The Pilot: A Tale of the Sea (1824)

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. 147-155.

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] An American frigate and her supporting schooner enter a shoal-filled bay off Northumberland (northeastern England) on a bleak day in December during the American Revolution. Their immediate purpose is to pick up from the rocky cliffs someone referred to at first simply as a pilot. There is a suggestion that he may be a very special pilot when Captain Munson, commander of the frigate, orders his first officer, Lieutenant Edward Griffith, to stand offshore in the ship’s barge, filled with marines, while Lieutenant Richard Barnstable, commander of the schooner Ariel, goes ashore in a whaleboat with a handful of men to bring off the stranger. (Griffith, an educated man who received his commission directly, is the senior lieutenant; Barnstable, who ran away from school, worked his way up through the ranks.)

[2] With Barnstable, as he goes ashore, is his trusty companion and first nautical mentor, the “old salt” and coxswain Tom Coffin, who carries with him everywhere the harpoon used during his whaling days. The most colorful figure in the novel, Long Tom — he is well over six feet tall — is a member of the most renowned family of American whalers, the Coffins of Nantucket. He himself had spent few hours of his life at Nantucket or on land anywhere.

“I was born on board a chebacco-man [a type of vessel used on the Newfoundland fishing banks], and never could see the use of more land than now and then a small island to raise a few vegetables and to dry your fish. I’m sure the sight of it always makes me feel uncomfortable unless we have the wind dead offshore” (p. 20).

[3] Before Barnstable encounters and identifies the pilot, he is intercepted by Katherine Plowden, his intelligent and high-spirited fiancée, disguised as a man. Katherine and her cousin, Cecilia Howard, have been held virtual captives by the latter’s uncle, Colonel Howard, a wealthy South Carolina Tory who retreated to England at the outbreak of the Revolution; guardian of both his niece and Katherine, he has, mindful of his obligation to protect them, compelled the girls to accompany him. Katherine will not agree to board the Ariel until her cousin (engaged to Edward Griffith) is also willing and able to leave England. Giving Barnstable a written description of their place of confinement and a code book to be used in signaling, Katherine disappears into the brush.

[4] By the time that Barnstable is again on the deck of the Ariel and Griffith, accompanied by the pilot, is aboard the frigate, the sea heaves with a strong ground swell that threatens to drive the larger vessel ashore on the rocky coast. As they wait for a wind, their situation grows steadily more perilous, and Griffith thinks that nothing can now save them from destruction. [5] When a tempest begins to blow, the strange pilot adds sail instead of reducing it and, with what seems to be miraculous skill, extricates the frigate from the shoals and carries it clear of the land. Known to no one, at this point, but Captain Munson, the pilot (he is sometimes called Mr. Gray but more often the Pilot, spelled now with a capital P), the man who saves the ship, is John Paul Jones, America’s first naval hero.

[6-7] Captain Munson now calls a meeting of his officers to plan an expedition ashore to capture some prominent Englishmen to be held as hostages. [8] Griffith, placed in command of the landing party, is to be supported by twenty marines under Captain Manual. When Griffith objects to taking along Mr. Gray on such a difficult mission, the Pilot produces a paper and asks the lieutenant to examine it. We are not told the contents of the document, but it identifies for Griffith the man whom we later infer to be John Paul Jones. After the military plans are complete, Barnstable and Griffith, old friends, talk in private about their hopes of locating Katherine and Cecilia during the foray ashore. The invading force transfers to the Ariel, which can run in close enough to the beach to permit an easy landing in small boats.

[9] The scene shifts now to St. Ruth’s Abbey, an old, partly fortified mansion, which the elderly Colonel Howard had rented on his arrival in England. The Colonel drinks and talks with two friends: Christopher Dillon, attorney, a morose, self-centered, and malign man who seeks (with the encouragement of the Colonel) the hand of Cecilia Howard; and Captain Borroughcliffe, a recruiting officer and commander of a company of green troops guarding the Abbey. [10] The gentlemen move to the ladies’ apartment to take coffee, and there they engage in repartee with Katherine, Cecilia, and their older companion, Alice Dunscombe. The verbal exchange between Katherine and Colonel Howard is especially sharp as the two voice diametrically opposed views of the American Revolution. Cecilia, shy and retiring, says little; Alice, loyal to the Crown, has no cause to quarrel with her host.

[11] The social hour is terminated by the announcement that three prowlers have been captured on the premises by the sentries. Recent raids by Americans (including the unnamed John Paul Jones) have made residents of the coastal area suspicious of unidentified strangers. Well might they be anxious about the trio just apprehended, for they are Jones himself, Edward Griffith, and Captain Manual, all disguised as common seamen. [12] After questioning the men, Colonel Howard concludes that they are simply what they claim to be: unemployed deckhands looking for work. Dillon does not agree with this assessment and urges Borroughcliffe to keep the three under arrest. A compromise is reached whereby the men will be detained but will be housed in comfortable rooms in the Abbey rather than in the guardhouse. [13] Dillon, pretending to depart for a fox hunt in the morning in another town, rides to a nearby British military base to report his suspicion that one of the three captives is Edward Griffith, an enemy officer. Colonel Howard and Captain Borroughcliffe resume their drinking after leaving the apartment of the ladies.

During the night the three women bribe the sentinel stationed outside the rooms of the captives and are permitted to talk with the Americans. Katherine and Cecilia promise to send with Griffith’s breakfast means of escape. [14] A more animated discussion develops between the Pilot and Alice Dunscombe, who was once betrothed to Jones and who still loves him despite her disapproval of his activities on behalf of the revolutionary cause. Like Colonel Howard, she thinks the American Revolution not only treasonous but also sacrilegious.

[15] Still later, Captain Borroughcliffe, by now befuddled by too much wine, comes to Captain Manual’s room to attempt to enlist the marine in the British army. Earlier he had detected in Manual the bearing and manner of a military man. When Borroughcliffe releases not only Manual but his two companions as well, the sentry, Peters, observing his officer’s irresponsible condition, rushes to a window to call the sergeant of the guard. Before Peters can spread the alarm, however, Griffith wrenches from his hands his musket and floors the man with it. All three captives depart.

[16] When the escape is discovered, soldiers are sent to scour the coastline for the men. Among the troops are a number of light dragoons who have come at the request of Christopher Dillon. The lawyer guides them to the coast where they see a small boat lying offshore, apparently waiting to pick up someone. While Cornet Fitzgerald and his cavalry search the bluffs that rise from the beaches, Dillon rides at a gallop to a nearby naval post and persuades the commander of the Alacrity, a cutter harbored there, to attempt to trap the schooner anchored farther out in the bay. This the captain of the cutter agrees to do, but he requires the unwilling Dillon to remain on board and serve as their guide to the location he has described.

[17] While the Pilot, Griffith, and Manual are ashore reconnoitering, their return is awaited by Barnstable, Coffin, and several sailors in the Ariel’s whaleboat, which they keep just outside the breaking surf. When their companions do not return and the second day’s wait begins, the men in the open boat become so bored that they pass their time pursuing and eventually killing a large right whale. Tom Coffin is the principal performer in this melodramatic little episode. Before the whale turns belly up and dies, it tows the boat farther than it had been from the Ariel; thus when the British cutter bears down upon it, the Americans have a rigorous stint of rowing to reach the schooner. [18] No sooner are they aboard than the Ariel is engaged in battle by the Alacrity. The cutter makes the mistake of not closing in at once on its prey, for the schooner has a long-range deck gun known as a Long Tom which is fired, quite appropriately, by Long Tom Coffin with deadly accuracy. By the time that the Alacrity pulls abreast of the Ariel, the former has already suffered heavy losses. Her commander’s strategy now is not to resort to exchanging broadside for broadside with the Ariel but to board the schooner, and this he attempts to do. The boarders are repulsed; when Tom Coffin pins the English captain to the mast with a harpoon, the battle is over. Dillon, cringing with fear, is taken prisoner and held aboard the Ariel. After the dead and wounded are given due care, Barnstable again moves toward the shore where the Pilot, Griffith, and Manual are to be retrieved; but he flies a union jack above his own flag, pretending that the British have won the battle and are in possession of the schooner. Since the noise of the fight has probably brought spectators to the shore, this is the only strategy he can employ to approach the land without causing a general alarm that would eventually bring heavy warships after them.

[19] After the trio of Americans escape from St. Ruth’s Abbey, they proceed, under cover of darkness, about half a mile. There the Pilot informs his two companions that he must go apart by himself on secret business. Until he returns, Griffith, Manual, and the latter’s twenty marines are to hide inside an old ruin. Manual foolishly insists on posting a sentinel, who soon challenges Captain Borroughcliffe and his troops. The sentinel is killed immediately, along with five of his comrades at arms; four more are seriously wounded, and Griffith is recaptured. The Americans have no real choice but to surrender. [20] As the wounded are being treated, the grim scene is relieved by a comic episode. Colonel Howard, the old soldier, cannot remain inactive during all of this excitement, so he now appears on the scene shouting orders to his troops, Caesar and Pompey, two confused black slaves from St. Ruth’s Abbey. The Colonel upbraids Griffith, son of an old friend, for his treason to the Crown. He also erroneously informs the lieutenant that the Ariel has been captured by the Alacrity. As he is talking, he is interrupted by the return of the Pilot, whom his two-man contingent charges quite ineffectually. The Pilot escapes.

[21] When Griffith and his companions are many hours overdue at the shore, Barnstable returns to the Ariel convinced that they have been taken prisoner. He now promises Dillon his freedom if he will agree to go to the Abbey, accompanied by Long Tom Coffin, and have Griffith liberated in exchange. Dillon accepts this proposal at once, and Barnstable asks him for no other guarantee than the word of a gentleman. Leaving the Ariel in command of the youthful Midshipman Merry, Barnstable, Coffin, and Dillon go ashore in a whaleboat. [22] Coffin and Dillon then proceed toward the Abbey; Barnstable, awaiting the return of Coffin and Griffith, lies offshore a few yards beyond the breakers. Knowing something of the dastardly character of Dillon, the reader is not surprised to discover his treachery at this point. He has Tom Coffin imprisoned, and he reveals to British authorities the truth about the recent naval engagement and the false colors now being flown by the Ariel and its captive ship, the Alacrity. Orders are issued for the capture of Barnstable, and a dispatch is sent to the commander of a shore battery to sink the Ariel at once.

Borroughcliffe, always looking for recruits, takes Tom Coffin to his quarters, feeds him, and tells him of the dismal prospect for the Americans, both those imprisoned at the Abbey and those still afloat. Then he suggests that the coxswain save himself from execution as a spy by joining the British army. Infuriated by such an insult, Tom overpowers Borroughcliffe and leaves him bound and gagged. [23] He then recaptures Dillon at the entrance of the apartment of Katherine and Cecilia, who guide him back to the coast. The stereotyped old tar can navigate anywhere in the seven seas, but he cannot find his way over the two-mile stretch of land to the shore. [24] Despite Dillon’s pleas for mercy, he is led by the collar back to the sea and there thrown aboard the whaleboat. All hands now strain at the oars to reach the Ariel before either the impending storm or the shore battery can destroy her.

To move the schooner out of the shoal-filled bay and beyond the range of the powerful piece of coast artillery, they must sail against a strong northeast wind blowing out of the North Sea. Their progress is slow but steady until a direct hit carries away the main mast. Now unable to make any headway, they cut down the rest of the spars and rigging to reduce the surface exposed to the wind, and drop their anchors. The force of the wind and the drift of the water are so strong that their anchor hawsers are broken, and the Ariel is driven toward the rocks. Ordering his men into the whaleboat, Barnstable intends to go down with his ship. Long Tom grabs his commander from behind, throws him into the whaleboat, and in the same motion releases the boat’s painter. Most of those in the whaleboat reach the sandy beach safely, but Christopher Dillon and Long Tom Coffin die, the former drowned when he tries to swim to shore, the latter going down with the wreck. [25] When the storm subsides, the body of Dillon is washed ashore; that of Coffin is never found, the sea having apparently reclaimed its own.

As Barnstable and Merry lead their ten surviving seamen to the old ruin, where they are all to hide for the night, the two officers sight in the distance the sail of their frigate. Taking courage from the approach of such substantial support, they plan to persevere in their efforts to liberate Griffith.[26] Merry relieves a passing pack peddler of his wares and, disguising himself appropriately, proceeds in the early evening to the Abbey in the role of the itinerant vender. His costume is convincing, but his ignorance about the merchandise he offers for sale betrays him before the sharp scrutiny of Captain Borroughcliffe, and now he too is taken prisoner.

[27] While Katherine and Cecilia are walking in the garden, Katherine observes a signal from Barnstable spread on the wall of the ruin. By using their prearranged code they are able to apprise each other of the circumstances prevailing at their respective locations and to agree upon a time and place to meet. During this meeting Barnstable reveals to Katherine his plan to attack the Abbey that night, capture all its inhabitants, and convey them to the frigate. Knowing that Griffith, who has been well treated as a captive, will probably not concur entirely with his plan, Barnstable intends to supersede the authority of his superior. As a prisoner, Griffith, he reasons, has only nominal, not active, authority.

[28] As the residents of the Abbey are leaving the dinner table, Barnstable and his seamen burst in upon them and declare them all prisoners. Captain Borroughcliffe calmly refuses to surrender, and with good reason: apprised of the American landing and knowing its limited strength, he has ordered the Abbey encircled with regular redcoats to trap the invaders. Redcoats appear now at the door and effectively close the trap. Alice Dunscombe moves courageously through the doorway to stand between the opposing forces and plead that there be no bloodshed. Suddenly, however, she grows speechless and immobile, staring straight ahead. What she sees is the Pilot, who has landed with a strong force of marines from the frigate and has completely surrounded the British troops.

[29] As Barnstable predicted, he and Griffith now disagree about the procedure to be followed. So heated becomes their difference of opinion that they draw their swords and momentarily clash. At the sound of steel against steel, Katherine and Cecilia rush to the sides of their respective lovers and declare their willingness to accompany the men wherever they may go. At this critical point, the Pilot exerts his authority: ordering the combatants to desist, he announces that all present must move at once to the seashore. Not a soul is left behind lest he be the means of spreading the alarm to other British forces.

[30] When they reach the shore, Griffith informs Borroughcliffe, much to the surprise of the recruiting officer, that once safe embarkation of the rest is assured, he and his redcoats will be released. The women, too, are free to stay or leave, as they wish; Alice Dunscombe declares her intention to remain in England. [31] After the frigate’s barge, commanded by Barnstable and carrying Colonel Howard and the two young women, departs, Alice and the Pilot, moving apart, bid each other farewell forever. Although she still feels affection for the man, she cannot overcome her nationalist and royalist conditioning sufficiently to accept him as a husband.

As the last boats are ready to be pushed off, the released Borroughcliffe, who feels that his hospitality and gentlemanly behavior have been abused, demands a duel first with the Pilot and then with Captain Manual. The Pilot simply ignores him, but Manual accepts the challenge. The antagonists fire their pistols simultaneously, the redcoat receiving a wound in the leg and the marine a crease across his scalp. They shake hands cordially and part the best of friends as the boatswain’s pipe signals the departure of the Americans.

[32] The boats all move to the captured British cutter Alacrity, standing a few miles offshore under the command of David Boltrope, the sailing master [nautical housekeeper] of the frigate. Filled to capacity and towing a string of boats, the cutter heads for the open sea, where at dawn its lookouts sight the frigate. A short run brings the two vessels alongside of each other, and all but the cutter’s crew are transferred to the larger ship. Captain Munson graciously welcomes Colonel Howard aboard and extending to him the hospitality befitting his rank, assigns to him and his wards the vessel’s two staterooms. With less formal but more hearty greetings, he welcomes back the participants of the partially successful expedition ashore.

[33] A ninety-gun ship of the line now comes in pursuit of the Americans, but the frigate outruns this heavy vessel before its large-calibre cannon can find the range. Not to be so easily outrun, however, are two British frigates that accompany the huge man-of-war. The first of these is disabled with well-timed broadsides, and the second is eventually eluded as the Pilot takes his ship through some dangerous shoals that the British do not dare attempt. Predictably, the success of the Americans was achieved at a price. A number of sailors were killed, including Captain Munson, who was carried overboard by a direct hit on the quarterdeck. [34] Mortally wounded by that same shot are Boltrope, the sailing master, and Colonel Howard; after the battle, each expires in a protracted and pathetic death scene. The most urgent of Colonel Howard’s last request is his wish to see the marriage of his niece to Griffith and his other ward to Barnstable. Striving to do his pledged duty in behalf of these girls, he wants to see them properly married before he dies. The wedding ceremonies are performed at once by the ship’s chaplain.

Transferring command of the frigate to Barnstable, Griffith orders him to return to America at once. He himself takes command of the Alacrity, and, accompanied by his bride and the Pilot, sails for the coast of Holland, where he goes to keep his pledge to bury Colonel Howard in consecrated ground. While they are still well off the Dutch coast, the Pilot bids them farewell and goes his own way alone in a small skiff. The Griffiths never see him again.

[35] Edward and Cecilia visit Paris before returning to their own country, where the lieutenant, promoted in rank, remains in the navy until peace is restored. Barnstable, after returning to Boston, is promoted also and given regular command of a warship. Temporarily out of the service after the war, he subsequently accepts a new commission to help develop the new United States Navy. Captain Manual, returning to the regular army and participating in the western campaigns of “Mad” Anthony Wayne, acquires sufficient military reputation to be placed in command of a fort on the St. Lawrence River. There he soon discovers that the commanding officer of the British base on the opposite side of the river is a one-legged officer named Major Borroughcliffe. These two old soldiers meet to carouse and enjoy each other’s company in a hut maintained on the neutral ground of an island in the middle of the river. Returning to his duty one morning after a night of heavy drinking, Manual forgets the password and is shot by his own sentry. Borroughcliffe dies of a high fever brought on by the inroads he makes on a quarter-keg of Madeira while mourning for his friend.

The novel closes with a scene in the year 1792 in the Griffith home, where Edward reads a newspaper account of the death of John Paul Jones. After extolling to Cecilia the valor of one she had known as the Pilot, Edward indicates that great man, like all other mortals, had had his weakness, namely, an excessively romantic love of glory that required that his less honorable exploits be veiled in secrecy. Maintaining his promise to protect Jones’s anonymity during the Northumbrian episode, Edward carefully removes the newspaper from the table and declines to tell even his beloved wife the identity of the Pilot.

Lieutenant Richard Barnstable, Ben, David Boltrope, Captain Borroughcliffe, Caesar, Tom Coffin, Christopher Dillon, Sergeant Drill, Alice Dunscombe, Cornet Fitzgerald, Gray, Lieutenant Edward Griffith, Cecilia Howard, Colonel George Howard, Jack Joker, John Paul Jones, Captain Manual, Midshipman Andrew Merry, Captain Munson, Nick, Peters, Katherine Plowden, Pompey, Sam, Lieutenant Somers, Tourniquet.