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Two Years Before the Mast

Two Years Before the Mast is a book by the American author Richard Henry Dana, Jr., written after a two-year sea voyage starting in 1834 and published in 1840. A film adaptation under the same name was released in 1946.


While at Harvard College Dana had an attack of the measles which affected his vision. Thinking it might help his sight, Dana, rather than going on a Grand Tour as most of his fellow classmates traditionally did (and unable to afford it anyway), and being something of a non-conformist, 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 aboard the Alert (which left California sooner than the Pilgrim).

He kept a diary throughout the voyage, and after returning he wrote a recognized American classic, Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840, the same year of his admission to the bar.

A sailor's story

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.

The journey

In the book, which takes place between 1834 and 1836, Dana gives a vivid account of "the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is". He sails from Boston, around Cape Horn, arriving in California when it was a remote Mexican land, and San Diego, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco were not much more than a few sheds. He gives descriptions of landing at each of the ports up and down the California coast as they existed then. In the book, he makes a tellingly accurate prediction of San Francisco's future. He also gives a nice description of a society wedding amongst the "Californios."

His ship was on a voyage to trade goods from the east for cow hides. Interestingly, the bluffs near Mission San Juan Capistrano presented an obstacle to taking the cow hides to the beach for subsequent loading onto the ship. So, Dana, along with others of the Pilgrim's crew, tossed the hides from the bluffs, while spinning them like a frisbee. Some hides got stuck part way down the cliff and Dana was lowered with ropes to retrieve them. Since that day, that point where the bluffs were located, took on Dana's name, and is today the city of Dana Point. Being an educated person on his ship, he learned Spanish and became an interpreter. He befriended a Kanaka (a native of modern-day Hawaii), later saving his life when his racist captain would as soon see him die. He spent a season in San Diego preparing hides for the journey home.

On the return trip around Cape Horn in the middle of the Antarctic winter he describes terrifying storms and incredible beauty, giving vivid descriptions of icebergs, and the scurvy that afflicts members of the crew. In White-Jacket, Herman Melville wrote, "But if you want the best idea of Cape Horn, get my friend Dana's unmatchable Two Years Before the Mast. But you can read, and so you must have read it. His chapters describing Cape Horn must have been written with an icicle."

Publication history

Two Years Before the Mast was originally titled Journal and was rejected by four publishing houses before Harper and Brothers made an offer in 1839. The book was finally published in September 1840 in two versions. Dana had asked for assistance from the poet William Cullen Bryant, whose poem "Thanatopsis" was praised by Dana's father. Bryant had passed the manuscript on to Harper's, hoping they would pay $500 to its author, though they ultimately paid Dana only $250 along with 24 complimentary copies.

1869 and 1911 editions

In 1869, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. added an appendix entitled "Twenty-Four Years After". This appendix recounts his visit to California after the Gold Rush. During this trip, he revisited some of the sites mentioned in the book as well as seeing old friends, including some that had been mentioned in the book, and one unamed person, the "Agent" (of the trading company), whom he intensely disliked (a man named Fitch, who had married into the wealthy Spanish Colonial Moraga family). He visited the Fremont mining operations in Mariposa County. Along with Jessie Fremont and Her party, He went to Yosemite Valley. Stopping on the way at Clark's Station (Wawona), describing Galen Clark as a gracious host.

In 1911, Dana's son, Richard Henry Dana III, added an introduction detailing the "subsequent story and fate of the vessels, and of some of the persons with whom the reader is made acquainted."


With the onset of the 1849 California Gold Rush, Dana's book was one of the few books in existence that described California, adding greatly to the book's readership as well as Dana's renown and legacy. When he returned to San Francisco in 1859 he was treated as a minor celebrity.


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