Two Years Before The Mast

If your child ain’t all he should be now’…just punch him around a bit!  

“Just give me one night.”

Since, well, ever, the way to discipline a child in many cultures includes spanking, whipping or a good ol’ slap across the face. In America this was a practice extended to sailing ship crews until the mid 1800s. Since these were grown-ass men (some cabin boys were as young as 11 but once aboard you were a man) infractions were met with the lash. Depending on the captain, the requisite number of lashes varied from just one to over a hundred. Ow! Sometimes they employed relatively wimpy wood switches all the way to the terrifying cat o’ nine tails. These whips date back to Roman times and lo and behold you can still get them.

When I was a kid back in the 50s it was still common to hit you you kid but today, at least among folks I know, spanking and ‘the belt’ is considered counterproductive but it is still legal, even in California. The law says it’s OK if the kid isn’t injured or traumatized and if the transgression is “justified” which is the legal term used in the statute. Humm a bit of wiggle room here. Some of you may recall the offer to you as a kid, “I’ll give you something to cry about!” Even Elizabeth Taylor used an onion to bring forth the water works. And like Elizabeth from Knoxville, in the 1830s American ship captains could flog sailors under their command for any infraction at all and as much as they cared to. No onions required.

This began to change largely due to the efforts of one man, Richard Henry Dana. Richard was a a sixth grader when an abusive teacher nearly tore his ear off back when hauling kids by the ears was commonplace. Richard’s father moved him to another school run by Ralph Waldo Emerson a kind man who spared the rod so fully that Richard wrote years later that some of the boys could have used “the touch of a ripe stick.” Good writer is Richard.

Richard became a staunch abolitionist in the college. He was in his junior year at Harvard when his eyes were giving him trouble so he suggested to his parents that he ship out as a common seaman for a couple of years. He left Boston Harbor in 1836 bound around the Horn for California. California was a place that few easterners had visited. His ship, the Pilgrim was dispatched to collect cow hides and bring them East to be made into boots and saddles.

This ship had a captain on the difficult side and Richard was appalled at the flogging, ghastly food and the general degrading conditions. The plight of the common seaman was decidedly uncool.

Sometimes the hides were loaded across an easy beach but other time like at the bluff at San Juan Capistrano hides were hurled to the rocks below from the top of the parapet and some would get stuck on the escarpment. Richard was lowered by rope to pick loose the ones that clung to the cliff.

Illustration by N. C. Wyeth

He visited San Francisco which at that time was the end-of-the-Earth and had just a few dozen non native inhabitants. In a rare day off he and a companion decided to sail a small skiff down the bay to a village where Fremont is today. They made the run in just three hours but trying to beat back upwind proved to be very slow so they headed for the western shore (where Palo Alto is today) to get some much needed water before continuing. The problem was there really was no shore. It was all sloughs and marshes with no place to land. The day was hot and their plight became serious. They were stuck in the marsh but as night fell they heard frogs croaking. Now frogs live in fresh water so they followed the sound to a creek and were saved.

Richard’s adventures on the coast and his harrowing passage returning around Cape Horn in the winter is a rousing tale. In 1840 he published his great book. He not only chronicled his adventures but laid out the plight of the common seaman and became an influential lawyer who helped get legislation passed for better treatment of sailors.

When the Gold Rush came in 1848 Two Years Before the Mast was the only book about California and is was widely reprinted and used as guide book of what to expect on arrival. In 1868 Richard made a return trip to the now flourishing state and he was hailed as a hero for helping to popularize California.

It’s hard to imagine today but California before the rise of the state in the 1850s was considered to be a dumping ground for the ne’er-do-well son who wasn’t going to amount to anything.

Richard Henry Dana was by all measures a progressive and he worked tirelessly on humanitarian causes. He may be partly responsible for me not having switch scars on my back. Though after the neighbor’s garage burned down even I thought I deserved the lash. But, hey, they couldn’t pin it on me because I was in my room reading comics, honest, man, I was home the whooole time…

A note on the publication of Two Years Before the Mast. 

I have a first edition of the book. First, firsts are worth about $7,500. But mine is a second first. I’m actually not sure what the correct nomenclature is but there are two kinds of Two Years Before the Mast firsts. When the book was originally set in type there were a certain number printed and these are the first firsts. But the type trays were still set up and they made a second run of the book. This isn’t considered a second edition as nothing had changed, even the publication date. But in two places the type failed. On the copyright page and another on page 9 the dots over the letter ‘i’ are missing. All the rest is as per the first first. Mine is missing those critical dots. (I bought it from a dealer who did not inform me of this issue but at least he didn’t dot the i’s) I could take a pen and fill them in and this would be very hard to detect but my book isn’t for sale and (evidence to the contrary) I’m not actually a con man and I like the story as is. My copy is worth a couple of grand. So I’m not going to alter the book and sell it just to buy that kidney my grandson thinks he needs. Let him use GoFundMe.  

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