A Flogging from Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1840)

In 1834 Richard Henry Dana Jr. left his studies at Harvard College to serve two years as a common sailor—“before the mast”—first aboard the merchant brig Pilgrim, sailing from Boston, around Cape Horn, and on to California, at that time part of Mexico, and returning to Boston aboard the Alert.

For several days the captain seemed very much out of humor. Nothing went right, or fast enough for him. He quarreled with the cook, and threatened to flog him for throwing wood on deck; and had a dispute with the mate about reeving a Spanish burton, the mate saying that he was right and had been taught how to do it by a man who was a sailor! This the captain took in dudgeon, and they were at sword’s points at once.

But his displeasure was chiefly turned against a large, heavy-molded fellow from the middle states, who was called Sam. This man hesitated in his speech, and was rather slow in his motions, but was a pretty good sailor, and always seemed to do his best; but the captain took a dislike to him, thought he was surly and lazy; and “if you once give a dog a bad name”—as the sailor-phrase is—“he may as well jump overboard.” The captain found fault with everything this man did, and hazed him for dropping a marline-spike from the main-yard, where he was at work. This, of course, was an accident, but it was set down against him.

The captain was on board all day Friday, and everything went on hard and disagreeably. “The more you drive a man, the less he will do,” was as true with us as with any other people. We worked late Friday night and were turned-to early Saturday morning. About ten o’clock the captain ordered our new officer, Russell, who by this time had become thoroughly disliked by all the crew, to get the gig ready to take him ashore. John, the Swede, was sitting in the boat alongside, and Russell and myself were standing by the main hatchway, waiting for the captain, who was down in the hold, where the crew were at work, when we heard his voice raised in violent dispute with somebody, whether it was with the mate, or one of the crew, I could not tell; and then came blows and scuffling. I ran to the side and beckoned to John, who came up, and we leaned down the hatchway; and though we could see no one, yet we knew that the captain had the advantage, for his voice was loud and clear:

“You see your condition! You see your condition! Will you ever give me any more of your jaw?” No answer; and then came wrestling and heaving, as though the man was trying to turn him. “You may as well keep still, for I have got you,” said the captain. Then came the question, “Will you ever give me any more of your jaw?”

“I never gave you any, sir,” said Sam; for it was his voice that we heard, though low and half choked.

“That’s not what I ask you. Will you ever be impudent to me again?”

“I never have been, sir,” said Sam.

“Answer my question, or I’ll make a spread eagle of you! I’ll flog you, by God.”

“I’m no negro slave,” said Sam.

“Then I’ll make you one,” said the captain; and he came to the hatchway, and sprang on deck, threw off his coat, and rolling up his sleeves, called out to the mate: “Seize that man up, Mr. A—! Seize him up! Make a spread eagle of him! I’ll teach you all who is master aboard!”

The crew and officers followed the captain up the hatchway, and after repeated orders, the mate laid hold of Sam, who made no resistance, and carried him to the gangway.

“What are you going to flog that man for, sir?” said John the Swede to the captain.

Upon hearing this, the captain turned upon him, but knowing him to be quick and resolute, he ordered the steward to bring the irons, and calling upon Russell to help him, went up to John.

“Let me alone,” said John. “I’m willing to be put in irons. You need not use any force,” and putting out his hands, the captain slipped the irons on, and sent him aft to the quarter-deck. Sam by this time was seized up, as it is called, that is, placed against the shrouds, with his wrists made fast to the shrouds, his jacket off, and his back exposed. The captain stood on the break of the deck, a few feet from him, and a little raised, so as to have a good swing at him, and held in his hand the bight of a thick, strong rope. The officers stood round, and the crew grouped together in the waist.

All these preparations made me feel sick and almost faint, angry and excited as I was. A man—a human being, made in God’s likeness—fastened up and flogged like a beast! A man, too, whom I had lived with and eaten with for months and knew almost as well as a brother. The first and almost uncontrollable impulse was resistance. But what was to be done? The time for it had gone by. The two best men were fast, and there were only two beside myself and a small boy of ten or twelve years of age. And then there were (beside the captain) three officers, steward, agent, and clerk. But beside the numbers, what is there for sailors to do? If they resist, it is mutiny; and if they succeed, and take the vessel, it is piracy. If they ever yield again, their punishment must come; and if they do not yield, they are pirates for life. If a sailor resist his commander, he resists the law, and piracy or submission are his only alternatives. Bad as it was, it must be borne. It is what a sailor ships for.

Swinging the rope over his head, and bending his body so as to give it full force, the captain brought it down upon the poor fellow’s back. Once, twice—six times. “Will you ever give me any more of your jaw?” The man writhed with pain, but said not a word. Three times more. This was too much, and he muttered something which I could not hear; this brought as many more as the man could stand; when the captain ordered him to be cut down, and to go forward.

“Now for you,” said the captain, making up to John and taking his irons off. As soon as he was loose, he ran forward to the forecastle. “Bring that man aft,” shouted the captain. The second mate, who had been a shipmate of John’s, stood still in the waist, and the mate walked slowly forward; but our third officer, anxious to show his zeal, sprang forward over the windlass, and laid hold of John; but he soon threw him from him. At this moment I would have given worlds for the power to help the poor fellow; but it was all in vain. The captain stood on the quarter-deck, bare-headed, his eyes flashing with rage, and his face as red as blood, swinging the rope, and calling out to his officers: “Drag him aft!—Lay hold of him! I’ll sweeten him!” etc., etc.

The mate now went forward and told John quietly to go aft; and he, seeing resistance in vain, threw the blackguard third mate from him, said he would go aft of himself, that they should not drag him, and went up to the gangway and held out his hands; but as soon as the captain began to make him fast, the indignity was too much, and he began to resist; but the mate and Russell holding him, he was soon seized up. When he was made fast, he turned to the captain, who stood turning up his sleeves and getting ready for the blow, and asked him what he was to be flogged for. “Have I ever refused my duty, sir? Have you ever known me to hang back, or to be insolent, or not to know my work?”

“No,” said the captain, “it is not that that I flog you for; I flog you for your interference—for asking questions.”

“Can’t a man ask a question here without being flogged?”

“No,” shouted the captain, “nobody shall open his mouth aboard this vessel but myself,” and began laying the blows upon his back, swinging half round between each blow, to give it full effect. As he went on, his passion increased, and he danced about the deck, calling out as he swung the rope: “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!”

The man writhed under the pain, until he could endure it no longer, when he called out, with an exclamation more common among foreigners than with us—“Oh, Jesus Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ!”

“Don’t call on Jesus Christ,” shouted the captain, “he can’t help you. Call on Captain T—, he’s the man! He can help you! Jesus Christ can’t help you now!”

At these words, which I never shall forget, my blood ran cold. I could look on no longer. Disgusted, sick, and horror-struck, I turned away and leaned over the rail, and looked down into the water. A few rapid thoughts of my own situation, and of the prospect of future revenge, crossed my mind; but the falling of the blows and the cries of the man called me back at once. At length they ceased, and turning round, I found that the mate, at a signal from the captain, had cut him down. Almost doubled up with pain, the man walked slowly forward, and went down into the forecastle. Everyone else stood still at his post, while the captain, swelling with rage and with the importance of his achievement, walked the quarter-deck, and at each turn, as he came forward, calling out to us: “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 negro-driver! I’ll see who’ll tell me he isn’t a negro slave!” With this and the like matter, equally calculated to quiet us, and to allay any apprehensions of future trouble, he entertained us for about ten minutes, when he went below.

Soon after, John came aft, with his bare back covered with stripes and wales in every direction, and dreadfully swollen, and asked the steward to ask the captain to let him have some salve, or balsam, to put upon it. “No,” said the captain, who heard him from below; “tell him to put his shirt on—that’s the best thing for him—and pull me ashore in the boat. Nobody is going to lay-up on board this vessel.” He then called to Mr. Russell to take those men and two others in the boat and pull him ashore. I went for one. The two men could hardly bend their backs, and the captain called to them to “give way, give way!” but finding they did their best, he let them alone. The agent was in the stern sheets, but during the whole pull—a league or more—not a word was spoken.

We landed; the captain, agent, and officer went up to the house, and left us with the boat. I, and the man with me, stayed near the boat, while John and Sam walked slowly away and sat down on the rocks. They talked some time together, but at length separated, each sitting alone. I had some fears of John. He was a foreigner, and violently tempered, and under suffering; and he had his knife with him, and the captain was to come down alone to the boat. But nothing happened, and we went quietly on board. The captain was probably armed, and if either of them had lifted a hand against him, they would have had nothing before them but flight and starvation in the woods of California, or capture by the soldiers and Indian blood-hounds, whom the offer of twenty dollars would have set upon them.

After the day’s work was done, we went down into the forecastle, and ate our plain supper; but not a word was spoken. It was Saturday night, but there was no song—no “sweethearts and wives.” A gloom was over everything. The two men lay in their berths, groaning with pain, and we all turned in, but for myself, not to sleep. A sound coming now and then from the berths of the two men showed that they were awake, as awake they must have been, for they could hardly lie in one posture a moment; the dim, swinging lamp of the forecastle shed its light over the dark hole in which we lived; and many and various reflections and purposes coursed through my mind. I thought of our situation, living under a tyranny; of the character of the country we were in; of the length of the voyage, and of the uncertainty attending our return to America; and then, if we should return, of the prospect of obtaining justice and satisfaction for these poor men; and vowed that if God should ever give me the means, I would do something to redress the grievances and relieve the sufferings of that poor class of beings, of whom I then was one.

From Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr.*

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