For most nineteenth-century readers of American sea narratives, actual experience of maritime life was hardly a prerequisite for appreciating the textual matter at hand. Sailor authors recognized that their reading audience was primarily composed of landspeople and framed their narratives accordingly. Richard Henry Dana’s preface to Two Years before the Mast is representative of maritime writing’s address to nonspecialists, as it encourages the domestic reading community to assimilate technical nautical language and customs through comparative reading practices. “There may be in some parts a good deal that is unintelligible to the general reader,” Dana concedes, “but I have found from my own experience, and from what I have heard from others, that plain matters of fact in relation to customs and habits of life new to us, and descriptions of life under new aspects, act upon the inexperienced through imagination, so that we are hardly aware of our want of technical knowledge.”1 In prefaces like Dana’s, sailors justified the value of their technical knowledge to land-based readers.
The rhetorical confidence of writers such as Dana—whose presumption of a domestic audience for his work proved well founded—had no purchase, however, in the one distinct class of American sea writing that made no such universalizing gestures toward its readership: Barbary captivity narratives, written by American sailors of the federal era. Whereas Dana’s narrative and those of his contemporaries offered “descriptions of life under new aspects” to a “general reader,” the Barbary captives, an earlier generation of sailor authors, stressed the serviceableness of their narratives to an audience of fellow mariners. Perhaps a consequence of this has been the fact that Barbary narratives form a body of writing little known to readers and critics of the sea genre. When they have been noticed, it has been within the context of the genre of captivity or slave narratives. The value of sailors as national subjects