Two Years Before the Mast is a remarkable book, part travelogue and part seafaring adventure. A great look at what life was really like on the merchant sailing ships of the first half of the 19th century, Two Years Before the Mast is also part suspense yarn, with the hero's return to his native land in serious doubt due to events beyond his control. Seen through the eyes of young man in his late teens who looks for both a cure for his measles and some real thrills, Richard Henry Dana treats us to his view of the west coast and the Californians as compared to his native, very urban and developed Yankee city of Boston. He finds them very different - but when he first visits San Francisco, the city is a single shack This book was the guide for the many Americans who headed west for gold 15 years after its publication, too. As such it helped shape their settlement and exploration of the land. Dana's time aboard ship differs hugely from his comfortable home life in Boston. That he was willing to accept this, even embrace it, moves the book from a dry history to a real-life human interest story. His description of the sailing ships of the day involves many terms which few now will understand. Beyond that, the excitement of Two Years Before the Mast makes it a must-read for anyone in search of a young man's quest for real-life thrills at sea and in a new country.
About the Author
Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1815-1882) was an American lawyer and politician from Massachusetts, a descendant of an eminent colonial family who gained renown as the author of the American classic, the memoir Two Years Before the Mast. Both as a writer and as a lawyer, he was a champion of the downtrodden, from seamen to fugitive slaves. Dana was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 1, 1815 into a family that had settled in colonial America in 1640, counting Anne Bradstreet among its ancestors. In July 1831, Dana enrolled at Harvard College, where in his freshman year his support of a student protest cost him a six month suspension. In his junior year, he contracted measles, which in his case led to ophthalmia. Fatefully, the worsening vision inspired him to take a sea voyage. But rather than going on a fashionable Grand Tour of Europe, he decided to enlist as a merchant seaman, despite his high-class birth. On August 14, 1834 he departed Boston aboard the brig Pilgrim bound for Alta California, at that time still a part of Mexico. This voyage would bring Dana to a number of settlements in California (including Monterey, San Pedro, San Juan Capistrano, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, and San Francisco). After witnessing a flogging on board the ship, he vowed that he would try to help improve the lot of the common seaman. After graduating from law school, he went on to specialize in maritime law, writing The Seaman's Friend in 1841 - which became a standard reference on the legal rights and responsibilities of sailors - and defending many common seamen in court. He had kept a diary during his voyages, and in 1840 he published a memoir, Two Years Before the Mast. The term, "before the mast" refers to sailors' quarters, which were located in the forecastle (the ship's bow), officers' quarters being near the stern. His writing evidences his later social feeling for the oppressed. With the California Gold Rush later in the decade, Two Years Before the Mast would become highly sought after as one of the few sources of information on California.