Monday, March 1, 2021


Richard Henry Dana at Point Loma

Some years ago, I found myself in San Diego on a business trip.   I had rendezvoused there with my old friend from law school Bob Deloria.  We took a memorable drive one early morning out to Point Loma.

Point Loma is a peninsula just north of San Diego that forms part of the barrier that protects the city's harbor, which must be counted among the greatest natural harbors in the world, from the sea.  As you drive down the peninsula, you also drive up the peninsula, for the road that takes you to its tip is a steady incline leading to a high bluff from which one can look back on the harbor, on the city itself, on the many US Navy installations of Greater San Diego, and on the Coronado Bridge and Coronado Island.

On the drive back towards the city, while still on the point, one passes on the sheltered side a place called simply "La Playa" -- the beach.

Well north of here, nearly equidistant between San Diego and Los Angeles, is the community of Dana Point.  It was named for Richard Henry Dana, a Boston-bred lawyer, abolitionist and politician of the mid-19th century who was appointed a US attorney for Massachusetts by Abraham Lincoln.  How did that point get to be named for the man from Boston?

While attending Harvard College in his teens, which, to put it in some historical context, was very close to the time of the peak of the Irish famine, Dana contracted an infection of the eye that threatened his sight altogether.  He was counseled that a sea voyage might cure his condition.  Rather than heading off to a grand tour of Europe on a passenger ship, as would have befit a young man with a lineage going back to the Mayflower, he signed on as an able-bodied seaman on the brig Pilgrim, which was bound for California for cured hides that would be turned into shoes in the infant factories of eastern Massachusetts.  As an ABS, Dana would be quartered in the brig's fo'c'sle, the head of the ship that took the greatest pounding in heavy weather.  Hence and in that capacity he spent "Two Years Before the Mast."

Before the transcontinental railroad, before the building of the Panama Canal, the voyage from Boston to California and back covered about 15,000 miles, more than half the circumference of the earth "as the crow flies."  All of it traversed, of course, with no visible means of propulsion other than fickle winds on tired canvas.

These were the days when California was still part of Mexico.  Pilgrim explored much of its long coastline.  In exposed places like Dana Point, the biggest danger came from winter storms that often hit with very little warning.  If the ship, moored on the immediate coast, could not make miles to windward before such a big storm hit, it would likely be dashed onto the lee shore.

But the eastern shore of Point Loma was protected, in relative terms.  On its heights, locals -- Mexicans -- could slaughter cows, cure their hides, squash them very flat, and fling them down onto La Playa like giant frisbees.  There on the beach, Dana and his shipmates would gather the hides, row them out to the brig, and stuff her, pardon the expression, "to the gills" with them.

Dana had come to hate his captain for his old-school cruelty.  In fact, that cruelty turned him into a life-long protector of the rights of the common seaman.  He managed to depart the ship before she was done in those waters, and to return, also before the mast, on another merchantman.  Dana's account of rounding Cape Horn on the return voyage is among the most memorable in the annals of the sea.  Again and again they nearly made the easting to a point at which they could turn north, towards warmer and less tumultuous waters, only to be driven back to their starting point by the gales.   

Herman Melville, a contemporary of Dana, said that he must have written his account of this rounding of the Horn "with an icicle."

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