copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
6 May 2006
Many people feel a resistance to the literature
of the sea, if enjoyment means learning the difference between
your mizzen topgallant backstays and your spanker vangs or spritsail
yards. I know I do. But then there is Conrad and then there
is Melville, and a little before Melville there is his friend
Richard Henry Dana. Melville paid tribute to Dana's Two Years
before the Mast, which had provided much inspiration for his
This memoir of a young Harvard man's experiences
in the merchant marine, first published in 1840, became famous
partly for its unsparing description of a sadistic flogging.
The captain of Dana's ship, rather like Melville's Claggart,
takes a dislike to a man called Sam who, rather like Billy Budd,
has something of a speech impediment. "If you once give
a dog a bad name," in the sailor phrase as Dana quotes
it, "he may as well jump overboard."
The captain picks a quarrel with Sam, and threatens
him: "I'll make a spread eagle of you! I'll flog you, by
God." "I'm no Negro slave," says Sam. "Then
I'll make you one," replies the captain. As Sam is taken
off to be flogged, one of the men, John, questions the decision,
and is in turn sent for a flogging.
Captain Thompson administers the punishment
himself, with a thick rope. To be dragged forward, to be spreadeagled
for flogging, and to be beaten in front of the assembled crew
- each element of the punishment constitutes a humiliation.
Before his flogging, John says defiantly: "Can't a man
ask a question here without being flogged?" "No,"
shouts the captain. "Nobody shall open his mouth aboard
this vessel but myself."
As he flogs John he dances about the deck in
a passion, swinging the rope and calling out: "If you want
to know what I flog you for, I'll tell you. It's because I like
to do it - because I like to do it! It suits me! That's what
I do it for!" When John calls out with an oath, the captain
shouts: "Don't call on Jesus Christ. He can't help you.
Call on Frank Thompson! He's the man! He can help you! Jesus
Christ can't help you now!"
Then the captain addresses the crew generally:
"You see your condition! You see where I've got you all,
and you know what to expect! ... You've been mistaken in me;
you didn't know what I was! Now you know what I am! ... I'll
make you toe the mark, every soul of you, or I'll flog you all,
fore and aft, from the boy up! ... You've got a driver over
you! Yes, a slave driver - a nigger driver! I'll see who'll
tell me he isn't a nigger slave!"
This answers the point made by Sam earlier,
when he said: "I'm no Negro slave." To a sadistic
captain such as Thompson, that is precisely what the men are,
and in the face of this the young Dana sees no option for the
sailor but submission. To resist is mutiny. If resistance succeeds,
that is piracy. Bad as submission is, it must be borne. "It
is what a sailor ships for."
Dana had been studying at Harvard when a bout
of measles affected his eyesight. Instead of idling his way
through convalescence, he joined a ship at Boston, and sailed
round the Horn to California and the Sandwich Islands. California
in those days was an outpost of Mexico. The Sandwich Islanders,
the Hawaiians, referred to America as Boston - America is this
distant East Coast, approachable only by a circumnavigation
of South America.
Dana changed ship. In due course he got back
to Boston, completed his law studies and set up a practice specialising
in sailors' rights. And he wrote this memoir. No doubt many
of those contemporaries who were shocked by the passage I have
described drew the conclusion that white sailors should not
be treated like Negro slaves (the point Sam was making). Dana
went on to play an active role in the anti-slavery movement.
The world depicted is that of the 1830s. In
this period, Macaulay wrote an essay (unpublished in his lifetime)
in which he says that "the soldier is a free man among
slaves, but a slave among free men". He means that a free
society is one in which the military are obliged to obey civil
government. The best Dana's sailors can hope for, being slaves
to the captain's orders, is a wise and benevolent despotism.
How can a man survive under such imperatives? This is the question
the author set himself to answer personally as his eyesight
returned. The proper answer was: neither the soldier nor the
sailor is a slave; each has his rights under the law.