Richard Henry Dana, “To Cuba and Back” (1859)

Richard Henry Dana’s To Cuba and Back parallels Two Years Before the Mast on almost every thematic level, although it was written a quarter of a century later. One could almost say that Dana did not develop any new ideas, but was just able to apply them in different arenas. As a full-time lawyer, I am not going to blame him for not being a philosopher; he probably did more to improve the lives of seamen in the United States than anyone else of his generation, through his actions in print and in the courthouses. Dana spent most of 1859 and 1860 abroad on two trips. The first was a short one to Cuba. The second trip was his trip around the world. Such trips were popular at the time. Mark Twain has his, as did President Grant. They seem to reflect the growing power of the United States abroad and can be a useful window into the rise of the U.S. empire.
To Cuba and Back is a short book—around 100 pages—on the Cuba trip. I will suggest that Cuba seems like a merchant ship at large. It is a bastion of tyranny and arbitrary authority in a democratic climate. The parallels work in other ways, too. Cuba, like the merchant ship, was culturally and racially diverse. It has a rich working class culture, based on that diversity, but the power was in the hands of a small, racially homogenous elite. Furthermore, Dana witnessed horrible brutality on both the ship and during his visit to Cuba. Finally, the Cuban economy was closely tied to the emergence of global capitalism and global markets, just like the merchant ship.


So, the same dilemma exists as did on the Pilgrim. How does one bring democracy to an area, where the profit motive and the needs of capital are uncontested. As we will recall, Dana did not quite think in these terms. He hoped simply to bring legal reforms to the sea and carry the institutions that were supposedly to protect workers on land to the sea. Of course, the problem was much larger in Cuba, which was a plantation society driven by slave and coolie labor.

Dana spends numerous pages detailing this labor regimen and the various parts of the plantation workforce in To Cuba There and Back. In one chapter he details the accounts of an average plantation, showing how the profit margin seemed to require intense exploitation of the captive labor force there, but also suggests that much of the overhead was in maintaining the hierarchy of the workplace. Like the ship master, Dana is not entirely unsympathetic to the plantation owners. He attempts some empathy at their dilemma. “If the master of a plantation is faithful and thorough, will tolerate no misconduct or imposition, and yet is humane and watchful over the interests and rights, as well as the duties of his negroes, he has a hard and anxious life. Sickness to be ministered to, the feigning of sickness to be counteracted, rights of the slaves to be secured against other negroes, as well as against whites, with a poor chance of getting at the truth from either; the obligations of the negro quasi marriage to be enforced against all the sensual and childish tendencies of the race.” (473) He goes on at some length together at this subtle line between benevolence and authoritarianism, making it clear few if any can navigate the line. Yet, like on the ship, he desires some grand bargain based on mutual self-interest. “All are at sea together,” he concludes. Never does he suggest tearing down the plantation system itself. As with his opinion of the ship, a radical restructuring of power is impossible. We should instead make it easier for the powerful to do the right thing.

Dana knewperfectly well that Cuba in 1859 is an autocracy of the landed elite. Certainly the situation in his own country affected his feelings about the land he visited. In many ways he is describing a blurred mirror image of the American South. “The African and Chinese do the manual labor; the Cubans hold the land and the capital, and direct agricultural industry; the commerce is shared between the Cubans, and foreigners of all nations; and the government, civil and military, is exercised by the citizens of Old Spain.” (481) Certainly not the same as the South (especially in the role of a foreign power) but familiar enough in its basic inequality, a society divided between workers and land owners.

Havana in 1860

Havana in 1860

Dana points out that the violence of the economy paralleled the violence of the Cuban culture, which he often admired but from time to time stood horrified of. “But such you are! You can cry and howl at bull-fights and cock-fights and in the pits of operas and theatres, and drive bulls and horses distracted, and urge gallant games-cocks to the death, and applaud opera singers into patriotic sounds, and leave them to imprisonment and fines, —and you, yourself cannot life a finger, or join hand to hand, or bring to the hazard life, fortune, or honor, for your liberty and your dignity as men. Work your slaves, torture your bulls, fight your gamecocks, crown your dancers and singers, — and leave the weightier matters of judgment and justice, of fame by sea and land, or letter and arts and sciences, pf private right and public honor, the present and the future of your race and your native land, to the care of others,—of a people no better blood than y our own, strangers and sojourners among you!” (497)

In this is his call for the liberation of the culture (and political culture) of Cuba from empire, exploitation and autocracy. It is more radical than any call in Two Years Before the Mast and it comes with a dose of U.S.A. pride as he is in a sense asking Cuba why they did not have a revolution like that of the republic to the North (or even more subdued, like Haiti).

I think Dana’s written works do a wonderful job documenting the injustice of economic inequality and particularly the arbitrary power of the workplace. But we should also be aware that despite the decades since he published Two Years Before the Mast, the workplaces (especially those far from the centers of power —like colonies and merchant ships) were no more democratic and Dana has no real desire in making them so. This is the ultimate in half-measures: to diagnose a problem with perfect clarity and be unable to recommend a solution.


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