Richard Henry Dana was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1815. He entered Harvard University in 1831, but two years later he came down with a severe case of measles that seriously affected his eyesight. After a year, Dana decided to see a bit of the world; his doctor hoped a sea voyage would help restore decent vision. He signed on to the brig Pilgrim. The ship belonged to the firm of Bryant, Sturgis, and Co., one of the major players in the hide and tallow trade in Alta California. The title of Dana’s book referred to the area below decks in front of the mast where the sailors slept.
The Pilgrim took three months to reach California. The crew endured raging storms, rat-infested quarters, poor food, and the iron hand of the ship’s captain, Francis Thompson. Dana was appalled by what he viewed as Thompson’s despotism and cruelty, bordering on sadism. He described one incident when two sailors were “flogged like a beast,” apparently for little reason. Upon his return to the East, Dana would write an article for a legal journal, “Cruelty to Seamen.”
The ship’s first California stop was Santa Barbara. The small pueblo had no pier, and Dana describes the difficulty of rowing from three miles offshore through the surf to offload supplies and take on hides and tallow. Perhaps the most famous portion of Two Years Before the Mast, at least for local readers, is the description of the three-day party to celebrate the marriage of Ana María de la Guerra to Alfred Robinson. Dana makes special mention of the traditional cascarones, the eggshells filled with perfume or other substances to be cracked over the heads of the unsuspecting, a tradition that is still part of our own Fiesta.
Dana had little good to say about Californians. “The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves. … The people hardly [seem] to earn their sunlight.” He also had little use for Santa Barbara. “Goodbye Santa Barbara! … No more duckings in your breakers … no money would make him ship to see them again.”
Dana returned to Boston in September 1836 aboard the Alert. He completed law school and became an expert in maritime law. In the 1850s, he became active in the anti-slavery movement. He continued to travel, going around the world in 1859. He was in Rome working on a project in international law when pneumonia struck him down in January 1882. He is buried in Rome.
Two Years Before the Mast became a “best seller,” with perhaps as many as 200,000 copies sold in the first 10 years. It appeared in Holland, Belgium, and England early on. The publisher, Harper’s, realized some $50,000 from the book, but paid Dana all of $250 along with 25 free book copies. Not until copyright reverted to him in 1868 did Dana see a further return from the book. Two Years Before the Mast remains a steady seller to this day.
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Santa Barbara Independent, 122 West Figueroa Street, Santa Barbara,CA 93101.