Richard Henry Dana, “Two Years Before the Mast” Conclusion

The final sections of Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana take us back to sea after a long hiatus on the diverse and changing California coast, where he and the crew of the Pilgrim engaged in the arduous labor of preparing hides. We saw in those sections the origins, perhaps, of global capitalism in California—a region that would help lay the foundation for America’s Pacific empire. In the last chapters, Dana takes a closer look at sailor culture, particularly the role of sailor songs. The class war (rooted in the hierarchical organization and absolute authority of ship masters), described so impressively in the early chapters, remains as well.  It is also notable that Dana shifted to another ship for the return voyage (the Alert). This shows us that the experiences he had on the Pilgrim were not unique but rather representative of life on the American merchant ship in the “age of sail.”


Dana concludes his work with a list of recommendations for the reform of sailor’s life. While he had his problems with hierarchical domination on the ship, he was not in favor of overturning the system entirely. Perhaps he was not on the ship long enough to understand that sailors are perfectly capable of self-rule (18th century piracy suggests this). Instead of being a revolutionary document, the final chapter is more suggestive of the antebellum social and moral reform movements that touched so many areas of American society.

He begins with the romantic image of the sea and suggests freedom is a better way to provide the maritime workforce than slavery. “There is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship, and the sailor’s dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchantmen, than all the pressgangs of Europe.” (347) This romanticism is juxtaposed to the tyranny and violence inflicted on that volunteer workforce. (Perhaps not unlike the academic workforce.  We get drawn in by the romance when we are young and by the time we are my age we realize how vile the institutions we once loved are.)  He falls short on advocating democracy as a solution.  The sea, Dana suggests, is not the proper place for democratic values to be lived.  “It is absolutely necessary that there should be one head and one voice, to control everything, and be responsible for everything.” (348) That he would not say this for a nation, I have no doubt.  The sea is a unique place and any interference with resource distribution or the authority of a master might be troublesome in the future. At the same time, he provides evidence that captains and masters often go too far. They act better when passengers are on the ship. Depositions by sailors document abuse after abuse. If a ship works fine with censored and restrained authority when passengers are on board, why not when the captains are free from such surveillance?

Another problem he mentions with authority is perhaps at first glance a contradiction.  The captains tend to come from the forecastle and have poor backgrounds but have been placed in a position as representatives and agents of the elite.  They are akin to our era’s middle management (but instead of pink slips and HR departments they had a lash).

His essential solution to these difficulties is a greater fairness in law.  Dana—who became a lawyer for seamen—sees ultimately a statist solution to the lawlessness of the sea.

In this final chapter, Dana also discusses at length the civilian efforts to improve the lives of sailors such as the Sailors’ Homes, the Bethals, and the American Seamen’s Friend Society.  Dana lavishes praise on these institutions for their work in creating solid institutions of support and religious instruction. He is convinced that sailors are religious and find in the Bible support and meaning for their life, but that the social conditions of maritime work make it impossible for them to live a religious life, making the Bethals essential. He hopes that more religious captains will help.

In short, after documenting the intense solidarity among sailors at sea, their capacity to run the ship, their knowledge, their culture and their common struggles, as well as the brutality of the authority of the ship masters, proposes a series of reforms that miss the revolutionary potential of democracy at the sea.  The reason why this has not been achieved, it seems to me, is that the seas are not the place where people establish themselves to live. Its exploration and exploitation have largely – but not entirely – been done in the interests of capital. The workplace and the economy is the last place that tends to be democratic for it is at this location that our concept of freedom is most confused. As so-called libertarians (the anarcho-capitalist stypes) seem to think, property and the defense of it in law cannot be a tool of oppression and force. Clearly, history proves this false. As long as our seas are the realm of capital, work, and exploitation of natural resources and people, it will be hostile to democracy.
This edition of Two Years Before the Mast also includes an appendix called “Twenty-Four Years Later,” which comes from his 1859-1860 tour of the world.  I will examine his diary of this in a few days as it is included in the Library of America volume, but a few words on its place as part of the book is warranted.  His main interest in exploring the old places he worked at in California.  He even meets some of his old acquaintances (who must have each endured some fame from their inclusion in the popular work). Most striking to Dana is the rapid development of San Francisco, from a small fort into a major Pacific city, looking outward as an entry point for the American empire.

San Francisco, in 1860, looking out on the American empire

San Francisco, in 1860, looking out on the American empire

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