Richard Henry Dana, “Journal of a Voyage, 1859-1860”

Richard Henry Dana’s journal of his 1859—1860 voyage around the world was not published until 1968, at a time when interest in the American empire was at a height due to the growing military escalation in Vietnam and the strengthening movement against the war—and by extension the U.S. Empire. Although I doubt it played much of a role in that discussion, I think it is worthy to point out because Dana’s journal suggests an emerging American empire, but it was not published until that empire reached its mid-twentieth-century crisis.

Most striking in the narrative are the many detailed descriptions of port cities and port life the American Pacific that he helped build during his youth (documented in Two Years Before the Mast). He visited California, Hawaii, Canton, Shanghai, and ports in Japan. Most of the journal examines these places. It is important to point out that Dana did not have a plan to publish this journal and it lacks much analysis of what he was observing. Yet we can makes some important observations about empire in the Pacific through this document.

Canton during Dana's visit

Canton during Dana’s visit

First, it is clear that all the locations that Dana visited were heavily integrated politically and economically for the purpose of commercial capitalism. Dana’s description Hawaii suggests the union of the political elite with foreign commercial interests and institutional systems of control. The king is admired by the foreign merchant community. Honolulu has a “Seamen’s House”, schools, churches, other institutions of ideological control. Canton was busy with commercial activity (“What a hive of industry is a Chinese town! . . . “Coolie, is the name given to the mere manual laborers in the open air,—the porters, errand runners, hod carrrier.”) It seems that from Dana’s perspective everything was moving smoothly and he was consistently impressed with the commercial vibrancy of these port cities in the Pacific.

Shanghai during Dana's visit

Shanghai during Dana’s visit

Another view of Shanghai

Another view of Shanghai

Second, we find that Dana—as a beneficiary of U.S. empire—has significant mobility and faced few restrictions to his mobility. We are reminded of Zygmunt Bauman’s argument in Globalization: The Human Consequences that global capitalism turned everyone into movers but those movers were of two types: vagabonds and tourists. Tourists had money, a “good” passport, and the direct backing of an imperial power. Vagabonds consisted of dock workers, sailors, economic refugees, political exiles and others who move because they must. The Pacific ports that Dana visited had both, even though he was clearly a tourist.

Third, (and this is connected to the first point) the port cities were becoming more Western looking due to the presence of institutions of empire. Dana felt most comfortable describing and engaging with these. Perhaps this is a good way to identify imperialism. If you go to a distant land and feel immediately at home, you might be from an imperial nation.

Although Dana spent most of his time navigating among the networks of elite and imperial power in the Pacific (he could hardly do otherwise as the empire was becoming hegemonic by the 1850s), he was a fair-minded observer who spent much of his time detailing the presence of working class people, their labors, and their stunning diversity. Every port had a diverse and international working class that again reminds us of his time on the Pilgrim. Empire may have made things smooth for the imperialists, but it brought in plenty of others for the labor of empire. Sailors, coolies, dock workers, and laborers of all types from China, India, and the West populated the ports. At one point Dana even visited the prostitutes of Canton on the “famous Flower Boats.” He smoked opium, observed some of the entertainment and lasted after only 15 minutes. It is to his credit that Dana seemed eager to understand these port cities from both sides of the class divide, even if he could never really escape his colonial privilege.
This is a good document to keep handy for those who want to study the role of class and power in the emergence of the Western empires in the Pacific. Perhaps a bit more research should be done on the relationship between these mid-century tours and the working class experience of empire. Throughout his career, Richard Henry Dana sustained sympathies and curiosity about working class cultures and work place experiences. To his credit, thirty years as a lawyer did not destroy such attitudes entirely.

A Japanese delegation in Hawaii. Was Hawaii always a meeting ground for the Japanese and U.S. empires?

A Japanese delegation in Hawaii. Was Hawaii always a meeting ground for the Japanese and U.S. empires?

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.

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

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.

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.