Two Years Before the Mast

Author: Richard Henry Dana

Chapter XVIII Easter Sunday—"Sail Ho!"—Whales—San Juan—Romance of Hide-Droghing—San Diego Again

The next Sunday was Easter Sunday, and as there had been no liberty at San Pedro, it was our turn to go ashore and misspend another Sabbath. Soon after breakfast, a large boat, filled with men in blue jackets, scarlet caps, and various colored under-clothes, bound ashore on liberty, left the Italian ship, and passed under our stern; the men singing beautiful Italian boat-songs, all the way, in fine, full chorus. Among the songs I recognized the favorite "O Pescator dell’ onda." It brought back to my mind pianofortes, drawing-rooms, young ladies singing, and a thousand other things which as little befitted me, in my situation, to be thinking upon. Supposing that the whole day would be too long a time to spend ashore, as there was no place to which we could take a ride, we remained quietly on board until after dinner. We were then pulled ashore in the stern of the boat, and, with orders to be on the beach at sundown, we took our way for the town. There, everything wore the appearance of a holyday. The people were all dressed in their best; the men riding about on horseback among the houses, and the women sitting on carpets before the doors. Under the piazza of a "pulperia," two men were seated, decked out with knots of ribbons and bouquets, and playing the violin and the Spanish guitar. These are the only instruments, with the exception of the drums and trumpets at Monterey that I ever heard in California; and I suspect they play upon no others, for at a great fandango at which I was afterwards present, and where they mustered all the music they could find, there were three violins and two guitars, and no other instrument. As it was now too near the middle of the day to see any dancing and hearing that a bull was expected down from the country, to be baited in the presidio square, in the course of an hour or two we took a stroll among the houses. Inquiring for an American who, we had been told, had married in the place, and kept a shop, we were directed to a long, low building, at the end of which was a door, with a sign over it, in Spanish. Entering the shop, we found no one in it, and the whole had an empty, deserted appearance. In a few minutes the man made his appearance, and apologized for having nothing to entertain us with, saying that he had had a fandango at his house the night before, and the people had eaten and drunk up everything.

"Oh yes!" said I, "Easter holydays?"

"No!" said he, with a singular expression to his face; "I had a little daughter die the other day, and that’s the custom of the country."

Here I felt a little strangely, not knowing what to say, or whether to offer consolation or no, and was beginning to retire, when he opened a side door and told us to walk in. Here I was no less astonished; for I found a large room, filled with young girls, from three or four years of age up to fifteen and sixteen, dressed all in white, with wreaths of flowers on their heads, and bouquets in their hands. Following our conductor through all these girls, who were playing about in high spirits, we came to a table, at the end of the room, covered with a white cloth, on which lay a coffin, about three feet long, with the body of his child. The coffin was lined on the outside with white cloth, and on the inside with white satin, and was strewed with flowers. Through an open door we saw, in another room, a few elderly people in common dresses; while the benches and tables thrown up in a corner, and the stained walls, gave evident signs of the last night’s "high go." Feeling, like Garrick, between tragedy and comedy, an uncertainty of purpose and a little awkwardness, I asked the man when the funeral would take place, and being told that it would move toward the mission in about an hour, took my leave.

To pass away the time, we took horses and rode down to the beach, and there found three or four Italian sailors, mounted, and riding up and down, on the hard sand, at a furious rate. We joined them, and found it fine sport. The beach gave us a stretch of a mile or more, and the horses flew over the smooth, hard sand, apparently invigorated and excited by the salt sea-breeze, and by the continual roar and dashing of the breakers. From the beach we returned to the town, and finding that the funeral procession had moved, rode on and overtook it, about half-way to the mission. Here was as peculiar a sight as we had seen before in the house; the one looking as much like a funeral procession as the other did like a house of mourning. The little coffin was borne by eight girls, who were continually relieved by others, running forward from the procession and taking their places. Behind it came a straggling company of girls, dressed as before, in white and flowers, and including, I should suppose by their numbers, nearly all the girls between five and fifteen in the place. They played along on the way, frequently stopping and running all together to talk to some one, or to pick up a flower, and then running on again to overtake the coffin. There were a few elderly women in common colors; and a herd of young men and boys, some on foot and others mounted, followed them, or walked or rode by their side, frequently interrupting them by jokes and questions. But the most singular thing of all was, that two men walked, one on each side of the coffin, carrying muskets in their hands, which they continually loaded, and fired into the air. Whether this was to keep off the evil spirits or not, I do not know. It was the only interpretation that I could put upon it.

As we drew near the mission, we saw the great gate thrown open, and the pádre standing on the steps, with a crucifix in hand. The mission is a large and deserted-looking place, the out-buildings going to ruin, and everything giving one the impression of decayed grandeur. A large stone fountain threw out pure water, from four mouths, into a basin, before the church door; and we were on the point of riding up to let our horses drink, when it occurred to us that it might be consecrated, and we forbore. Just at this moment, the bells set up their harsh, discordant clang; and the procession moved into the court. I was anxious to follow, and see the ceremony, but the horse of one of my companions had become frightened, and was tearing off toward the town; and having thrown his rider, and got one of his feet caught in the saddle, which had slipped, was fast dragging and ripping it to pieces. Knowing that my shipmate could not speak a word of Spanish, and fearing that he would get into difficulty, I was obliged to leave the ceremony and ride after him. I soon overtook him, trudging along, swearing at the horse, and carrying the remains of the saddle, which he had picked up on the road. Going to the owner of the horse, we made a settlement with him, and found him surprisingly liberal. All parts of the saddle were brought back, and, being capable of repair, he was satisfied with six reáls. We thought it would have been a few dollars. We pointed to the horse, which was now half way up one of the mountains; but he shook his head, saying, "No importe!" and giving us to understand that he had plenty more.

Having returned to the town, we saw a great crowd collected in the square before the principal pulperia, and riding up, found that all these people—men, women, and children—had been drawn together by a couple of bantam cocks. The cocks were in full tilt, springing into one another, and the people were as eager, laughing and shouting, as though the combatants had been men. There had been a disappointment about the bull; he had broken his bail, and taken himself off, and it was too late to get another; so the people were obliged to put up with a cock-fight. One of the bantams having been knocked in the head, and had an eye put out, he gave in, and two monstrous prize-cocks were brought on. These were the object of the whole affair; the two bantams having been merely served up as a first course, to collect the people together. Two fellows came into the ring holding the cocks in their arms, and stroking them, and running about on all fours, encouraging and setting them on. Bets ran high, and, like most other contests, it remained for some time undecided. They both showed great pluck, and fought probably better and longer than their masters would have done. Whether, in the end, it was the white or the red that beat, I do not recollect; but, whichever it was, he strutted off with the true veni-vidi-vici look, leaving the other lying panting on his beam-ends.

This matter having been settled, we heard some talk about "caballos" and "carrera" and seeing the people all streaming off in one direction, we followed, and came upon a level piece of ground, just out of the town, which was used as a race-course. Here the crowd soon became thick again; the ground was marked off; the judges stationed; and the horses led up to one end. Two fine-looking old gentlemen —Don Carlos and Don Domingo, so called—held the stakes, and all was now ready. We waited some time, during which we could just see the horses twisting round and turning, until, at length, there was a shout along the lines, and on they came—heads stretched out and eyes starting;—working all over, both man and beast. The steeds came by us like a couple of chain-shot—neck and neck; and now we could see nothing but their backs, and their hind hoofs flying in the air. As fast as the horses passed, the crowd broke up behind them, and ran to the goal. When we got there, we found the horses returning on a slow walk, having run far beyond the mark, and heard that the long, bony one had come in head and shoulders before the other. The riders were light-built men; had handkerchiefs tied round their heads; and were bare-armed and bare-legged. The horses were noble-looking beasts, not so sleek and combed as our Boston stable-horses, but with fine limbs, and spirited eyes. After this had been settled, and fully talked over, the crowd scattered again and flocked back to the town.

Returning to the large pulperia, we found the violin and guitar screaming and twanging away under the piazza, where they had been all day. As it was now sundown, there began to be some dancing. The Italian sailors danced, and one of our crew exhibited himself in a sort of West India shuffle, much to the amusement of the bystanders, who cried out, "Bravo!" "Otra vez!" and "Vivan los marineros!" but the dancing did not become general, as the women and the "gente de razón" had not yet made their appearance. We wished very much to stay and see the style of dancing; but, although we had had our own way during the day, yet we were, after all, but ’foremast Jacks; and having been ordered to be on the beach by sundown, did not venture to be more than an hour behind the time; so we took our way down. We found the boat just pulling ashore through the breakers, which were running high, there having been a heavy fog outside, which, from some cause or other, always brings on, or precedes a heavy sea. Liberty-men are privileged from the time they leave the vessel until they step on board again; so we took our places in the stern sheets, and were congratulating ourselves upon getting off dry, when a great comber broke fore and aft the boat, and wet us through and through, filling the boat half full of water. Having lost her buoyancy by the weight of the water, she dropped heavily into every sea that struck her, and by the time we had pulled out of the surf into deep water, she was but just afloat, and we were up to our knees. By the help of a small bucket and our hats, we bailed her out, got on board, hoisted the boats, eat our supper, changed our clothes, gave (as is usual) the whole history of our day’s adventures to those who had staid on board, and having taken a night-smoke, turned-in. Thus ended our second day’s liberty on shore.

On Monday morning, as an offset to our day’s sport, we were all set to work "tarring down" the rigging. Some got girt-lines up for riding down the stays and back-stays, and others tarred the shrouds, lifts, etc., laying out on the yards, and coming down the rigging. We overhauled our bags and took out our old tarry trowsers and frocks, which we had used when we tarred down before, and were all at work in the rigging by sunrise. After breakfast, we had the satisfaction of seeing the Italian ship’s boat go ashore, filled with men, gaily dressed, as on the day before, and singing their barcarollas. The Easter holydays are kept up on shore during three days; and being a Catholic vessel, the Crew had the advantage of them. For two successive days, while perched up in the rigging, covered with tar and engaged in our disagreeable work, we saw these fellows going ashore in the morning, and coming off again at night, in high spirits. So much for being Protestants. There’s no danger of Catholicism’s spreading in New England; Yankees can’t afford the time to be Catholics. American shipmasters get nearly three weeks more labor out of their crews, in the course of a year, than the masters of vessels from Catholic countries. Yankees don’t keep Christmas, and ship-masters at sea never know when Thanksgiving comes, so Jack has no festival at all.

About noon, a man aloft called out "Sail ho!" and looking round, we saw the head sails of a vessel coming round the point. As she drew round, she showed the broadside of a full-rigged brig, with the Yankee ensign at her peak. We ran up our stars and stripes, and, knowing that there was no American brig on the coast but ourselves, expected to have news from home. She rounded-to and let go her anchor, but the dark faces on her yards, when they furled the sails, and the Babel on deck, soon made known that she was from the Islands. Immediately afterwards, a boat’s crew came aboard, bringing her skipper, and from them we learned that she was from Oahu, and was engaged in the same trade with the Ayacucho, Loriotte, etc., between the coast, the Sandwich Islands, and the leeward coast of Peru and Chili. Her captain and officers were Americans, and also a part of her crew; the rest were Islanders. She was called the Catalina, and, like all the others vessels in that trade, except the Ayacucho, her papers and colors were from Uncle Sam. They, of course, brought us no news, and we were doubly disappointed, for we had thought, at first, it might be the ship which we were expecting from Boston.

After lying here about a fortnight, and collecting all the hides the place afforded, we set sail again for San Pedro. There we found the brig which we had assisted in getting off lying at anchor, with a mixed crew of Americans, English, Sandwich Islanders, Spaniards, and Spanish Indians; and, though much smaller than we, yet she had three times the number of men; and she needed them, for her officers were Californians. No vessels in the world go so poorly manned as American and English; and none do so well. A Yankee brig of that size would have had a crew of four men, and would have worked round and round her. The Italian ship had a crew of thirty men; nearly three times as many as the Alert, which was afterwards on the coast, and was of the same size; yet the Alert would get under weigh and come-to in half the time, and get two anchors, while they were all talking at once—jabbering like a parcel of "Yahoos," and running about decks to find their cat-block.

There was only one point in which they had the advantage over us, and that was in lightening their labors in the boats by their songs. The Americans are a time and money saving people, but have not yet, as a nation, learned that music may be "turned to account." We pulled the long distances to and from the shore, with our loaded boats, without a word spoken, and with discontented looks, while they not only lightened the labor of rowing, but actually made it pleasant and cheerful, by their music. So true is it, that—

"For the tired slave, song lifts the languid oar,
And bids it aptly fall, with chime That beautifies the fairest shore,
And mitigates the harshest clime."

We lay about a week in San Pedro, and got under weigh for San Diego, intending to stop at San Juan, as the south-easter season was nearly over, and there was little or no danger.

This being the spring season, San Pedro, as well as all the other open ports upon the coast, was filled with whales, that had come in to make their annual visit upon soundings. For the first few days that we were here and at Santa Barbara, we watched them with great interest—calling out "there she blows!" every time we saw the spout of one breaking the surface of the water; but they soon became so common that we took little notice of them. They often "broke" very near us; and one thick, foggy night, during a dead calm, while I was standing anchor-watch, one of them rose so near, that he struck our cable, and made all surge again. He did not seem to like the encounter much himself, for he sheered off, and spouted at a good distance. We once came very near running one down in the gig, and should probably have been knocked to pieces and blown sky-high. We had been on board the little Spanish brig, and were returning, stretching out well at our oars, the little boat going like a swallow; our backs were forward, (as is always the case in pulling,) and the captain, who was steering, was not looking ahead, when, all at once, we heard the spout of a whale directly ahead. "Back water! back water, for your lives!" shouted the captain; and we backed our blades in the water and brought the boat to in a smother of foam. Turning our heads, we saw a great, rough, hump-backed whale, slowly crossing our fore foot, within three or four yards of the boat’s stem. Had we not backed water just as we did, we should inevitably have gone smash upon him, striking him with our stem just about amidships. He took no notice of us, but passed slowly on, and dived a few yards beyond us, throwing his tail high in the air. He was so near that we had a perfect view of him and as may be supposed, had no desire to see him nearer. He was a disgusting creature; with a skin rough, hairy, and of an iron-grey color. This kind differs much from the sperm, in color and skin, and is said to be fiercer. We saw a few sperm whales; but most of the whales that come upon the coast are fin-backs, hump-backs, and right-whales, which are more difficult to take, and are said not to give oil enough to pay for the trouble. For this reason whale-ships do not come upon the coast after them. Our captain, together with Captain Nye of the Loriotte, who had been in a whale-ship, thought of making an attempt upon one of them with two boats’ crews, but as we had only two harpoons and no proper lines, they gave it up.

During the months of March, April, and May, these whales appear in great numbers in the open ports of Santa Barbara, San Pedro, etc., and hover off the coast, while a few find their way into the close harbors of San Diego and Monterey. They are all off again before midsummer, and make their appearance on the "off-shore ground." We saw some fine "schools" of sperm whales, which are easily distinguished by their spout, blowing away, a few miles to windward, on our passage to San Juan.

Coasting along on the quiet shore of the Pacific, we came to anchor, in twenty fathoms’ water, almost out at sea, as it were, and directly abreast of a steep hill which overhung the water, and was twice as high as our royal-mast-head. We had heard much of this place, from the Lagoda’s crew, who said it was the worst place in California. The shore is rocky, and directly exposed to the south-east, so that vessels are obliged to slip and run for their lives on the first sign of a gale; and late as it was in the season, we got up our slip-rope and gear, though we meant to stay only twenty-four hours. We pulled the agent ashore, and were ordered to wait for him, while he took a circuitous way round the hill to the mission, which was hidden behind it. We were glad of the opportunity to examine this singular place, and hauling the boat up and making her well fast, took different directions up and down the beach, to explore it.

San Juan is the only romantic spot in California. The country here for several miles is high table-land, running boldly to the shore, and breaking off in a steep hill, at the foot of which the waters of the Pacific are constantly dashing. For several miles the water washes the very base of the hill, or breaks upon ledges and fragments of rocks which run out into the sea. Just where we landed was a small cove, or "bight," which gave us, at high tide, a few square feet of sand-beach between the sea and the bottom of the hill. This was the only landing-place. Directly before us, rose the perpendicular height of four or five hundred feet. How we were to get hides down, or goods up, upon the table-land on which the mission was situated, was more than we could tell. The agent had taken a long circuit, and yet had frequently to jump over breaks, and climb up steep places, in the ascent. No animal but a man or monkey could get up it. However, that was not our look-out; and knowing that the agent would be gone an hour or more, we strolled about, picking up shells, and following the sea where it tumbled in, roaring and spouting, among the crevices of the great rocks. What a sight, thought I, must this be in a south-easter! The rocks were as large as those of Nahant or Newport, but, to my eye, more grand and broken. Beside, there was a grandeur in everything around, which gave almost a solemnity to the scene: a silence and solitariness which affected everything! Not a human being but ourselves for miles; and no sound heard but the pulsations of the great Pacific! and the great steep hill rising like a wall, and cutting us off from all the world, but the "world of waters!" I separated myself from the rest and sat down on a rock, just where the sea ran in and formed a fine spouting horn. Compared with the plain, dull sand-beach of the rest of the coast, this grandeur was as refreshing as a great rock in a weary land. It was almost the first time that I had been positively alone—free from the sense that human beings were at my elbow, if not talking with me—since I had left home. My better nature returned strong upon me. Everything was in accordance with my state of feeling, and I experienced a glow of pleasure at finding that what of poetry and romance I ever had in me, had not been entirely deadened by the laborious and frittering life I had led. Nearly an hour did I sit, almost lost in the luxury of this entire new scene of the play in which I had been so long acting, when I was aroused by the distant shouts of my companions, and saw that they were collecting together, as the agent had made his appearance, on his way back to our boat.

We pulled aboard, and found the long-boat hoisted out, and nearly laden with goods; and after dinner, we all went on shore in the quarter-boat, with the long-boat in tow. As we drew in, we found an ox-cart and a couple of men standing directly on the brow of the hill; and having landed, the captain took his way round the hill, ordering me and one other to follow him. We followed, picking our way out, and jumping and scrambling up, walking over briers and prickly pears, until we came to the top. Here the country stretched out for miles as far as the eye could reach, on a level, table surface; and the only habitation in sight was the small white mission of San Juan Capistrano, with a few Indian huts about it, standing in a small hollow, about a mile from where we were. Reaching the brow of the hill where the cart stood, we found several piles of hides, and Indians sitting round them. One or two other carts were coming slowly on from the mission, and the captain told us to begin and throw the hides down. This, then, was the way they were to be got down: thrown down, one at a time, a distance of four hundred feet! This was doing the business on a great scale. Standing on the edge of the hill and looking down the perpendicular height, the sailors,

—"That walk upon the beach, Appeared like mice; and our tall anchoring bark Diminished to her cock; her cock a buoy Almost too small for sight."

Down this height we pitched the hides, throwing them as far out into the air as we could; and as they were all large, stiff, and doubled, like the cover of a book, the wind took them, and they swayed and eddied about, plunging and rising in the air, like a kite when it has broken its string. As it was now low tide, there was no danger of their falling into the water, and as fast as they came to ground, the men below picked them up, and taking them on their heads, walked off with them to the boat. It was really a picturesque sight: the great height; the scaling of the hides; and the continual walking to and fro of the men, who looked like mites, on the beach! This was the romance of hide-droghing!

Some of the hides lodged in cavities which were under the bank and out of our sight, being directly under us; but by sending others down in the same direction, we succeeded in dislodging them. Had they remained there, the captain said he should have sent on board for a couple of pairs of long halyards, and got some one to have gone down for them. It was said that one of the crew of an English brig went down in the same way, a few years before. We looked over, and thought it would not be a welcome task, especially for a few paltry hides; but no one knows what he can do until he is called upon; for, six months afterwards, I went down the same place by a pair of top-gallant studding-sail halyards, to save a half a dozen hides which had lodged there.

Having thrown them all down, we took our way back again, and found the boat loaded and ready to start. We pulled off; took the hides all aboard; hoisted in the boats; hove up our anchor; made sail; and before sundown, were on our way to San Diego.

Friday, May 8th, 1835. Arrived at San Diego. Here we found the little harbor deserted. The Lagoda, Ayacucho, Loriotte, and all, had left the coast, and we were nearly alone. All the hide-houses on the beach, but ours, were shut up, and the Sandwich Islanders, a dozen or twenty in number, who had worked for the other vessels and been paid off when they sailed, were living on the beach, keeping up a grand carnival. A Russian discovery-ship which had been in this port a few years before, had built a large oven for baking bread, and went away, leaving it standing. This, the Sandwich Islanders took possession of, and had kept, ever since, undisturbed. It was big enough to hold six or eight men—that is, it was as large as a ship’s forecastle; had a door at the side, and a vent-hole at top. They covered it with Oahu mats, for a carpet; stopped up the vent-hole in bad weather, and made it their head-quarters. It was now inhabited by as many as a dozen or twenty men, who lived there in complete idleness—drinking, playing cards, and carousing in every way. They bought a bullock once a week, which kept them in meat, and one of them went up to the town every day to get fruit, liquor, and provisions. Besides this, they had bought a cask of ship-bread, and a barrel of flour from the Lagoda, before she sailed. There they lived, having a grand time, and caring for nobody. Captain T----- was anxious to get three or four of them to come on board the Pilgrim, as we were so much diminished in numbers; and went up to the oven and spent an hour or two trying to negotiate with them. One of them,—a finely built, active, strong and intelligent fellow,— who was a sort of king among them, acted as spokesman. He was called Mannini,—or rather, out of compliment to his known importance and influence, Mr. Mannini—and was known all over California. Through him, the captain offered them fifteen dollars a month, and one month’s pay in advance; but it was like throwing pearls before swine, or rather, carrying coals to Newcastle. So long as they had money, they would not work for fifty dollars a month, and when their money was gone, they would work for ten.

"What do you do here, Mr. Mannini?"(1) said the captain.

------------------------------ 1. The letter i in the Sandwich Island language is sounded
like e in the English. ------------------------------

"Oh, we play cards, get drunk, smoke—do anything we’re a mind to."

"Don’t you want to come aboard and work?"

"Aole! aole make make makou i ka hana. Now, got plenty money; no good, work. Mamule, money pau—all gone. Ah! very good, work!— maikai, hana hana nui!"

"But you’ll spend all your money in this way," said the captain.

"Aye! me know that. By-’em-by money pau—all gone; then Kanaka work plenty."

This was a hopeless case, and the captain left them, to wait patiently until their money was gone.

We discharged our hides and tallow, and in about a week were ready to set sail again for the windward. We unmoored, and got everything ready, when the captain made another attempt upon the oven. This time he had more regard to the "mollia tempora fandi," and succeeded very well. He got Mr. Mannini in his interest, and as the shot was getting low in the locker, prevailed upon him and three others to come on board with their chests and baggage, and sent a hasty summons to me and the boy to come ashore with our things, and join the gang at the hide-house. This was unexpected to me; but anything in the way of variety I liked; so we got ready, and were pulled ashore. I stood on the beach while the brig got under weigh, and watched her until she rounded the point, and then went up to the hide-house to take up my quarters for a few months.


Download Options

Title: Two Years Before the Mast

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Two Years Before the Mast

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Richard Henry Dana, "Chapter XVIII Easter Sunday— Sail Ho!— Whales— San Juan— Romance of Hide-Droghing— San Diego Again," Two Years Before the Mast, trans. Chater, Arthur G. in Two Years Before the Mast Original Sources, accessed July 16, 2024,

MLA: Dana, Richard Henry. "Chapter XVIII Easter Sunday— "Sail Ho!"— Whales— San Juan— Romance of Hide-Droghing— San Diego Again." Two Years Before the Mast, translted by Chater, Arthur G., in Two Years Before the Mast, Original Sources. 16 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Dana, RH, 'Chapter XVIII Easter Sunday— "Sail Ho!"— Whales— San Juan— Romance of Hide-Droghing— San Diego Again' in Two Years Before the Mast, trans. . cited in , Two Years Before the Mast. Original Sources, retrieved 16 July 2024, from