by Chris J. Thomas (2017)
LITTLE, GEORGE (1791-1849). Born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1791, George Little is best known for his autobiographical Life on the Ocean; or Twenty Years at Sea (1843). The son of a naval officer, Little was entranced by seafaring life at a young age, boarding his first merchant ship at the age of sixteen, despite the protestations of his father. Little’s early career coincided with the War of 1812, during which time, as he recounts in Life on the Ocean, he was first captured by the British and then swiftly rescued by the American privateer Paul Jones. After a string of successful engagements, the Paul Jones was eventually taken by the British, who transported Little and the crew to Stapleton Depot, where he would spend two years imprisoned. Following his release at the conclusion of the war, Little stationed himself in the Port of Baltimore, where he later became a captain in its merchant port.
Forced to retire after going blind, Little required an amanuensis to write his story in Life on the Ocean. Though Little emphasizes the difficulty this assistance caused, his account is remarkably detailed and specific, suggesting that most of the material was sourced from Little’s diary accounts. Little’s career as a merchant sailor took him to all parts of the globe; his adventures range from a friendly visit to the Sandwich Islands to his capture at the hands of Rio de la Hacha “Indians” in Colombia. The overwhelming success of Life on the Ocean prompted Little to publish The American Cruiser; Or The Two Messmates, a tale of the last war (1846), a work of historical fiction informed by his nautical experience during the War of 1812.
While both of his works provided plenty of adventure to satisfy his reading public, Little was most concerned with reshaping public perception of the sailor, “a class, perhaps, of more value to the real interests of this country than any other — a class whose interests certainly have been more neglected by society than even the pauper who prowls about the streets.” In the final chapters of Life on the Ocean, Little campaigns for better treatment of sailors. Recognizing the uniquely global role of the sailor—“that seamen are the great links of the chain which unites nation to nation, ocean to ocean, continent to continent, and island to island” —Little argues that sailors given access to education and religion make better emissaries for future missionary and philanthropic endeavors in “savage” places.
The publication of Little’s Life on the Ocean—as well as similar works, such as Samuel Leech’s A Voice from the Main Deck (1843) and Nicholas Isaacs’ Twenty Years before the Mast (1845)—was spurred by the success of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s Two Years before the Mast (1840). Like Dana’s Two Years, Little’s Life on the Ocean eschewed the established sea literature conventions of adventure and exploration, instead providing a sympathetic account of the day-to-day lives of sailors. Yet the difference between Dana and Little’s titles is revealing: while Dana’s Two Years suggests a mere sojourn into the sailing world, Little’s title foregrounds his ambition to convey the ocean as its own space of dwelling. As much as Life on the Ocean is propelled by Little’s own life on the ocean, it is equally an account of the life of the ocean, often reflecting on the complex network of social, spatial, and environmental relationships that constitute the lives of seamen.
Life on the Ocean; Or Twenty Years at Sea (1843)
The American Cruiser (1846)
keywords: male, autobiography