Richard Henry Dana, “Two Years Before the Mast” Chapters 1–11

First, I should explain the hiatus in this blog.  It comes down to an onrush of work.  I completed revisions on my upcoming book (which is now in the production process), wrote a handful of articles, am still helping with an edited volume, and mostly working rapidly on a book based on the Philip K. Dick posts I wrote back in the Spring.  I have about half of that Dick book drafted out but am going to slow down for a while with hopes that I will have that done in a few months.  I am still unemployed and not eager to return to academia but am finding new pleasure in writing, reading, and thinking, something that seemed to have died while I was in the classroom and the institutions of so-called “higher learning.”

The proper thing about be to return to Home to Harlem, but as a reboot is necessary to get this started again, I will come back to those and pick up something familiar, a collection of Richard Henry Dana’s major writing.  I will start with his Two Years Before the Mast.


This famous work is Dana’s attempt to tell the story of being a sailor from the perspective of the sailor by signing onto serve on the Pilgrim, on a Pacific voyage.  While he is wrong that no voice from the forecastle existed at the time of his writing, his was one of the first popular works to do so.  The immediate question we need to ask is could a Harvard student, from a somewhat privileged background, put himself into the life of a sailor simply by spending a few years as a common seamen.  (We might be reminded by that book Nickled and Dimed, where a sociologist used a similar method to understand the life of the working poor.)  Dana’s methods were sincere.  He worked hard to maintain his distance from the officers, who knew him for a Harvard student, and he participated in the daily work regimen, the culture of the sailors, and documented the frequent contests between sailors and officers from the perspective of the forecastle.  Early in the voyage Dana even physically moved himself from the steerage to the forecastle to show his solidarity with the crew.  That said, Two Years Before the Mast was a polemical text, and was part of the them active movement to reform the treatment of sailors in the American merchant fleet.  It is also, however, a document on the emergence of the American empire in the Pacific.

As Dana shows us, the captain started the voyage by establishing his sovereignty over the crew.  “Now, my men, we have begun a long voyage.  If we get along well together, we shall have a comfortable time; if we don’t, we shall have hell afloat. – All you’ve got to do it to obey your orders and do your duty like men, — then you’ll fare well enough; — if you don’t, you’ll fare hard enough.” (8) It seems to me that power is one of the most central themes in Two Years Before the Mast and from this we take a very important question for democratic societies.  The people who served with Dana were volunteers.  Dana himself was a volunteer.  But that choice involved a surrendering of a great part of their liberty and ability to participate democratically in the decisions that mattered most of their life.  In a way, this is no different from the choice of many people to accept a job, which commands their obedience for eight hours a day.  We set aside our liberty in exchange for a paycheck.  As Dana shows in the second chapter, the feeling of freedom he experienced looking at the sea or enjoying a maritime sun-rise was quickly replaced with the drudgery of work and the tyranny of the officers.  The question Dana is seeming to ask us is, how democratic can a society if something as undemocratic as the merchant ship could exist, but more on this later. In the cast of this voyage, power is more odious than normal because of the clear incompetence of the second mate, Foster, who seems to have gotten the job due to the influence of his propertied father.  Such injustices run through Dana’s narrative and heavily inform his critique of the floating autocracy of the ship.


The central fact remained the ceaseless and brutal drudgery and boredom of the job.  After spending ten pages describing the various duties on board Dana commented: “I have here gone out of my narrative course in order that any who read this may form as correct an idea of a sailor’s life and duty as possible.  I have done it in this place because, for some time, our life was nothing but the unvarying repetition of these duties.” (19) In this way as well, the Pilgrim can work for us as a metaphor for the capitalist work place in a democratic society. While the dream of free markets, unrestrained capitalism resembled frontier exploration or the adventure of the sea, the reality is arbitrary power, boredom, and misery for the majority.

In this environment tensions were high and confrontations with the authority figures were common.  We are reminded of Melville’s warning in Moby Dick that the confrontation of two men, where one has authority over the other but is an inferior man in every way will almost always end in the brutal application of force.  On the Pilgrim, small affairs like replacing molasses for plums or reducing a ration of bread could cause explosions of class conflict.  In the case of the bread dispute, the conflict ended with another proclamation of power.  “Away with you! Go forward every one of you! I’ll haze you! I’ll work you up! You don’t have enough to do! If you a’n’t careful I’ll make a hell of the ship!” (51)

What is perhaps striking is that these simple proclamations of power worked so effectively in shutting down the crew’s resistance.  As Dana summed up a few chapters later, but in a different context, “There’s nothing for Jack to do but to obey orders.” (67) Perhaps such fatalism was designed in the structure of the ship (the geography of power) and its labor regimen.