Afloat and Ashore: A Sea Tale (1844)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 3-12.

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.  

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.— Hugh C. MacDougall

[1-2] The life story of Miles Wallingford, told in this novel and its continuation, Miles Wallingford, begins and ends at Clawbonny, the family estate in Ulster County, New York, on the west bank of the Hudson River some fifty miles above Newburgh. It is narrated in the first person by Miles when he is in his sixty-fifth year. After the death of their father (killed in a grist-mill accident) and their mother, Miles and his sister, Grace, become wards of the Rev. Mr. Hardinge, Anglican rector. In the Hardinge household are two children in the same age group, Rupert and Lucy. [3] Miles is sixteen and Rupert seventeen when the two boys run away in September, 1797, and go to sea, taking with them the former’s eighteen-year-old black slave, Neb (Nebuchadnezzar). Their respective families had expected Miles to attend Yale and become a lawyer, Rupert to assist and then succeed his father in the local church.

The boys sign aboard the John, an “Indiaman” — generic name for any freighter trading in the Orient; Neb goes aboard as a stowaway but is accepted as a green hand when Miles indicates that he will work without pay. Miles soon becomes a regular seaman while Rupert serves as Captain Robbins’ secretary. [4] After taking on a cargo of tea and silk at Canton, the John continues westward toward the Cape of Good Hope. Off Sumatra they are pursued by pirate proas and would have been boarded had not Neb swiftly cut the line of a grappling hook entangled in their rigging. [5] As they continue westward, Captain Robbins’ nautical incompetence becomes apparent. Indulging a pet theory about ocean currents, he wrecks the John on the rocky coast of Madagascar. [6] The officers and most of the men survive in open boats and are taken aboard the Tigris, Captain Digges in command, a vessel bound for its home port of Philadelphia.

Off Guadeloupe the Tigris is pursued by a French privateer, La Folie. Being long-handed, with the addition of the John’s crew to his own, Captain Digges engages La Folie, a heavily armed brig. A boarding attempt against the Tigris is repulsed in an unconventional manner as Neb trains boiling water on the Frenchmen with a hose attached to a pressure pump. The privateer now falls astern the Tigris and attempts to disable her by firing from close range at her rigging. Two guns quickly shifted to the stern of the Tigris turn the tables on the aggressor, and the combat is shortly ended. Since the engagement occurs in 1798, it is pictured as part of the quasi-war at sea between the United States and France during the last two years of the eighteenth century. [This phase of our naval history is underscored by having the Tigris hold a gam, off the coast of Virginia, with the U.S.S. Ganges, an Indiaman converted into one of the first regular warships of the new U.S. Navy.]

When a pilot boards the Tigris off Cape May, Captain Robbins, anxious to be the first to report to the owners the loss of the John, arranges to go ashore in the pilot’s boat, taking with him Miles and Rupert. When they are within a league of shore, a gale, blowing from the northwest, drives the small boat to sea again despite the frantic rowing of the two Cape May men and the three from the Tigris. They are borne within one hundred feet of the Tigris, but the howling wind makes their shouts inaudible to those aboard the ship. Shortly afterwards they are run down in the dark by the Martha Wallis, a coastal schooner. Although all four of the seamen are saved, Captain Robbins disappears in the raging sea and is seen no more.

[7] When the pilot discovers that his rowboat has not returned, it is assumed that all aboard it have been lost. In the meantime, most of the John’s crew arrives at Philadelphia on the Tigris and proceeds to New York, where they report their disastrous voyage to the owners of the John. Someone — apparently the John’s second mate, Mr. Kite — has had eulogistic obituaries for Miles and Rupert printed in a New York City newspaper, and Neb has taken passage on the Wallingford (the family sloop that shuttles back and forth between the city and Clawbonny) to apprise Grace, Lucy, and Mr. Hardinge of the tragedy. By boarding a faster boat, an Albany-bound packet, Miles and Rupert arrive home just as the girls are trying to extract the news from the frightened and speechless Neb. Great is the rejoicing at the safe return of the runaways.

After several days of happy reunion at Clawbonny, the group embarks on the Wallingford for New York City, where they enjoy a pleasant holiday. Rupert, having decided to make a career of law, is placed in the New York law office of a family friend. [8] Miles, now eighteen and determined to return to the sea, signs aboard as third mate on the armed merchantman Crisis, outward bound on a voyage around the world. He accepts the post on condition that Neb be allowed to ship on the same vessel as a regular seaman. Knowing that Rupert’s modest cash allowance from his father will never satisfy that youth’s wants in New York City, Miles arranges with the owners of the Crisis that $20 of his $30 monthly salary be paid to Rupert. Despite his generous gesture toward his friend, Miles is disappointed that Rupert does not have sufficient pride to decline the offer.

After a tearful farewell with his sister and Lucy (whom he now secretly looks upon as his beloved), Miles goes to sea on the Crisis. Although he is a young mate, issuing orders to seamen twice his age, Miles quickly adjusts to his new responsibilities and impresses all hands favorably with his cool manner and competent behavior. At mid-point in the North Atlantic, they engage a French-owned merchantman, La Dame de Nantes. She is a letter-of-marque vessel, like their own and capable of approximately the same fire power. After two and a half hours of steady artillery dueling, the two ships, both quite battered, drift apart as their crews set about repairing and replacing damaged spars and rigging. By the time the Crisis can resume its voyage, it has drifted much farther south, abreast now of the Bay of Biscay. [9] Through a momentary opening in a heavy fog, the first mate, Mr. Marble, sees their French antagonist less than a mile away. Moving silently abreast of La Dame de Nantes, the Americans deliver a deadly broadside at close range, then board and capture the French merchantman. Below decks they discover several imprisoned members of the crew of the Amanda, an American vessel La Dame de Nantes had captured and sent on toward Nantes. These men, under the command of the Crisis’ wounded second mate, are ordered to deliver the captured French vessel to New York, the value of the ship and its cargo to be “prize money” for the officers and crew of the victor.

Shortly after the Crisis sets sail once more for England, it overtakes a brig which refuses to show its colors. The ship proves to be the brig Amanda, which is now quickly captured by the Crisis. The brig is placed under the command of Miles, who is ordered to take it to London, hugging the British side of the English Channel to avoid French privateers. Within sight of the English coast the Amanda is overtaken by a French lugger. Unequipped to fight the privateer, Miles sails into a harbor where a larger ship lies anchored. The anchored vessel is not a man-of-war but the Dorothea, a West Indiaman. A much richer prize than the Amanda, the Dorothea is attacked and captured by the lugger. During the battle, the Amanda slips away and proceeds to London, where Miles delivers the vessel to the agent of the American consignee. He is promoted to the position of second mate on the Crisis.

[10] While sight-seeing in London, Miles and Mr. Marble rescue one Major Merton, his wife, and their daughter, Emily, as the team pulling their coach becomes frightened and backs their vehicle into a canal. During the remainder of their layover in London, the two mates several times visit the upper-middleclass home of the Mertons and accompany this English family to the theatre and to other events novel to Miles.

[11] The Crisis sails southward early in the year 1800, stopping at Madeira and Rio de Janeiro before attempting to beat around Cape Horn near the start of winter in those high southern latitudes. With only nine hours of sunlight each day and with heavy fog constantly before them, they pick their way among the islands of Tierra del Fuego and discover one morning that instead of doubling the Cape they have passed through the Straits of Magellan into the Pacific. [12] For five months the Crisis moves slowly northward along the west coast of South America, smuggling merchandise of various kinds ashore and selling it. They have only minor skirmishes with the coast-guard vessels that often pursue them. The Crisis then sails north to the fifty-third parallel (now British Columbia north of Vancouver], where Captain Williams hopes to trade household wares and trinkets to Indians for sea-otter skins. A native “pilot,” whom the seamen dub Dipper, comes aboard and guides the ship into a protected, almost circular bay of some three hundred yards in diameter. Soon after the anchor has been dropped, a canoe loaded with furs comes alongside, and its three savage occupants (given the names Smudge, Tin-Pot, and Slit-Nose) quickly trade their otter skins for blankets, beads, and frying pans. Through sign language the three primitive and seemingly degenerate Indians indicate that within two days more pelts will be available.

On a brief reconnaissance trip ashore Miles and Mr. Marble discover the remains of a burned ship and near it a slate on which is written the tragedy of the vessel and its crew. An American brig, Sea Otter, had been lured into the bay on June 9, 1797; two days later its crew had been overwhelmed by a greatly superior force of Indians. All officers and men had been killed, including, presumably, the writer of this last communication with the civilized world. Momentarily alarmed by this last entry in the Sea Otter’s log, the captain exhorts his men to greater vigilance during their hours on watch. [13] The following night, however, Miles is overpowered while on watch by Dipper and Smudge, two natives who had remained aboard seemingly with no other purpose than to enjoy the daily rations of pork and beef. After Miles has been tied up and gagged, more than a hundred Indians, responding to a signal from Dipper and Smudge, board the Crisis, kill Captain Williams, and trap the crew below decks. As the captors are working the ship toward shore and destruction by means of a line tied to a tree, the Crisis breaks loose and starts drifting seaward with the tide.

[14] Totally unacquainted with the operations of a sailing ship, Smudge and his men depend upon Miles (whom they now free) to turn the ship around and bring it to shore. By means of sign language and figures drawn on the deck, Miles indicates the need of hoisting sails, a task for which the Indians provide the necessary manpower. Applying a lighted cigar to the primer of one of the loaded deck guns, Miles terrifies his captors with the resulting explosion. All but twenty-five jump overboard and swim toward land; those who remain aboard with Smudge, their chief, are all nonswimmers. As the Crisis moves farther from the land and as the anxiety of the Indians becomes intense, Smudge threatens to kill Miles unless he turns the ship shoreward. By this time there is little danger in doing just that, for they have by now progressed more than a league from the nearest land. Turning into the wind so aggravates the seasickness of the Indians that their alertness is greatly reduced. At an opportune moment Miles unlocks a forward hatch, and the crew, led by Marble (now Captain Marble), rushes out upon the surprised natives. Those not killed in the onslaught jump overboard to their deaths, Smudge alone being held captive. Over Miles’s protest their chief is later hanged from a yardarm in full view of his people as a warning. Recovering its yawl and appropriating a cache of six hundred pelts, the Americans depart.

[15] Following the ship’s scheduled course, Captain Marble sails for the Sandwich Islands [now Hawaii] to pick up a cargo of sandalwood to be traded at Canton for tea. Miles is now Marble’s first mate, and Roger Talcott has been promoted to third mate. Instead of sailing directly for China after leaving Honolulu, Captain Marble indulges one of his pet dreams for acquiring a quick fortune: a pearl-fishing expedition. Taking along with them four expert Hawaiian divers, the Americans sail south until they come upon an uncharted coral island and anchor for the night in the quiet waters of its lagoon. Exhausted from day-and-night exertions, everyone sleeps soundly, including (unfortunately) Harris, the man on watch. They awaken in the morning to find themselves captives of a shipwrecked crew of fifty Frenchmen who have come aboard in the dark and captured a rich prize. The tri-color already flies from the ship’s gaff.

[16] The Frenchmen were all from the Pauline, a privateer wrecked on the uncharted island. They had spent their time since this accident constructing a ninety-ton schooner from the timbers and decking of the grounded Pauline, planning to continue on their way to France in the smaller vessel. With chivalric sentiment Captain Le Compte declares that he will turn the schooner over to the Americans when he departs in the Crisis. One more surprise is in store for the American officers as they go ashore at Le Compte’s invitation to breakfast with him in his tent. In an adjacent tent are housed their English acquaintances Major and Emily Merton. Having been assigned to a post in Bombay, the Major and his family had almost reached that distant city when the vessel on which they had sailed was taken by the Pauline. Mrs. Merton had died at Manila, but the Major and Emily are now being transported to Europe again. This reversal in directions does not occasion any personal discomfort for the Mertons aside from the annoyance of Le Compte’s sallies of amorous gallantry toward Emily.

[17] Captain Marble orders unremitting work to rig and outfit the newly launched brig, Pretty Polly, with a view toward using it to recapture the Crisis. Miles considers this hope little short of fantasy, remembering that the Crisis is well armed and that the Pretty Polly is equipped with only a chest of pistols and sabers salvaged from the ocean floor where the French had thrown surplus items from the Crisis. As the ship is being readied to sail, Miles, while swimming, discovers a bed of large pearl oysters and brings to the surface a basketful of these shellfish. When Marble learns of this, he sets his Hawaiian divers to work filling several bags and barrels with these marine creatures. Miles from his own catch extracts about two hundred pearls, some of considerable size, all of which he puts aside to be used as gifts rather than sold.

On the morning of the eleventh day of sailing toward the west coast of South America, they sight the Crisis. Near sunset the wind subsides so much that the schooner is sailing at a mere two knots. Taking the four Sandwich Islanders as oarsmen, Captain Marble proceeds in a whaleboat, at the rate of five knots, to approach the Indiaman and reconnoiter her movements under the cover of darkness. A sudden and severe thunderstorm arises, however, and the whaleboat is lost; search for it all of the following day is in vain. After another fifteen days of eastering, those aboard the Pretty Polly sight a peak of the Andes, and three days later they anchor in a roadstead on the coast of Ecuador. From Don Pedro, a smuggler with whom they had earlier done business, they learn that the Crisis lies only ten miles away in a protected cove. Using a local pilot, the Americans seek out and board the Crisis in the dark. So completely are the French surprised that the battle lasts for only three minutes before they ask for quarter. The Americans have nine slightly wounded (including Miles himself) and one dead; the French have sixteen killed (including Captain Le Compte) plus several wounded. Major Merton and Emily, who remained below decks during the brief action, are unharmed.

[18] Leaving the coast as quickly as possible, lest they encounter Spanish coast-guard vessels, the Crisis and the Pretty Polly are by daybreak four leagues from land. The first ship they sight is a Spanish merchantman from whom they learn that the naval war between France and the United States has been terminated. Sailing shorthanded, the Spanish captain agrees to hire the French captives of the Crisis as crewmen on his own vessel — an arrangement agreeable to all hands. Soon thereafter a second ship appears on the horizon, an American whaler from which a boat is at once dispatched to the Crisis. As the boat approaches, everyone on the Crisis recognizes a figure in its bow as none other than Moses Marble! Although Miles tries in every way to return command of the Crisis to Marble, he fails. Marble insists that since the ship was in enemy hands for more than twenty-four hours, the man who led its recapture is legally its commander. On this point he remains resolute, but he does accept temporarily the captaincy of the smaller vessel, the Pretty Polly.

[19] The two vessels return to the coral island, which they now call Marble Land, in order to salvage both the rich cargo and the valuable copper from the wrecked Pauline. While this freight is being loaded, primarily on the schooner, Miles, Marble, Major Merton, and Emily relax and enjoy the Edenic beauty of the island and its coral reefs. During one of their conversations Major Merton remarks whimsically that he would not mind spending the rest of his life in such an idyllic spot. What the Major says in jest Marble contemplates seriously. A foundling as an infant and a bachelor as an adult, Marble has no family ties; he has been ineffectual as a marine officer, an elderly man who had never risen to the rank of captain until the sudden death of Captain Williams; and then much to his professional mortification he had lost the Crisis shortly after taking command. All his misfortunes have frustrated and embittered Moses Marble to the point of withdrawal. He will become a hermit on his own island, Marble Land. All efforts to dissuade him from this course fail. [20] Miles accordingly appoints another captain for the Pretty Polly, which sails for New York, and shortly afterward the Crisis departs for Canton. The remainder of the voyage is uneventful except for a brief running battle, on the way home, with twenty-eight pirate proas in Sunda Strait, where the John had earlier had a similar engagement. It is June of 1802 when the Crisis re-enters the harbor of New York.

[21] With the Pretty Polly preceding the Crisis to New York by several months, news of the loss of the latter and its recapture by Miles had become a sensational news story. The valuable cargoes brought back in both vessels also add appreciably to Miles’s reputation. His reception in New York, therefore, is enthusiastic. Mr. Hardinge, Grace, Rupert, and Lucy are in the city at the time of his arrival, making his return most gratifying.

[22-24] His subsequent sojourn ashore, first in New York City and later at Clawbonny, proves to be less satisfying. His family estate flourishes: Clawbonny’s fields are productive, his grist mill earns substantial profits, and his investments (handled for him by Mr. Hardinge) pay good dividends. Assets so ample enable him to purchase a ship of his own, the Dawn, a year-old vessel of five hundred tons burden. His social relationships, however, grow complex and confusing. Miles always assumed that he would marry Lucy Hardinge and that his sister, Grace, would marry Rupert. The appearance of Emily Merton in New York and the information that she and her father had sailed with Miles for the past year — a fact to which he had made no reference whatever in his letters home — fill Lucy with doubts about Miles’s intentions. The news that Lucy has rejected three suitors but is still seeing a fourth, one Andrew Drewett, gives Miles some pause. The Miles/Lucy association suffers primarily, though not entirely, from a failure of communication. Both Lucy and Rupert have recently been almost adopted by Mrs. Margaret Bradfort, the wealthy cousin of their father, and through this lady’s influence they have been introduced into a higher social class in New York City. Rupert, who has been receiving two-thirds of Miles’s sea pay, now finds it embarrassing to associate with a mere sea captain; although Lucy does not share this feeling, she has been moving in a social group closed to a person of Miles’s education and occupation. Even the benevolent and kindhearted Mr. Hardinge acknowledges, when pressed for an honest answer, that there is some class distinction between the professional tradition of the Hardinges and the commercial tradition of the Wallingfords. [25] It is with considerable frustration and some bitterness that Miles embarks on the Dawn for a short voyage to Bordeaux, France.

Reluctantly Miles agrees to carry three passengers, Wallace Mortimer Brigham, his wife, Sarah, and his sister-in-law, Jane Hitchcox. Inveterate gossips and name-droppers, these Salem Yankees bore Miles with inane chatter about acquaintances made in New York while they were awaiting passage to France. Among those mentioned in their frequently misinformed observations are Mrs. Bradfort and Rupert Hardinge. [26] The only surprise produced during the crossing of the Atlantic is the reappearance of Moses Marble. Tired of his island hermitage, Marble had returned to civilization, and after several months he had worked his way toward home until now he is on the Dundee, a Scottish vessel bound for London. Captain Robert Ferguson agrees to his transfer to the Dawn, and there is a joyous reunion between Marble and his old shipmates, especially Miles and Talcott.

Instead of returning to New York directly from Bordeaux, Miles, awaiting a cargo destined for America, fills the time by carrying freight first to Cronstadt (then a Russian port on the Baltic] and later to various cities on the Mediterranean. While touring briefly in Italy, he again meets the Brighams, this time in Florence. They regale him with news and gossip brought to them by letters from home. Among the news is the information that Mrs. Bradfort has died and left her fortune to Rupert Hardinge, a fortune so substantial that its annual income is more than $6,000. Lucy, reportedly, has received nothing.

Hoping that he and Lucy will now be close enough in social status to permit a renewal of their mutual affection, Miles hastily contracts for a cargo and sails for New York. [27] Soon after his arrival there he meets Rupert on the street and learns Mrs. Bradfort’s estate had been left to Lucy and not to her brother (whose extravagance and irresponsibility with money had apparently alarmed their wealthy cousin). Later that evening Miles meets at the theatre the Hardinges, the Mertons, and Andrew Drewett and his mother. [28-29] The following day he leaves for Clawbonny, distressed at the news that Grace is ill.

Miles finds his sister’s condition more serious than he had supposed. Abandoned by Rupert in favor of Emily Merton, Grace, brokenhearted, has suffered a serious physical decline. Miles, shocked at her frailty, sends to New York City for a well-known physician. When the Wallingford returns with Dr. Post, it brings also Moses Marble and Lucy Hardinge, who has heard of Grace’s illness. It is clear to Lucy at once how grave a sickness her childhood friend suffers, and she (as Grace had done earlier) exacts a promise from Miles not to take vengeance upon Rupert for his heartless behavior.

[30] Among other remedies for Grace Dr. Post recommends a change of scene, and soon the whole party at Clawbonny — Miles, Grace, Lucy, Mr. Hardinge, Moses Marble, and Dr. Post — cruises up the Hudson toward Albany. One of the boats they come alongside en route is the Orpheus, a sloop which has among its passengers Andrew Drewett and his mother. Mrs. Drewett wishes to pass a small box to Lucy, and Andrew walks out on a boom to deliver the parcel to the Wallingford. He slips midway and falls into the river. Told that Drewett cannot swim, Miles dives into the water to rescue him but is himself pulled down and almost drowned. The powerful Neb, swimming beneath the two struggling bodies locked together, buoys them up long enough for Marble and several seamen to pull all three aboard a boat from the Wallingford. Although only half conscious, Miles will clearly survive, while Drewett’s body appears to be lifeless.

Antoin [sic], Margaret Bradfort, Sarah Brigham, Wallace Mortimer Brigham, Chloe Clawbonny, Dido Clawbonny, Hiram Clawbonny, Nebuchadnezzar Clawbonny, Pompey Clawbonny, Dale, Captain Digges, Dipper, Mrs. Drewett, Andrew Drewett, Robert Ferguson, Mrs. John Foote, Archibald Gracie, Greene, Rev. Mr. Hardinge, Lucy Hardinge, Rupert Hardinge, Harris, Jane Hitchcox, Dr. Hosack, Joe, Kite, Captain Le Compte, Mrs. John Little, Captain Moses Marble, Emily Merton, Major Merton, Mrs. Merton, Morgan, Don Pedro, Dr. Post, Captain Robbins, Slit-Nose, Smudge, Sweeney, Roger Talcott, Tin-Pot, Abraham Van Valtenberg, Mrs. Wallingford, Grace Wallingford, John Wallingford, Miles Wallingford, Miles Wallingford [the younger], Walton, Captain Williams.

[Miles Wallingford, published separately, is not so much the sequel that its subtitle declares as a continuation of Afloat and Ashore. It commences in the middle of this episode.]