classic memoir, "Two Years Before the Mast," which is among the finest books ever written about the immensely popular subject of adventure at sea, and is as relevant and readable today as it was then.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Stbalbach
This is an American classic. In its day was one of the most widely read, and important, books ever published. It recounts a young Harvard mans decision to take time off school and "cut his teeth" aboard a merchant sailing vessel on a 2-year tour to California between 1834-1836. He lived "before the
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mast", meaning his quarters were up forward with the lowly grunts, where he had no special privileges, the captains and mates quarters behind the mast. Dana set out to live just like a line sailor, but also secretly document the poor conditions sailors lived under - he would go on to become a famous Boston lawyer who fought for sailors rights.

The story is a chronological narrative of the journey around Cape Horn, arriving in California, years spent collecting and processing cow hides, journey home again around Cape Horn. Life aboard a sailing vessel was often extraordinary as a matter of course and so the day to day events are fascinating. The dangers of the sea and sailing, the relations of the crew and officers, the unusual ships and people met along the way, the technical jargon of sailing. It is very well written, vivid and accurate, a better and more believable description of a seaman's life I've never read.

What makes the book so important is that Dana's book is the first to describe California, very few Americans had ever been to California. He went from port to port and details a lot about specific places like San Diego, San Francisco, Monterey, etc.. in the 1830s these "ports", at the largest, were settlements of a few hundred Mexicans and Indians and utter wilderness around. San Francisco had one American, and one building. When gold was found the 49ers went west and Dana's book was the bible for describing what California was like. When Dana returned to San Francisco in 1856, it was a city of over 100,000 and he was famous, just about everyone in the city had read it. The descriptions of places just before the mass migrations began, while it was still wilderness, are fascinating. The last chapter fast forwards 24 years later as a postscript when Dana returns to California and describes his own astonishment at the modern changes, and recounts what happened to all the people he knew along the way.
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LibraryThing member jveezer
Living in San Juan Capistrano, this book is required reading for the kids in our schools. Dana's name is all over the place...Dana Point, Dana Hills High School, etc.
After 18 years here I finally got around to reading it. I found it very interesting both from the picture of life aboard a sailing
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ship and for its picture of California before the gold rush brought the first great wave of (American) change to California. I've always been one to wonder how a given place was before settlement, development, and fences came, so I really liked that part of the book. San Francisco was a single trading post, Santa Barbara and Monterey the main cities on the coast, San Pedro just a (questionable) place to anchor and take an stagecoach ride to Rancho Los Angeles, just the Mission in my home of San Juan, and San Diego basically a small trading town with a great harbor.
My edition also has the (20?) years after epilogue at the end that talks of his return to the coast and the changes that had occured.
This is a great book for those interested in what coastal California was like as part of Mexico, and of course, for those interested in sailing and seafaring tales.
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LibraryThing member jjmcgaffey
It dragged a bit in the middle, but I found it very interesting. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the California coast; the afterword with the description of the same area in 1859 was fascinating. The descriptions of the ship-board work rapidly lost me - studding-sails and top-gallant
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masts and various yards blend together in my mind and I have no idea what was actually going on. The e-version I had was lacking images - the foreword promised diagrams of the sails and rigging, but I didn't get them. The characters were interesting and beautifully depicted. I really wish Dana had continued writing, though his son explains what occupied his time instead (in a second afterword).
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LibraryThing member jshrop
I love Dana's Two Years Before the Mast not only for its look into the working life aboard merchant ships but also for the glimpse of pre-statehood California. This memoir was groundbreaking in its time, with the general middle class of colonial/Eastern knowing little of the actual conditions to
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the sailors aboard a merchant vessel. It describes in detail the extreme latitude that captains took with little or no consequence once the vessel was out of its home port. Through all the indignities suffered by merchant seamen, once back home it was very difficult to call to task a captain in the court of law and receive any remedy for unlawful actions while at sea. Dana's account, with being an ivy league educated person of some class stature, had more weight that made shipping companies, their owners, and the general public aware of the indignities that were occurring.

In terms of literature itself, Dana's journaling is well written, and lends a certain style to his narrative that could otherwise be a boring list of things, and people and places. The way in which he describes the vistas of California, especially place I have been myself, make me feel a nostalgia for the time of sea going trade and feel the same romanticism that seemed to pull Dana to sign on as a merchant sailor in the first place, instead of take a leisurely tour of Europe post graduation from Harvard.

While his account really only gives the first hand account of two different Captains, you can see the vast difference from over zealous warden to respectful but disciplined employer and really get a quick picture of how the life of the average working sailor was greatly affected by the demeanor of its captain. We are lucky to have this account, which was so regarded for its description of California that it became the defacto book during the gold rush days and made Dana somewhat a celebrity when he revisited San Francisco 24 years later.

I think this should be on everyone's radar to read at least once, and that people who live in and love California particularly should be acquainted with Two Years Before the Mast.
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LibraryThing member la2bkk
Mr. Dana's writing style (sometimes charming, sometimes fascinating but most often tedious) perhaps unintentionally provides the reader with a true feel for 19th century sailor's life on the sea.

I would have rated this work much higher if it were half its length. That said, he provides an
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invaluable insight into early Californian history, and for that reason alone should not be missed.
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LibraryThing member Pondlife
This is the true story of R.H. Dana's two years as a common sailor. The "before the mast" refers to the sailor's quarters in the forecastle. The book is based on the diary he kept during the voyage.

R.H. Dana was from a good family, and was an undergraduate at Harvard when he had an attack of
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measles which affected his eyesight. He was unable to read, and decided to enlist as a merchant seaman to rest his eyes and give himself something to do.

The book recounts the voyage from Boston to California, the time in California going from port to port and loading cow hides, and the voyage back to Boston. The sea voyages are by far the most interesting parts of the book, especially the return voyage around cape horn, which is vividly portrayed. By contrast, the time in California gets a bit monotonous, and I think should have been summarised.
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LibraryThing member RMMee
It is difficult to give any objective reasons why I enjoyed this book so much. It has so much unusual terminology in it, that, despite a glossary and a diagram of a ship's rigging, it is often confusing. It does not describe an era or a location that I have any particular interest in (in fact the
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opposite - I tend to shun books which are totally American). But it is nevertheless a rivetting read. The prose flies, in the same way that the sails took the wind, and the reader wants to know what happens next. From a social history perspective, it is, without doubt, a pretty unique example, covering life for those "before the mast".

I first read this book almost 40 years ago, as a teenager. I enjoyed it then, and I have enjoyed it now. Thoroughly recommended!
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LibraryThing member JudyGibson
I can't believe I stayed awake until 11:30 last night, reading. I've been totally blown away by Two Years Before the Mast. Somebody at work mentioned it to me a month or so ago (now I don't remember who it was, but thank you so much!) Always assumed it was "just" a sea story, but it's the history
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(1830s) of MY southern California.

I'm not sure what grabbed me so strongly from the first page to the last. One of my interests is narratives of 19th century scientific (which this was not) exploration, fascinated by how hard people had to work to get to places where today we just hop a truck or a plane--of course the really interesting places still are not so easy. So there was that. But I guess the real draw was the extensive look at California at the time of the decline of the missions, before the gold rush brought the whole world here. Living my whole life in San Diego, these places are the cities and beaches I know. Fascinating. I could go on and on, but I just did, didn't I?
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LibraryThing member pmtracy
I never thought I'd enjoy a book about sailing, especially from the early 1800s, but this was a really good book! Once I got past the technical sailing jargon (and there's a lot) I really appreciated the look into the life of a career sailor of the time and the hardships they endured. (Guys, they
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had to make all of their own clothes...using canvas and tar.) The details of the year spent in California as it was still part of Mexico was pretty captivating. Apparently they didn't treat the native people any better than the Anglos. (I read this as part of Harvard Classics, v.23)
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LibraryThing member MaowangVater
After two years of study at Harvard, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., a young man from a well to do Boston family found that his eyes were failing him. Recommended to give them a rest from constantly pouring over his books, he took a break from college and in 1834 shipped aboard the brig Pilgrim as an
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ordinary seaman. The Pilgrim was bound for the Spanish colony of California to collect horse hides and return them to Boston where they would provide leather for shoes and clothing. Since California was on the other side of the American continent this required a voyage of several years, including two crossing of the equator and twice rounding the treacherous seas off Cape Horn before returning home.

Dana who when on to finish his degree and practice law, used his journal from his voyage to describe the seafaring life as from the perspective of the men who scrambled up the masts to tend the sails, then went below to cramped and damp quarters below decks in the front of the ship, that is, “before the mast,” in four hour watches to carry out the orders of the officers, and often the capricious commands of a novice and cruel captain whose rule was absolute. Since he felt that previous novels describing life at sea romanticized the experience, he wrote his account to provide "a voice from the sea," that accurately reported the grueling as well as the glamorous aspects of it.

Not only does he do this, but he also provides an extensive description of the tedious and back breaking work of hide hauling and curing on the rugged frontier of California. In addition to recording the work he and his shipmates did, he also tells of the missions, the primitive living conditions, and the social life of California’s inhabitants, native, Mexican, and foreigners from England, Portugal, and the United States, as he travels from port to port and even to such far and desolate outposts like San Francisco, a beach with only a single wooden shack. In his 1869 appendix "Twenty-Four Years After" to the original 1840 edition he marvels at how post-Gold Rush and post-Civil War this desolate spot on the coast, now part of the United States, could become a metropolis of 100,000 inhabitants.
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LibraryThing member threadnsong
A very, very good book with such detail about ships and sailing and masts and jibs and what-not. Young Richard Dana find that his life has left him with no choice but to enlist in the Merchant Marines. I've heard that term and never really understood what it meant until now. The ship to which he
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signed sailed cattle hides from California to Boston. And it sailed out of Boston in 1834, before the railroads were built.

Dana was college-educated and kept a detailed diary on which he based this book. He does not shy away from his first days with sea-sickness, to the quarters where he and his shipmates lived and slept on hammocks, to the times of watches and what was expected, to the perils they encountered bringing hides from one port of California to the other where they were stored prior to shipment. His descriptions as well of how a sailing vessel was laid out, the masts, the work of furling and unfurling sails in all kinds of weather (such as rounding Cape Horn in the Antarctic winter), keeping watch, and how sailors ate were exacting and well-written.

He also goes into great detail about how the hides were "droughed" (carried on the head) to the rowboats from the various ports to the ship, transported to port where they were again off-loaded to be stored until a certain tonnage was achieved. The tonnage was determined by the company to whom Dana and the ship were contracted for the duration of the voyage; hence the "Merchant Marines," as they were sailing from the port of Boston to ports in California, in order to provide goods (in this case, hides) for the company that owned the ship and saw to their pay.

And yes, there is a flogging on board the ship, as is an attempt to force Dana into greater time on board his old ship from his new one, leading to a life of sailing instead of a point in time worked as a sailor. The descriptions of California and its coast, when it was still a Mexican territory, are fantastic and make me a bit sad for what we have lost over the centuries with Development and Progress.

The troubling parts of this book, though, are the ethnocentrism. He refers to the inhabitants of the various coastal cities, both Mexican and Native Americans, as lazy, as half-hearted in their work (which, yes, means the same thing), and as something wholly "other" than his Yankee work ethic. He makes a distinction between the Mexicans and the Spanish, giving a bit higher recognition to the Spanish, who had colonized California originally. Strangely, though, he has good rapport with the Sandwich Islanders (modern Hawa'ii) and even helps save one from the disease that they too often caught from interaction with the White voyagers (the disease is not named but was probably not smallpox by the description).

All in all a good book and most deservedly a classic of literature.
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LibraryThing member HenriMoreaux
An amazing glimpse into 1800s, this is the autobiographical account of two years in the life of Richard Henry Dana from 1834 to 1836.

Leaving America he sails on the Pilgrim and its voyage heads from Boston to South America and around Cape Horn to California where he spends a season in San Diego
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preparing hides. He then boards the Alert for the return journey as the Pilgrim was not due to return for another 12 months.

The book is written in the language of the day at at times can be quite formal compared to the writing of today, that being said, it isn't at all a difficult book to read.

The descriptions of life at sea, corporal punishment, 1830s California, people and circumstances are all an interesting window into the past making it worth reading even if one is not particularly interested in sailing itself.

An enjoyable non fiction read.
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LibraryThing member knownever
Highly enjoyable despite being packed with sailing jargon and almost entirely lacking any narrative tension. Also, it doesn't have as much flogging as it could, but what can you do? Still a fun world to live in for the duration.
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Richard Henry Dana tells the story of his trip, subtitled "A Sailor's Life at Sea", in the brig Pilgrim out of Boston in 1834. Only 19 years old, the Harvard student signed on as a deck hand. For the next two years he experienced a sailor's rugged life, traveling around Cape Horn, visiting Mexico's
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California territory a full 15 years before it became a U.S. state, and returning home in 1836. The Pilgrim was 'a swearing ship', in which the brutal and choleric Captain Thompson imposed his discipline by bad language, and the Sabbath, normally a kind of token rest day for the crew, was never observed, except by the black African cook reading his bible all day alone in his galley. Apparently Captain Thompson was from the same mold as Herman Wouk's Captain Queeg.
The everyday details of his journey are surprisingly vivid. On their first week at sea, they spot a pirate ship, and must outrun it on a moonless night. Dolphins follow the ship as it heads for Cape Horn. The Captain's patience is tried by a lazy first mate who refuses to watch for icebergs. And when a man falls overboard, the captain must assure the crew that a thorough search was conducted. It is an exciting story made interesting by the well-educated young man who chose to go to sea as a shipmate 'before the mast' rather than a cabin passenger in the officers' quarters.
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LibraryThing member keylawk
This is an abridgment adapted for children's reading, with enlarged print and realistically drawn illustrations. The adaptor does not hold back on the scenes of cruelty--for example in the whipping and subordinate abuse performed by the psychopathic Captain of the good ship Pilgrim.
LibraryThing member tzelman
Entirely engrossing account of sea-voyaging to California in 1836 to collect and prepare hides
LibraryThing member need2sleep
Excellent book. Even though written several generations ago, the prose was fresh and easy to read. Wonderful desciption of life at sea during the time of sailing merchant vessels without being overdone with flowery language.
LibraryThing member TizzzieLish
A journey from Boston around South America, then traveling the west coast of California before it was part of America - they were buying hides and selling goods.
#14 on the National Geographic Adventure list of “The 100 greatest adventure books of all time”
I read it aloud some years ago with my
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son when he was in 7th grade. Well written, though sometimes we got stuck in the description of the rigging - our copy would have benefited from a diagram of the ship's rigging. Since we were living in California it was very interesting to read about the early history of Los Angeles and other coastal cities.
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LibraryThing member MrsLee
I read this aloud to my children when we were studying California history. It is a fascinating story written as a memoir of a young man who went to sea as a way to cure his weak eyes! It was a rough wake-up call for him, but he became a man and his eyes improved. He details life aboard a sailing
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ship in the 1800s. His description of the trip around the Horn is harrowing. I don't know how anyone survived, let alone did it more than once. Very interesting chapters on buying hides of beef in California, visiting the Missions and the Ranchos.
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LibraryThing member OwlCat
I used to live near Dana Point, California so enjoyed reading about its early days and Richard Henry Dana's time there skinning hides. Interesting narrative of a student's year off from his studies at Harvard -- two years sailing to California and back. Dana was an educated man of privilege who
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wrote about the hard life of the sailor. For the most part he was one of the men, but given that his family had connections to the owners, and that he planned to only live this life temporarily, his lot was not quite as hard as the others', but he tried as much as possible to pull his weight and be one of the ordinary sailors.
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LibraryThing member glenline
There has never been a more graphic description of working on a sailing vessel. This is a classic that describes something that was quite common for the times but will never be done the same way again.
LibraryThing member antiquary
I have read only the parts on California, but found them very vivid, though perhaps unjust to the Californios.
LibraryThing member amerynth
Richard Henry Dana's book "Two Years Before the Mast" actually did remind me of the ocean -- my interest level in the book ebbed and flowed like the tides. I found much of his tale of sailing to be somewhat mundane, but every once in a while, he'll get into a story about a crew member that is
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utterly fascinating. I particularly enjoyed reading about his experiences in wild California... which was the very highlight of the book for me. Overall, this book would be best for someone with a particular interest in sailing (as opposed to a general interest in exploration.)
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LibraryThing member corinneblackmer
A harrowing tale of the life of a common sailor in 1840. The author, an undergraduate at Harvard, took to the sea because he thought it might improve his eyesight (after a bout with measles). The work is backbreaking; his witness to a flogging and the merciless discipline of the sea unforgettable.
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He returns two years later and, as he says, just in time before the brutality of the life of a common sailor would have consumed and overtaken him permanently. A moving plea for more compassionate treatment of common workers.
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LibraryThing member marshapetry
Before California was LA and Hollywood and sunshine everywhere it was just hard work and missionaries... and to see the land as they saw it is an absolute treat. This won't win any literary writing awards but, wow, just to "see" the land as they did is a gift. The drudgery, the poverty, the ...
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mud... wild.
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