With Dana Before The Mast

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This brief entry in a Boston commercial newspaper is the first official record of perhaps the best-known sea journey in American history. The voyage itself, curiously enough, was no more eventful than a hundred others to Spanish California by New England ships in quest of cheap leather for the shoe factories of Lynn and Cambridge.

This brief entry in a Boston commercial newspaper is the first official record of perhaps the best-known sea journey in American history. The voyage itself, curiously enough, was no more eventful than a hundred others to Spanish California by New England ships in quest of cheap leather for the shoe factories of Lynn and Cambridge. A member of the Pilgrim’s crew lost overboard on the outward trip, two sailors flogged by choleric Captain Thompson in California waters, some foul weather off Cape Horn in another ship, the Alert, to which Pilgrim transferred her cargo of hides for the voyage home—these hardly seem the stuff out of which to make a literary masterpiece. Yet the pen of a Harvard undergraduate who served on board the Pilgrim and the Alert as a common sailor was to rescue these two ships and their crews from the oblivion that swallowed up all the others.

The young man's name was Richard Henry Dana, Jr. and he was just a few days past his nineteenth birthday when he stepped aboard the Pilgrim clad in the duck trousers, checked shirt, and tarpaulin hat of an ordinary seaman. Scion of the oldest and most important family in Cambridge, Dana was something of a snob, and proudly conscious of his descent from Edmund Trowbridge, a colonial judge; William Ellery. a signer of the Declaration of Independence: and Francis Dana, a chief justice of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Three generations of the family had gone from Harvard to legal practices and political ca-reers, and young Richard Henry confidently expected to follow in their footsteps. A voyage “before the mast,” once fairly common among New England boys of good family, was becoming increasingly rare in the 1830’s, and was definitely beneath the dignity of a Dana. It had taken a combination of unhappiness at school, measles, and the primitive medical practices of the time to send the aloof young patrician to sea as a common sailor.

Richard Henry and his younger brother Ned caught the disease while vacationing at Plymouth in the summer of 1833. Both boys recovered from the illness itself in a few days, but the medicines they were given had a lasting deleterious effect. Blistering, bleeding, powerful purgatives, and massive doses of nauseating ipecac made them thoroughly miserable, and the inflammation of the eye membrane that accompanies measles was aggravated by the repeated application of leeches. After ten days of such treatment, Dana’s eyes were so weak that they could not bear the light of day. In the months that followed, his eyesight improved somewhat, but he was still unable to read and had to drop out of his class at Harvard, where he had never been very happy anyway. For the better part of a year he “lingered about at home, a useless, pitied & dissatisfied creature.”

My father [Dana later wrote] was at this time embarrassed in his pecuniary condition, & I felt that I was a burden upon him. This consideration … added to a strong love of adventure which I had always with difficulty repressed … determined me upon making a long voyage, to relieve myself from ennui, to see new places & modes of life, & to effect if possible a cure of my eyes, which no medicine had helped, & which nothing but a change of my system seemed likely to ensure....

Life before the mast speedily succeeded in accomplishing what calomel and leeches had failed to do. Dana’s eye ailment and mental malaise vanished before he had been a week at sea, and soon he was scram-bling up and down the rigging as nimbly as any of the crew. His voyage took him far from the dull grind of college, his father’s shabby gentility, the swarms of idle, aged female relatives with whom he lived in Cam-bridge. At sea he saw man and nature in a primitive state, with all their ferocity and grandeur. For the first time in his life he had a chance to live anonymously, to win acceptance for himself because he could reef or furl a sail and not because he was a gentleman’s son. At nineteen, he had been a delicate, overrefined, somewhat priggish youth; when he stepped ashore on the North End wharf after his long absence, he was a sunburned, healthy, vigorous young man, buoyant with a new understanding of the world.