Henry Dana (1815-1882)
by Janice Albert
Richard Henry Dana:
of the ship Pilgrim at Dana Point, CA
was a grandeur in everything around, which gave almost a solemnity
to the scene: a silence and solitariness which affected everything!
Not a human being but ourselves for miles; and no sound heard but
the pulsations of the great Pacific!
These are the words
of Richard Henry Dana, describing his 1835 memory of the beach
Juan, now a town in Orange County known as Dana Point. My
better nature returned strong upon me. Everything was in accordance
my state of feeling, and I experienced a glow of pleasure at finding
that what of poetry and romance I ever had in me, had not been
entirely deadened by the laborious and frittering life I had led.
At the time of discovering
the isolated beauty of this particular spot on the California Coast,
Dana was nineteen years old, working as a sailor aboard an 86-foot
brig called Pilgrim, engaged in the hide and tallow trade. A student
at Harvard and a member of Bostons upper class, he had undertaken
a short-term career at sea after a case of measles left him with a
painful eye condition. Not being able to read for any length of time
and with nothing to do at home, he was filled with restlessness. Rather
than simply sail around the world, or travel as supercargo to Calcutta
and backtwo options that were open to himhe signed on as
a foremasthand, a common sailor, and set off from Boston around Cape
Horn to the coast of California.
His adventures, published
in 1840 under the title Two Years
Before the Mast, became a world-wide best-seller in 1849 with the
discovery of gold. Danas book was one of the few available in
English that described Californiathe country the whole world
wanted to get to.
One hundred sixty years later, Two
Years Before the Mast continues to appeal to modern sensibilities.
In this coming-of age book, a young man discovers the arbitrary nature
of life and death, the ironies of human aspirations, and the universal
potential for cruelty. Danas writing captures the paradox of
California, a multicultural society living in abundant sunshine and
natural beauty, a paradise somehow wanting to be improved by Yankee
ingenuity and the American work ethic.
Aboard ship, Dana discovers
that to sail is to tread the line between life and death. As early
as Chapter 6, the crew experiences the loss of a crew member overboard.
Later, Dana comments on the casual way crew members reach out for one
another in times of foot slips and lost grips, shaking off the temptation
to express their fear or react to the surge of adrenaline that may
have saved their lives.
Dana comments on the hard
physical labor performed in the face of begrudging nature. Sailing
around Cape Hope is itself a test of the will to endure. But the motivation
to do so in pursuit of animal hides to be made into leather goods is
not without its ironies. Dana tells us that the hides the crew is sent
to gather must be soaked in sea water, pickled in brine, dried, scraped,
dried again, and beaten. Here ends their history. except that
they are taken out again when the vessel is ready to go home, beaten,
stowed away on board, carried to Boston, tanned, made into shoes and
; and many of them, very probably, in the end,
brought back to California in the shape of shoes, and worn out in pursuit
of other bullocks, or in the curing of other hides.
Dana, who had been the subject
of harsh corporal punishment during his school days, discovers himself
under the command of a captain who not only administers beatings but
enjoys them. Nobody shall open his mouth aboard this vessel,
but myself, shouts the captain. Dana describes his reaction at
hearing the blows struck and the cries of the man being flogged, watching
the captains passion increase: If you want to know what
I flog you for, Ill tell you. Its because I like to do
it!because I like to do it!It suits me! Thats what
I do it for!
Now, in the year 2000, Californians
can experience Danas story in any number of new editions of his
book, as well as a theatrical presentation of Two Years Before
the Mast performed by Jeffrey Paul Whitman. In this 90-minute
show, Whitman represents the middle-aged Dana who returned to San Francisco
24 years later to find that city transformed from the site of a dilapidated
mission and a single shack into a hub of civilization. Whitman swiftly becomes the
younger Dana who, at age nineteen, sailed into a completely empty San
Francisco harbor watched only by herd of deer from the waters
edge. Whitman performs up and down the coast, often at Maritime museums
such as those in San Francisco and Dana Point itself.
At Dana Point, the Orange
County Marine Institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, gives berth
to a full-sized replica of the Pilgrim. The Institute offers an overnight
program for fourth and fifth graders to learn about life aboard sailing
vessels in Danas time. (Call 949/496-2274 for information and
reservations.) Also to be found at the harbor, a statue of the youthful
Dana, book in hand, looks hopefully toward the land from the intersection
of Dana Drive and Island Way. Visitors to Dana Point, now a town of
32,000, can also hike or drive to Heritage Park, atop the cliffs that
characterize this stretch of the coast. A marvelously kinetic statue
from 1990 commemorates the work of the droghers, or hide slingers,
who sailed the hides from the cliffs to the beach. To get to the drogher
statue, continue along the hilltop from Heritage Park for about two
blocks, keeping to the ocean side in front of the houses and condominiums
that now fill the neighborhood.
Dana returned to Boston,
graduated from Harvard with the class of 1837, entered law school and
wrote Two Years Before the Mast from
memory, a small notebook and letters home, for his journal disappeared
along with his sea chest when he disembarked in Boston Harbor in 1836.
In his work as an attorney, he became a prominent authority on admiralty
and international law.
book, published in 1840 at 45 cents a copy, eventually earned $50,000
for its publisher, Harpers, but only $250
for the author, who had declined a royalty arrangement and accepted
a flat sum in that amount. Small compensationbut who can
measure his other rewards: to have seen the coast of California
from the water at a time when not a lighthouse existed, to have
rediscovered his better nature on an empty beach, accompanied only
by the pulsations of the great Pacific.
Keepers of the good ship Pilgrim, Dana Point
to the author index