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In My Good Books

All at Sea

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published 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 work.

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.

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