Richard Henry Dana, “Two Years Before the Mast,” Chapters 12-23 (Violence, Power, and Diversity)

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.


Loading hides on the California Coast

Loading hides on the California Coast

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.

Herman Melville, “White-Jacket”: Power and Work

Like Redburn, White-jacket considers the working-class experience in America.  Through Redburn, Melville tells us about the diversity of the American working-class, its potential for solidarity and cooperation, its strong internal culture, and the trauma of someone moving out of the world of childhood into the world of work.  The internal workplace culture does not lack in oppression, particularly for the uninformed newcomer, but it also provides a source of strength and commonality in the face of the oppressions of capital.  The leaders of this system remain far away and vague.  Their use of power is limited.  Indeed, in Redburn, it was a fellow worker much more than the captain that Redburn feared.  White-Jacket gives us this window into the workings of power.  By setting the novel in an over-crowded military ship, Melville is able to explore with more intensity, brutality, and anger the uses of power by the ruling class and its consequences for working people.


I do not doubt that the novel portrays with some accuracy life on a man-0f-war.  Melville served on one for months as part of his life at sea.  The casual reader may be easily overwhelmed by the details of naval life.  Let me start by suggesting that this is not without its use, even if it lacks in efficiency.  Melville presents us with a microcosm of the division of labor in modern capitalism.  This division of labor divided the crew as well as dividing the labor.  Different jobs translated into slightly (and often radically) different lives.  Some crewmembers had the job of ideological control (the chaplain).  Power and status, it goes without saying, divided the crew into different lifestyles.  Even different eating schedules.   Normal crewmembers had to eat three meals within one watch, while officers eat normally, throughout the day.  This division is real and for the broader economy no less true in Melville’s day than in ours.

The crew’s hatred for the soldiers was one of the sharpest divides on the ship, only matched by class hierarchies of officers and crew.  This animosity seems to come from the soldier’s job as guard on the sailors, and their immunity from the normal work schedule.  “Surely, the crowd of sailors, who besides having so many sea-officers over them, are thus additionally guarded by soldiers, even when they quench their thirst — surely these man-of-war’s-men must be desperadoes indeed; or else the naval service must be so tyrannical that the worst is feared from their possible insubordination.  . . . But the mutual contempt, and even hatred, subsisting between these two bodies of men–both clinging to one keel, both lodged in one household — is held by most Navy officers as the height of the perfection of Navy discipline.  It is regarded as the button that caps the uttermost point on their main-thrust.” (742)  This division is also reflected in the attitude of the crew toward rumors of war.  For the officers and soldiers, it is a chance for glory.  For the crew, it bodes only death and sacrifice.

By staging these sharp divides (between the diverse crew and homogenous officers, between the libertarian tendencies of the crew and the guards assign to reign them in) Melville is describing the ongoing conflict between democracy and tyranny in capitalist societies.  The narrator takes to describing the crew as “the people.”  Every one of his numerous critiques of life in the U.S. Navy charged the military with its failure to sustain the democratic values of the nation, everything from enforced religion to punishment without a trial.  Freedom gives way for the need of the state and the requirements of work.  Whatever concessions that the officers give are merely to satisfy the needs of their power.  “Whenever, in the internals of mild benevolence, or yielding to mere politic dictates, Kings and Commanders relax the yoke of servitude, they should see to it well that the concession seem not too sudden or unqualified; for, the commoner’s estimation, that might argue feebleness or fear.” (584)

Melville advances a version of the Peter Principle in his critique of the ship hierarchy.  The “Peter Principle” suggests that in any institution people will be promoted until they are incompetent, but no further.   This is a result of nepotism and favoritism, also challenges to the principles of equality enshrined in the democratic republic of the early 19th century.

Other forms of control include the use of foreign laborers and the encouragement of internal spies.

Although we get pages of insight into the covert means for maintaining power on the naval ship, ultimately the system is sustained with brutal force.  White-Jacket is remembered most for its criticism of flogging.  The novel seems to have played a role in ending the practice.  When the chaplain, the jingoism, the force of tradition and authority all failed, even with the subtle threats from the armed guards failed, the commanders still had the ability to use force to bring the man to submission.  When flogging failed there was still “flogging throughout the fleet” and “keel-hauling” – the passing of a sailor under the ship’s hull.


With Redburn and White-Jacket, Melville moves from describing the world as it should be (as he does in his Pacific novels) to describing life as it is for the vast majority of people in industrial society.