Richard Henry Dana in California

In CommemorationTwo Years Before the Mast is one of the books I’ve been dipping in and out of, since I find these sea journals really lend themselves to that. Richard Henry Dana was a student at Harvard who took time off school to go on a merchant voyage around Cape Horn in 1834. He returned two years later after traveling to California and trading hides up and down the coast.

This is among the best of the sea journals I have read, partly because Dana describes the most about life on the ship. He is fully aware of how little his friends and family back in Cambridge know, and his memoir recounts in detail a great part of the work that must be done each day on a ship, and what life is like in the forecastle.

But the parts on and near shore might be even better. When Dana is on the ship, he’s really concerned with the people on it anyway: the way the men treat each other, the relationship between the men and the officers, what the men do and think and feel all day. When they arrive on the coast he has much more material for consideration and these parts are a really interesting portrait of Mexican California and its inhabitants.

Dana describes enough about the place that you can completely picture it in your mind. He explains about the civil and religious administration, about the presidios and the missions and the towns, and on his shore leave he rents horses to ride around the countryside rather than getting drunk in a fandango like most of the others.

That is not to say that he is exactly kind to the Californians. He is charmed by them, but an unsurprising but strong current of anti-Catholicism leaves him treating them as more a curiosity than a people to be respected. Still, his comments are enlightening historically, especially for someone without great knowledge of the area. And his ideas about trade—the whole purpose of the merchant marine—are a bit ironic but not untrue.

The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themsleves. The country abounds in grapes, yet they buy bad wines made in Boston and brought round by us, at an immense price, and retail it among themselves at a real (12 1/2 cents) by the small wine-glass. Their hides, too, which they value at two dollars in money, they give for something which costs seventy-five cents in Boston; and buy shoes (like as not, made of their own hides, and which have been carried twice around Cape Horn) at three or four dollars, and “chicken-skin” boots at fifteen dollars apiece. Things sell, on an average, at an advance of nearly three hundred per cent upon the Boston prices. This is partly owing to the heavy duties which the government, in their wisdom, with the intent, no doubt, of keeping the silver in the country, has laid upon imports.

The descriptions of the Native Americans are worse, bad enough to be a little upsetting in places.

The language of these people, which is spoken by all the Indians of California, is the most brutish and inhuman language, without any exception, that I ever heard, or that could well be conceived of. It is a complete slabber. The words fall off of the ends of their tongues, and a continual slabbering sound is made in the cheeks, outside of the teeth. It cannot have been the language of Montezuma and the independent Mexicans.

He loves the Hawaiians though, who crew many of the ships that ply the coast. Though he is still at least a little patronizing.

Their proper names, in their own language, being difficult to pronounce and remember, they are called by any names which the captains or crews may choose to give them. Some are called after the vessel they are in; others by common names, as Jack, Tom, Bill; and some have fancy names, as Ban-yan, Fore-top, Rope-yarn, Pelican, etc., etc. …But by whatever names they might be called, they were the most interesting, intelligent, and kind-hearted people that I ever fell in with. I felt a positive attachment for almost all of them; and many of them I have, to this time, a feeling for, which would lead me to go a great way for the mere pleasure of seeing them, and which will always make me feel a strong interest in the mere name of a Sandwich Islander.

Contemporary travel writing seems fairly popular, but I don’t think it could possibly be as interesting as the travels of someone from a hundred years ago. This is a foreigner—from early 19th century Boston—visiting a foreign land; Dana is both my connection to the rougher sailors and inhabitants of California and also distant from me himself.

Image above by Flickr user littlevanities, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic license.

3 comments to Richard Henry Dana in California