One striking aspect of Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast is just how often the crew seemed to be on the brink of mutiny. At minimum, the crew was always searching for a way to avoid work but was always careful not to cross a line that would lead to violent confrontation (although this did not always work). This balking at work was called “work Tom Cox’s traverse” according to Dana. “Send a man below to get a block, and he would capsize everything before finding it, then not bring it up till an officer had called him twice, and take as much time to put things in order again.” (71) It also seems that the plotting of work avoidance was something discussed openly over meals in the forecastle. If liberty days would not be coming from the officers, the crews found ways to seize their own liberty day.
Much of the second section of Two Years Before the Mast covers the Pilgrim and its crew while it stayed on the California coast, trading and engaging in the hide business. We learn one of the greatest anxieties about sea voyages, particularly to the Pacific in these years, came from fears over the length of the voyage. It was never quite clear how long they would sail up and down the coast before returning home, or worst yet taking a trip to China or other Pacific ports. “All these little vexations and labors would have been nothing,–they would have been passed by the common evils of sea-life, which every sailor, who is a man, will go through without complaint,–were it not for the uncertainty, or worse then uncertainty, which hung over the nature and length of our voyage.” (87) It is strongly suggested that the information was held from the crew. At the very least, this was how the forecastle seemed to interpret their lack of information. The crews relied on rumors and innuendo to psychologically prepare for the unknown. Lack of communication about things so central to sailors life emerges as one of the major ways that the officers and captains maintained their power over the crews, but it was also one of the potential flashpoints that could lead to resistance. From the perspective of the sailors, a little more respect and openness would have made the voyage, its length, and its odious labor more acceptable. In a sense, they were asking for democratic values to be put in place on the ship.
That the sailors saw themselves as less than free is reflected most directly in chapter fifteen, which describes in brutal detail the confrontation between a “heavy-molded fellow from the Middle States” named Sam and the captain, who proceeded to whip Sam in front of the entire crew as punishment for he “jaw.” When a highly-respected sailor John the Swede, intervened he was also punished. Hitting hard is the heavily racialized language of the exchange, suggesting that the line between slavery and freedom on the ship was slight indeed. Sam protested: “I’m no negro slave.” And the captain replied: “Then I’ll make you one. . . Make a spread eagle of him! I’ll teach you all who is master aboard.” (96—97) After Dana explains in detail the horrors of flogging and the brutal impact it had on the fellow crew members who saw their “brother” abused and humiliated, Dana reveals how the captain relishes the entire display, again in heavily racist language. “I’ll make you toe the mark, every soul of you, or I’ll flog you all, fore and aft, from the boy, up! – You’ve got a driver over you! Yes, a slave driver—a negro-driver! I’ll see who’ll tell me he is n’t a negro slave!” (99-100) And then, almost mundanely, Dana describes the next days labors, which went on smoothly except for the “dark hole” that hovered over the forecastle, the realization that they all lived under a tyranny. The flogging remained an unspoken reality for weeks on the ship. Anyone who brought it up was shut down by the crew, but it was the most present truth for that part of the voyage and perhaps the central even in the entire narrative.
I suppose I only want to say one more thing about the central part of Two Years Before the Mast. The California coast, due in part to Spanish colonization and the arrival of intense merchant shipping activity, was incredibly diverse and vibrant. Near the hide-processing stations where Dana and the crew worked for long months lived Spaniards, Indians, Hawaiians (Sandwich Island Kanakas), and members of merchant ship crews from may European nations as well as the United States. This required a great degree of cultural flexibility of the crew that Dana presents in striking contrast to the hierarchical and singular nature of the powerful, such as his captain. “The greater part of the crews of the vessel came ashore every evening, and we passed the time in going about from one house to another, and listening to all manner of languages. The Spanish was the common ground upon which we all met; for everyone one knew more or less of that. We have now, out of forty or fifty representatives from almost every nation under the sun: two Englishmen, three Yankees, two Scotchmen, two Welshmen, one Irishman, three Frenchmen. . . one Dutchman, one Austrian, two or three Spaniards, half a dozen Spanish-Americans and half-breeds, two native Indians from Chili and the Island of Chilow, one Negro, one Mulatto, about twenty Italians, from all parts of Italy, as many more Sandwich Islanders, one Otaheitan, and one Kanaka from the Marquesas Islands.” (153) What brought these people together was global capitalism on the California coast. They came by different means and via different land and maritime empires but they all reached the coast in service of the God of capital. That service, reflected in never-ending labor and brutal discipline (verging as we have seen toward slavery) was the glue that brought this diverse lot together. Their cultural flexibility, creativity, and openness is striking and, it seems to me, a useful alternative to the mutual indifference and cultural isolation (albeit with the enforcement of respect) of multiculturalism. Let’s call it solidarity.
Of course there is much more of interest, including his detailed descriptions of the work regimen in the hide trade and the social life in the California settlements (he is brilliant on the relative social and sexual freedom of Spanish-American women). I may get to some of those questions in my next post.