Sep 22, 2009

Two Years Before The Mast - Richard Dana

I read this years ago but did not recall it until reading it again. A good book. Not great literature perhaps, but an interesting study of early 19th century seafaring. Reading the language of sailing the square rigged wooden vessels of the day is like visiting a foreign technology. The author spends a lot of time describing the great wooden ships and boats, and the life of the sailors that endured the rough life of making them go forward. It's written more as a diary than I remembered. Life on board from day to day, sailing up and down the California coast. The book is rather a log of a ship doing what was necessary to make a successful commercial venture.

On page 21 Mr. Dana describes the discovery of California by Cortez, the early control of the Indians by the Jesuits, their attempts to Christianize the Indians, the expulsion of the Jesuits in all Spanish dominions and the rise of the Franciscans. This part of California history is fascinating. The priests served as area administrators under the Archbishop of Mexico, and the Governor General assumed all civic and military responsibilities.

The government was an arbitrary democracy with no common law and no judiciary. California was treated as a province of Mexico at that time.

In the details of the wooden sailing ships of the day, the book is complete. I was especially taken with (page 251) the description of "smoking the ship". Despite all the Hornblower sagas and the like, this was the best rendition ever on how they found potential leaks - and at the same time cleared the ships of vermin and other pests.

Two Years Before The Mast does a great job of explaining the relationship of the sailors to one another, and how they worked together to run the ship.

A good re-read.