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Two Years Before the Mast
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Two Years Before the Mast

Yet a sailorís life is at best but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain. The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous.

— from Two Years Before the Mast, Chapter VI

Two Years Before the Mast was written by the American author Richard Henry Dana, Jr after a two-year sea voyage starting in 1834.

While at Harvard College Dana had an attack of the measles which affected his sight. Thinking it might help his sight, rather than going on a Grand Tour of Europe (and unable to afford it anyway), and something of a non-conformist, in 1834 he left Harvard to enlist as a common sailor on a voyage around Cape Horn, on the brig Pilgrim He returned to Massachusetts two years later.

He kept a diary, after the trip writing a recognized American classic Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840.

The term Before the Mast refers to the quarters of the common sailors -- in the forecastle, in the front of the ship. His writing evidences his later social feeling for the oppressed; he later became a prominent anti-slavery activist and helped found the Free Soil Party.

It is of note that he did not set out to write Two Years Before the Mast as a sea adventure, but to highlight how poorly common sailors were treated on ships. It quickly became a best seller.

In the book, he gives a vivid account of the life of a common sailor as of 1834. A concise summary follows:

This smart upper-crust 19-year old guy at Harvard gets the measles, has trouble with his eyesight, and enlists as a common sailor in 1834, thinking it may help his vision. In cramped quarters, eating salt beef and crackers, he sails from Boston, around Cape Horn, to a remote Mexican-controlled place almost no one even thought of at the time called California. He sees other sailors brutally flogged by the captain, vowing revenge, drops by on Robinson Crusoe's island, sees California when San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco weren't much more than a few sheds, making a tellingly accurate prediction of San Francisco's future, learns Spanish and becomes an interpreter, notes many sociological details, describes the scenery, carries heavy cow hides on his head, befriends a Kanaka (a native of modern-day Hawaii), later saving his life when his racist captain would as soon see him die, and sails back around Cape Horn in the middle of the Antarctic winter describing terrifying storms and incredible beauty, giving vivid descriptions of icebergs, some on his ship later coming down with scurvy. His face burnt black, he lands back at Harvard, going on to become a renowned lawyer and anti-slavery activist.

After the California Gold Rush of 1849, he re-visits California, commenting on the drastic changes and seeing several old friends.

That describes the things in a nutshell, though in the book details like his anti-slavery activism are not mentioned.

The copyright has long expired on this work, and it is available for free on the Internet in numerous locations.

You may purchase the book on the Internet at (ISBN 0375757945); many different editions are available.