Two Years Before the Mast is a book by the American author Richard Henry Dana, Jr., published in 1840, having been written after a two-year sea voyage starting in 1834. A film adaptation under the same name was released in 1946.
While an undergraduate at Harvard College, Dana had an attack of the measles which affected his vision. Thinking it might help his sight, Dana left Harvard to enlist as a common sailor on a voyage around Cape Horn on the brig Pilgrim. He returned to Massachusetts two years later aboard the Alert (which left California sooner than the Pilgrim). rt: Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
He kept a diary throughout the voyage, and, after returning, he penned what is now considered an American classic. His writing evidences his later sympathy for the lower classes; he later became a prominent anti-slavery activist and helped found the Free Soil Party.
Dana did not set out to write Two Years Before the Mast as a sea adventure, but to highlight how poorly common sailors were treated on ships. In the book, which takes place between 1834 and 1836, Dana gives a vivid account of “the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is”. It quickly became a best seller.
“The scurvy had begun to show itself on board. One man had it so badly as to be disabled and off duty, and the English lad, Ben, was in a dreadful state, and was daily growing worse. His legs swelled and pained him so that he could not walk; his flesh lost its elasticity, so that if pressed in it would not return to its shape; and his gums swelled until he could not open his mouth. His breath, too, became very offensive; he lost all strength and spirit; could eat nothing; grew worse every day; and, in fact, unless something was done for him, would be a dead man in a week, at the rate at which he was sinking…”