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Richard Henry Dana Richard Henry Dana

Richard Henry Dana Jr. in 1842    A portrait of Dana in later life

... he was not thinking of literature when he wrote it, and thus the book takes rank with those books which are bits of life rather than products of art.

(written by Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s son)

Two years before the mast is an exciting narrative of a young man's voyage as a common seaman from Boston to California and back in the age of sail. Besides being the most accurate picture we have of the life of seamen of that time, it was influential in improving the living and working conditions of seamen. Two Years Before the Mast is a vivid account of the common sailors wretched treatment at sea. Other contemporary authors, like Melville, are more literary in their intentions, and officer's and seamen's journals and logs do not describe the commonplace.

Richard Henry Dana jr. (1815-1882), a young man from an influential Boston family, came down with measles while a junior at Harvard College. The illness affected his eyesight, and he left the college in 1834 because he had been told that a sea voyage would aid his failing eyesight. He turned down the offer of a free passage to Calcutta, and back, as a companion to the owner's representative. Instead, he procured a berth as a common seaman on board the brig Pilgrim bound, by way of Cape Horn, for California - then a province of Mexico.


The Pilgrim was a small vessel, only 86 feet, for this voyage - it was an uncomfortably small vessel for a long voyage, more cramped, less stable, and shorter-handed than most Cape Horners. When it arrived on the California coast it's voyage was lengthened because the owners, Bryant and Sturgis, had decided it should collect hides for one of their larger vessels.

Dana's son writes:

In reading the story of this Harvard College undergraduate's experience, one should bear in mind, to appreciate the dangers of his rounding the Cape, that the brig Pilgrim was only one hundred and eighty tons burden and eighty-six feet and six inches long, shorter on the water line than many of our summer-sailing sloop and schooner yachts.

A replica of the Pilgrim

He sailed for home, again as a deckhand, in the Indiaman Alert,, making the dangerous winter passage around Cape Horn, and arrived in Boston in September 1836. "Friends in Boston" had arranged for him to take passage home with the Alert if she were to leave California before the Pilgrim.

His sight restored, Dana re-entered Harvard, graduated in 1837, and went on to study law

Dana produced Two years before the mast from diaries he had kept on his voyage. He wrote, he said, "to present the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is."

Two years before the mast is one of the best accounts of life at sea. It contains a rare and detailed account of life on the California coast a decade before the Gold Rush revolutionized the region's culture and society. Spain had lost Mexico and it's territories in 1821 and it was with surprise that the more Spanish Royalist inclined Californios learned in 1822 that they had been, in fact, Mexicans for most of the previous year.

In Two years before the mast Dana chronicles stops at the ports of Monterey, San Pedro, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara - very small in comparison to their size only a few years later. Dana describes the lives of sailors in the ports and their exhausting work of hide-curing on the beaches, and he gives close attention to the daily life of the peoples of California: Hispanic, Native American, and European.. He also describes the cruelty on board ships - comparing the incompetently led Pilgrim with the much more humane Alert .


The book begins:

The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim on her voyage from Boston round Cape Horn to the western coast of North America. As she was to get under weigh early in the afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o'clock, in full sea-rig, and with my chest, containing an outfit for a two or three years' voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books and study, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my pursuits, and which no medical aid seemed likely to cure.

The change from the tight dress coat, silk cap and kid gloves of an undergraduate at Cambridge, to the loose duck trousers, checked shirt and tarpaulin hat of a sailor, though somewhat of a transformation, was soon made, and I supposed that I should pass very well for a jack tar. But it is impossible to deceive the practised eye in these matters; and while I supposed myself to be looking as salt as Neptune himself, I was, no doubt, known for a landsman by every one on board as soon as I hove in sight. A sailor has a peculiar cut to his clothes, and a way of wearing them which a green hand can never get. The trousers, tight round the hips, and thence hanging long and loose round the feet, a superabundance of checked shirt, a low-crowned, well varnished black hat, worn on the back of the head, with half a fathom of black ribbon hanging over the left eye, and a peculiar tie to the black silk neckerchief, with sundry other minutiae, are signs, the want of which betray the beginner, at once. Besides the points in my dress which were out of the way, doubtless my complexion and hands were enough to distinguish me from the regular salt, who, with a sunburnt cheek, wide step, and rolling gait, swings his bronzed and toughened hands athwartships, half open, as though just ready to grasp a rope.

"With all my imperfections on my head," I joined the crew, and we hauled out into the stream, and came to anchor for the night. .

Monument to Dana at Dana Point, California

After completing his law education at the Dane Law School at Harvard, Dana became an expert on maritime law, and a life-long advocate of the rights of the merchant seamen. He opened a law office in 1840. He practised in Boston for the rest of his life, becoming one of the country's most respected lawyers.

In 1841 Dana wrote a handbook, The Seaman's Friend - Containing a Treatise on Practical Seamanship, with Plates; A Dictionary of Sea Terms; Customs and Usages of the Merchant Service; Laws Relating to the Practical Duties of Master and Mariners. The section on maritime law, a field in which Dana became an authority, was the standard manual for a generation. The book was intended as an advertisement for Dana's law practice - aimed at the common seaman.

For many years Dana travelled in the U.S. and Britain - giving numerous lectures about the subject of the improvement of the living and working conditions of seamen. Two years before the mast and Dana's lectures were important elements in the process of reform.

Dana helped found the Free-Soil Party in 1848 - a forerunner of the Republicans.

In 1859 his health broke down and he turned once again to the sea for his recovery - taking a voyage around the world. This time he was a passenger. This journey also took him to the, now very changed, California coast. He wrote "Twenty Fours Years After", which was added to later editions of Two years before the mast , to tell about this visit.

In Boston, Dana represented several fugitive slaves whom the federal authorities sought to have returned to their Southern owners. The city was bitterly divided over the question of slavery, and Dana's advocacy, for which he refused any fees, was unpopular, even dangerous: on one occasion he was assaulted in the street by a violent opponent.

During the American Civil War, Dana, serving as United States District Attorney, had success in persuading the Supreme Court that the United States Government had a right to establish blockade of Confederate ports and take prizes of foreign vessels attempting to thwart this blockade..

Dana was a member of the Massachusetts legislature from 1867 to 1868.

From 1867--68 Dana served as a U.S. counsel in the trial of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Dana's son writes:

He accepted a nomination to Congress, chiefly as a protest against the nomination of B. F. Butler, who was running on a paper money and repudiation platform against the principles of his own party, but Mr. Dana was defeated. In 1876 he was nominated by President Grant minister to England, but his nomination was not confirmed by the Senate, for his nomination had been made without consulting the Senatorial cabal and also he had bitter enemies, who carried on a warfare against him upon terms which he was too honourable to accept.

Although he had hoped to enter Congress, election never came his way, in part, no doubt, because Dana, always a stiff, proud figure outside his circle of friends, had little talent for political campaigning. Then, in 1876, his nomination as ambassador to Great Britain was defeated in the Senate partly because of a lawsuit for plagiarism brought against him in connection with a legal textbook he had edited. He was substantially cleared, but the affair cost him the honour that would have crowned his career. . He retired from his practice in 1878 and began writing a long book on international law - Dana had already edited Henry Wheaton's Elements of International Law. To research the work, he moved with his family to Rome in 1881, only to die of pneumonia early the following year. Dana is buried in Rome's Protestant Cemetery with Keats and Shelley.

Despite the great success of Two Years, Dana seems never to have considered turning permanently to literary work. He was apt to dismiss Two Years, as "a boy's book" and regarded it as the product of "a parenthesis in my life."

His son wrote:

It may be a source of wonder to some that Dana, who achieved a great literary success in the book which he wrote when a young man, did not pursue literature as an avocation, if not as a vocation. He published but one other book, a narrative of a trip to Cuba made in 1859, and he wrote a few magazine articles. The explanation must be found in the temperament and character of the man. His "Two Years Before the Mast" is a vivid representation of what he saw and experienced at a most impressionable age. He put his young life into it; he was not thinking of literature when he wrote it, and thus the book takes rank with those books which are bits of life rather than products of art. Afterward he was immersed in his law practice, and he was a prodigious worker. He saw with great clearness the points in the cases he took up, and he was untiring in his industry to cover the whole case. He did all the work himself; he did not lay the details on others, and avail himself of their diligence. His time, moreover, as we have shown, was very much at the disposal of those who could pay him little or nothing for his services, and he gave months of labour to the unremunerated defence of the fugitive slave. Moreover, his deep religious conviction and his high sense of legal honour often stood in the way of his profit. So it was that his life was one of hard work and little more than support of his family. There was scant time for any wandering into fields of literature.

There are three editions of Two Years before the Mast.

    1.The original 1840 edition.

    2. The 1869 edition - this is a revision by Dana himself, after the original copyright has expired. Among many changes, Dana removes the "sharply unromantic opening paragraphs" and the final chapter. He adds a new chapter "Twenty Fours Years After"

    3. The 1911 edition - prepared by his son Richard Henry Dana based upon the 1869 edition. The son adds research about the Crew, and a Dictionary of Nautical Terms based on Dana's "The Seaman's Friend", an Introduction and a new chapter "Seventy Five Years After"

The 1840 (1) edition (with the"Twenty Fours Years After" appended) is available online at:

The 1840 edition online


The 1840 edition online

The 1911 (3) edition is available online at:

The 1911 edition online

The editor of the Penguin/Viking edition (Thomas Philbrick) strongly prefers the original edition - explaining that this version "helped to reshape the perceptions of maritime life held by an entire generation of readers in the United States and Great Britain...." I agree that this original version shoudl eb the preferred edition, untampered with by Dana's later views and goals. But, this should be suplemented by reading the "extra chapters."

Many publishers have issued editions of Two Years before the Mast..


The Seaman's Friend : Containing a Treatise on Practical Seamanship is available in a November 1997 edition from Dover Pubns.

THE READER'S COMPANION TO CUBA Edited by Alan Ryan from Harcourt Brace contains To Cuba and Back: A Vacation Voyage either in full or excerpt.

The Biography of Richard Henry Dana jr. by Charles Francis Adams is presently out-of-print, but may be available from some sources.

The "extra" chapters - available on this site

  • Introduction by his son

  • Dana's own Twenty Fours Years After

  • Seventy Five Years after by his son

  • Appendix with crew list etc.

  • The Dictionary of Sea Terms Section of Dana's The Seaman's Friend from 1841

  • Links to further information

    This section has been removed as it has not been possible to continually update the links.

    Most of the above material has been adapted from various sources.


    This website is maintained by:
    Mark Winthrop, Copenhagen Denmark