Author: Richard Henry Dana

eNotator: Chris Thomerson (see video interview)

The eNotated Two Years Before the Mast

The Seamen's Friend

The night after the flogging of two fellow-sailors off San Pedro, California, Richard Henry Dana vowed that, “if God should ever give me the means, I would do something to redress the grievances and relieve the sufferings of that class of beings with whom my lot has been so long cast." This vow he carried out by awakening a strong sympathy for the sailors by a voice from the forecastle in this book Two Years Before the Mast. Chris Thomerson, lifelong sailor and student of maritime history, provides the background and explanations readers need to thoroughly understand, appreciate, and enjoy this narrative by adding expert electronic annotations linked to words and phrases in the original text.

For instance, when Dana writes, “scuttled butt” Thomerson explains that this is a “Cask, or butt, of drinking water on deck, with a hole for the sailors to drink from. The only place available to exchange a word while working on deck, under the pretense of getting a drink. Hence, 'scuttle-butt' has come to mean inside knowledge or, gossip.”

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About Richard Henry Dana

Richard Henry Dana was a remarkable if little remembered figure in the development of the United States of America. His book had a significant but now mostly forgotten impact on the lives of many, and it is little appreciated that his later actions undoubtedly shortened the Civil War.

His great grandfather, Richard Dana, was one of the early patriots, a "Son of Liberty," who frequently presided at the meetings at Faneuil Hall at which Otis, Adams and others spoke.

His grandfather, Francis Dana, was several times member of the Massachusetts State Colonial Legislature and of the Continental Congress. He was one of the signers of the Articles of Confederation and married Elizabeth Ellery, the daughter of William Ellery, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Francis Dana had been sent abroad on a special mission to England in 1774, before the breaking out of the Revolutionary War, to sound English public opinion. He returned in the late spring of 1776 advising independence, and soon after this the Declaration of Independence was signed. Francis Dana was appointed on a special mission to Paris and Holland with John Adams, later was made Minister to Russia, and after the peace with Great Britain was made Chief Justice of Massachusetts.

It seems by a natural course, therefore, that Richard Henry Dana became a prominent counsel for those unfortunate negroes who, at this time, in Boston, were held as fugitive slaves. While the ingenuity of some was expended in putting the law on the side of the strong and the rich, Richard Henry Dana, who was convinced that the law of the state was honestly to be invoked in defense of the fugitive slave, gave himself heart and soul to the work of applying the law, and received no remuneration for his services in any fugitive slave case. Instead, at the close of one of the most important cases, he received a blow from a ‘blaggard’ which narrowly missed maiming him for life.

He was a member of the noted Free Soil Convention at Buffalo of 1848, and presided at the first meeting of the Republican party in Massachusetts, later holding the office of the United States District Attorney. During this time he argued the famous ‘prize’ causes before the United States Supreme Court. His argument was the one that turned the Court, which was Democratic in its politics, to take the unanimous view that the United States Government had a right to establish blockade and take prizes of foreign vessels that were breaking this blockade. Had it not been for this decision, the Civil War would have been greatly prolonged, with possibly another, or at least a doubtful outcome.

Beside taking the part of the individual seamen, he published the Seamen's Friend, a book giving the full legal rights of sailors as well as their duties.

In England, the passage of the Plimsoll Merchants' Shipping Bill compelled improvement of the slave like servitude under which sailors did their work. Plimsoll, himself not a sailor, was influenced by this book Two Years Before the Mast.

Here is an accurate historical accounting of life aboard a merchant sailing vessel in the middle of the 1800s. Read of the loveliness of the sea at its best for weeks on end. Travel the legendary storm swept Cape Horn in both directions at its most dangerous and frustrating worst. Experience California before the Gold Rush along the coast from the bay of Santa Barbara to the coast of Monterey. Learn of the interminable hardships, perpetual mistreatment and sporadic brutal cruelty inflicted by some sea captains, given god like powers and thus suffering megalomania, with little or no piper to pay. Such was the lot of sailors in those times, the good, the bad and the very ugly.

Richard Henry Dana has written a clear and self-explanatory account of his experiences which has been admired by Charles Dickens, among others. My intention is to increase the reader’s understanding and enjoyment by demystifying the traditional nautical terms naturally included that might otherwise obscure his meaning or the richness of his writing.

Chris Thomerson

About eNotator Chris Thomerson

Chris Thomerson - grew up sailing the North Sea off the east coast of Great Britain starting in the late 1950s. His constant companion of the time was a paperback book “A Dictionary of Sailing” and he mystified his parents by quietly studying the complex rig of sailing ships from previous centuries. They were probably glad it reduced the amount of other mischief he got up to in his youth. He has since sailed small boats in French Polynesia, the Mediterranean, the Sea of Cortez, and up and down the west coast of Mexico and the USA, the graveyard of the Pacific. His most cherished adventures have been following the path of various explorers up the Inside Passage to Alaska, in small sailing boats. He has yet to be shipwrecked.


Gary Brown, All At Sea, Holiday Gift Ideas 12/2/2012

Author of Carribean High

According to online book seller Amazon.com, ‘eNotated Classics are a completely new approach that takes advantage of eBook technology to extend and enrich books in a way that’s convenient to use and easy for the reader. Most eBooks are simple conversions of paper books; eNotated editions add an extra layer of meaning to bring the book to life in your hands’.

Heady stuff, but I have to agree. Earlier this year I was asked to review the Kindle version of Richard Henry Dana’s The eNotated Two Years before the Mast by Chris Thomerson. In the eBook version of the famous sailing classic, simply highlight a word or phrase that you don’t understand and up pops a thorough explanation. This has opened up the world of square riggers like never before and turned Two Years Before the Mast into a must read for anyone with even a slight interest in maritime history. Thomerson has done an extraordinary job. After reading this eBook you almost know enough to skipper a sailing ship! I can’t recommend this book enough.


Adam Turinas, Messing About in Sail Boats 3/25/11

Last night's crap weather in the Northeast gave me a good excuse to light the hopefully last fire of the Winter, open a bottle of wine and curl up with one of my favorite sailing works, Sailing Alone Around The World.

I had a second excuse as Natasha from eNotatedClassics.com, very kindly sent me the eNotated, Kindle versions of Johsua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World and Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast. Natasha set it up so that the next time I synced my iPad they were automatically downloaded from the Kindle store on Amazon.

I enjoy reading books on my iPad. It's probably just the novelty. The eNotated versions are a real bonus. The eNotator of these two books, Chris Thomerson, is knowledgeable about the subject matter and selected the right things to notate. Basically he eNotated things that needed further explanation such as an old nautical terms or unfamiliar expressions dating back to when the book was written. These are hyperlinked to notations in the appendix. It's a somewhat convenient way to flick back and forth and it significantly improved my enjoyment of these books.