Twenty years before the mast/To the reader

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Twenty years before the mast  (1896) 
Charles Erskine


I must ask you, as you read the following pages, to bear in mind that I have been only a common sailor before the mast. I trust you will expect from me, therefore, nothing higher in eloquence than a seaman’s language. I have stood before no professor’s chair, no classic lore has been instilled into my mind, I have received no college or even common school education, nor am I indebted in any way to literary studies for such knowledge of men and things as I may possess. My ideas are my own — not the reflex of another’s mind. The world has been my school, and from the book of nature have I taken all my lessons.

For twenty years I sailed the ocean under our country’s flag, whose broad stripes and bright stars have floated to the breeze in every clime; and on every shore I visited I found something grand or wonderful, beautiful or sublime, that photographed itself upon my memory. From earliest boyhood my heart went out in admiring love towards those great navigators whose discoveries have caused their names to be inscribed on the scroll of the world’s immortals. My heart thrilled at the name of Columbus, whose heroic soul was made to feel the meanness of kings, and whose dauntless courage called into creation a New World which shall yet outrival in glory the greatness of the Old. Of almost equal interest to my boyish imagination were the Cabots; Ponce de Leon, the romantic wanderer after the fountain of perpetual youth; and De Soto, the proud cavalier who discovered the mighty Mississippi, only to find a grave beneath its waters. Men, all these, who were courageous and enterprising, and whose adventures, sometimes tragic, sometimes romantic, have contributed largely to the annals of discovery.

Passing onward through the centuries of maritime adventures, I feel yet, as in the days of my youth, a mighty magic in the names of Drake, Frobisher, and the ill-fated Sir Walter Raleigh. My imagination takes me over the southern seas with Tasman, Cook, and Magellan, over the burning sands of Africa with Mongo Park, Livingstone, and the dauntless Stanley. I visit the ice-bound regions of the Arctic and Antarctic with Perry, Franklin, Ross, Wilkes, and D’Urville, with Hudson, Ringold, De Haven, with Knox, Kane, and De Long; and I drop a tear to the memory of those intrepid men who, in the realms of the pitiless ice-king, became martyrs to their zeal for geographical discovery.

In the world’s early days the command of God to man was, to subdue the earth, to conquer it, and to civilize and fit it for the habitation of the human race. Nor did God’s command apply to this portion or that only, or merely to lands where nature smiles in loveliness; nor yet to the forest primeval, the cloud-capped hills, the far-stretching plains, or the regions of eternal ice and snow; but to the whole earth in its completeness. This should be man’s mission. So long as one spot of this huge globe remains to be subdued, man, the conqueror, must go forth to battle, and unfurl in every clime the standard of civilization and Christianity, in obedience to the Divine command. Such, at least, is my unlearned interpretation of the Bible language.

I confess myself anxious to inspire you, my dear friend, with some little enthusiasm in the cause of geographical science. You cannot, like Mahomet, go to the mountain, and so the mountain must be made to come to you. We cannot all be sailors and travelers, and visit foreign lands; and so I intend that some of these strange places — the sunny islands of the Pacific and the frozen regions of the Antarctic — shall visit you. As you peruse these pages I trust that they will awaken in your heart an endearing love for the sublime and beautiful in God’s wonderful creation, and that they will bring you into earnest sympathy with those fearless pioneers of civilization who go forth in contempt of danger and death, to add to the sum of man’s knowledge of the world, to widen the boundaries of civilized existence, and to obey the first and last command of Almighty God, who has decreed that this earth shall be subdued, and the Gospel preached to every creature.

I have refreshed my memory by reading the history of our cruise in the United States exploring expedition, under the command of the late Admiral Charles Wilkes, and wish to acknowledge my indebtedness to the same for dates and a few facts and illustrations

Charles Erskine.