The Black Sailor and The Red Rover

James D. Wallace (Boston College)

Presented at the 10ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1995.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 10), Papers from the 1995 Cooper Seminar (No. 10), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 85-92).

Copyright © 1999, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

One of the striking features of the Stringer and Townsend edition of The Red Rover is the title-page illustration, which represents the death of Scipio, a black sailor. The Stringer-Townsend edition of Cooper’s collected novels was published in New York between 1859 and 1861, and, as I have noted elsewhere, it was meant to solidify the position of the works of Cooper, who had died in 1851, as a national treasure. The edition bears this dedication: “To the American People, this illustrated edition of the works of the first American novelist is respectfully dedicated by the publishers” (Wallace, 171). To underline the nationalistic significance of the occasion, Stringer and Townsend engaged F. O. C. Darley, America’s foremost graphic artist, to provide illustrations for each volume. On the brink of the Civil War, Darley chose to make the death of an African-American seaman the representative moment for one of Cooper’s most enduringly popular works. (Significantly, when Darley drew new illustrations for the Appleton edition of 1873, he replaced S’ip’s death with an energetic moment for Wilder, the novel’s technical protagonist.)

F.O.C. Darley, Death of Scipio in The Red Rover

Darley, Felix Octavius Carr, 1822-1888, artist. Jones, Alfred, 1819-1900, engraver, “[Death of Scipio.],” James Fenimore Cooper, accessed February 7, 2023,

“The limb stiffened and fell, though the eyes still continued their affectionate and glaring gaze on that countenance he had so long loved, and which, in the midst of all his long endured wrongs, had never refused to meet his look of love in kindness”

Chap. XXXI, Page 505.

It’s a remarkable picture. S’ip occupies the foreground; the chaplain at his head gazes off into heaven, where S’ip’s soul is bound. S’ip’s left arm and his eyes are directed at Wilder; even as he dies, says the text, “the eyes still continued their affectionate and glaring gaze on that countenance he had so long loved, and which, in the midst of all his long endured wrongs, had never refused to meet his look of love in kindness” (427). The chaplain’s gaze and S’ip’s eyes and his arm parallel one another, and all three parallel a line in the ship’s rigging and another line which is tied around Wilder’s neck: the crew are about to hang him and Dick Fid. Dick cradles S’ip’s head and covers his eyes in grief for his dead friend. Paralleling the line of S’ip’s stiffening right arm is his discarded cutlass and the line around Dick’s neck. It is a powerfully evocative representation of motion in stasis, the still center of the swirling forces that have swept the deck of the Dart during the battle in which S’ip received his mortal wound.

But of course Darley didn’t invent this scene. He was merely trying to capture the meaning Cooper had given it in his novel. This is the turning point, the climax of The Red Rover. The bracelet on S’ip’s arm is in fact a dog’s collar, which carries the secret of Wilder’s identity — like many another Cooper hero, he is a gentleman in disguise, not Harry Wilder, but Henry de Lacey. This fact saves him from hanging, wins him the girl’s hand, and lands him on an estate. The scene of S’ip’s death is thus the pivot on which the plot turns, and it was natural for Darley to choose it for one of his two illustrations of the novel.

The obvious question to ask about the centrality of Scipio to The Red Rover is “Why?” It’s true that Cooper had portrayed African-Americans in his earlier novels — Caesar in The Spy (1821), Agamemnon in The Pioneers — but they were incidental characters filling out Cooper’s portrayal of the American scene. S’ip is something more than that. Moreover, though he is conventionalized in many ways, speaking a “stage-negro” dialect and displaying an inhuman devotion to Wilder, S’ip also has larger dimensions of strength and heroism. He is linked not only to Wilder, but to Dick Fid, the seaman who is so devastated by his death. They are inseparable companions, and when they first appear in the novel, they are arguing in a way that seems rather familiar. Fid criticizes the fact that the Red Rover has anchored so far from the shore at Newport:

“Would any man who understands the behaviour of a ship, keep his craft in a road-stead, when he might tie her, head and heels, in a basin like this!”

“What he call road-stead!” interrupted the negro, seizing at once, with the avidity of ignorance on the little oversight of his adversary in confounding the outer-harbor of Newport with the wilder anchorage below, and with the usual indifference of all similar people to the more material matter of whether his objection was at all germane to the point at issue; “I never hear ‘em call anchoring ground with land around it, roadstead afore.”

“Harkee, Mister Gold-Coast,” muttered the white, bending his head aside in a threatening manner, though he still disdained to turn his eyes on his humble adversary, “if you’ve no wish to wear your shins parcelled, for the next month, gather in the slack of your wit and have an eye to the manner in which you let it run again. Just tell me this; isn’t a port a port; and isn’t an offing, an offing?”

As these were two propositions to which even the ingenuity of Scipio could raise no plausible objection, he wisely declined touching on either, contenting himself with shaking his head, in great self-congratulation, and laughing as heartily at his imaginary triumph over his companion, as if he had never known care, nor been the subject of wrong and humiliation so long and so patiently endured. (34-35)

[86] This scene is reminiscent of those amazing scenes we encounter so often in Cooper’s works, like that in Chapter III of The Last of the Mohicans when, during a lull in the fighting, Natty Bumppo tries to explain to Chingachgook why rivers that run into the sea are sometimes fresh water and sometimes salt — that is, he tries to explain how and why the tides work — and Chingachgook remains just as skeptical as S’ip of the white man’s talk. S’ip’s laugh is like Natty’s, too, with sound added.

This similarity suggests that in The Red Rover S’ip and Fid occupy the same functional position that Natty and Chingachgook hold in the Leatherstocking tales. It was Cooper’s practice, especially early in his career, to create just such equivalencies. In his first sea-novel, The Pilot (1824), the Leatherstocking function that he had discovered the year before in The Pioneers (1823) was given to Long Tom Coffin, an old salt of mythic proportions (and, by the way, the subject of Darley’s title-page for that novel). James Russell Lowell satirized this habit of Cooper’s in A Fable for Critics (1848):

He has drawn you one character, though, that is new, One wildflower he’s plucked that is wet with the dew Of this fresh Western world, and, the thing not to mince, He has done naught but copy it ill ever since; His Indians, with proper respect be it said, Are just Natty Bumppo, daubed over with red, And his very Long Toms are the same useful Nat, Rigged up in duck pants and a sou’wester hat (Though once in a Coffin, a good chance was found To have slipped the old fellow away underground). (57)

Lowell’s witty comment suggests the substance of what it means to say that S’ip and Fid occupy the same “functional position” as Natty, the “Leatherstocking function.” Cooper had originally intended Natty as an incidental character in The Pioneers, a bit of local color in the frontier town of Templeton like the Dutch and French immigrants, the pretentious lawyer, the flamboyant Puritan maid. But Natty had grown beyond that original intention virtually to take over the novel and was immediately recognized as Cooper’s great original contribution to world literature, the “One wildflower he’s picked that is wet with the dew / Of this fresh Western world.” Natty’s function in that novel was to oppose the stolidity and centeredness of Judge Temple: “If the language of The Pioneers forces the reader to perceive Temple and his castle as the nadir of an artificially structured space, it represents Natty as curiously diffuse, ubiquitous, centrifugal rather than centripetal. ... Natty always appears from and returns to the forest which surrounds Templeton; he is a socially marginal character in a literal as well as a moral sense” (Wallace, 143). Natty is the figure of change and mutability in that novel. By educating Elizabeth Temple and Oliver Edwards in a proper relation to the landscape, he secures the future of America — a future impossible for the likes of Judge Temple, who is too bound by his obsession with the letter of the law and too tainted by the ambiguous sources of his wealth and power to be the “father” of the new nation. In a world that threatens to die under the weight of its own rigidity, Natty is the principle of change, the midwife to the birth of the new nation. He himself, of course, is sterile — that is, his symbolic marriage to Chingachgook, so movingly enacted at the end of Last of the Mohicans, has no issue, and Natty dies even as he oversees the marriages that point to the future: Elizabeth and Edwards in The Pioneers, Inez and Middleton, Paul and Ellen in The Prairie.

Conferring such a role on an African-American, however, has a number of extremely interesting implications for our understanding of American culture in the period of the Early Republic. James Russell Lowell notwithstanding, S’ip cannot be merely Natty Bumppo in blackface; the very concept of “mutability” has new dimensions. In the remainder of my time, I want to explore the new dimensions created by S’ip’s association with mutability, and I want to focus on the specific elements created by his identity as a black sailor.

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Douglass described a time when he was sent to be “broken” by a Mr. Covey, who specialized in managing slaves who had shown too much independence of spirit or too quick an intelligence. After a few months there, the treatment had worked: “I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” (73) Since Covey’s house was just “a few rods” from Chesapeake Bay, Douglass often watched, “with saddened heart and tearful eye,” ships sailing, as he imagined, to and from every part of the globe, and he represented his meditations with a melodramatic apostrophe to those ships:

[87] “You are loosed from your mooring, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom. (74-75)

This is probably the most conventional and least effective passage in all of the Narrative, but it does convey Douglass’s powerful sense of the cultural significance of the ships that sailed up and down the North American coast. For him, they were images of mobility and flight, of the possibility of change and progress, of freedom and pleasure, against a fixed landscape of servitude and misery. This is also something like a foreshadowing of his ultimate escape from slavery, for, though he did not in fact sail to freedom, the special status of African- American sailors in the US merchant marine was the key to his success. Not until 1881, nearly forty years after the Narrative, did Douglass finally publish the details of his escape in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. There he revealed that he had borrowed the papers of a friend who “owned a sailor’s protection, which answered somewhat the purpose of free papers.” At the head of these papers was an American eagle, “which at once gave it the appearance of an authorized document.” Though he was no sailor himself, Douglass had been working in a shipyard in Baltimore and “knew a ship from stem to stern, and from keelson to cross-trees, and could talk sailor like an ‘old salt’” (178). Just as important as his knowledge, however, was the prevailing attitude toward sailors, including black sailors: “One element in my favor was the kind feeling which prevailed in Baltimore and other seaports at the time, towards ‘those who go down to the sea in ships.’ ‘Free trade and sailors’ rights’ expressed the sentiment of the country just then” (178). “Sailors’ rights” refers to the struggle of Northern and Mid-Atlantic states to protect the rights of black sailors who were affected by the “Negro Seamen’s Acts” passed first by South Carolina and then by all the other coastal Southern states from North Carolina to Louisiana after a slave rebellion led by Denmark Vesey, a free black. “The 1822 South Carolina law provided for the imprisonment of free black seamen entering the state until their vessels departed and the payment of the cost of the upkeep of the imprisoned men by the shipmaster. Seamen whose expenses were not paid and who did not depart with their ships could be sold into slavery. ... These laws not only impeded the movement of free blacks but also imposed a burden on interstate and foreign commerce” (Putney, 13). Ports like Baltimore suffered direct economic consequences, and, in Douglass’s account, black sailors seems to have benefited from the public anger over those consequences.

Dressed as a sailor in “red shirt and a tarpaulin hat and black cravat, tied in sailor fashion,” Douglass boarded a train in Baltimore and waited until the conductor entered the “negro car”: “He was somewhat harsh in tone and peremptory in manner until he reached me,” Douglass wrote, “when, strangely enough, and to my surprise and relief, his whole manner changed” — apparently because of the generous attitude toward mariners. When the conductor asked for proof that Douglass was a free man, he produced his friend’s papers: “’I have a paper with the American eagle on it, that will carry me around the world.’ With this I drew from my deep sailor’s pocket my seaman’s protection, as before described. The merest glance at the paper satisfied him, and he took my fare and went on about his business” (179). 1

I emphasize this remarkable association of freedom and mobility with the sailor’s life because any combination of the words “black” and “sailor” is likely to evoke flogging and impressment, the brooding presence of Melville’s Billy Budd in our literary imaginations. In an influential article, Richard Brodhead has noted how the use of whipping and flogging became a public issue in the United States: “In the 1830s, then even more prominently in the 1840s and early 1850s, the picturing of scenes of physical correction emerges as a major form of imaginative activity in America, and arguing the merits of such discipline becomes a major item on the American public agenda.” The reason for this emergence, of course, was precisely the antislavery literature that Douglass’s Narrative had initiated and epitomized: that and other slave narratives “remind us of how compulsively the scene of corporal correction is repeated in American antislavery writing, and how central it is made to the image of slavery that writing constructs” (141). The same grim scene of discipline played importantly in merchant-marine reformist texts like Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840) and, more obliquely, in Melville’s White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War (1850).

[88] But the life of the sailor was conceived in more genial terms in the nineteenth century. “I always go to sea as a sailor,” says Ishmael in Moby-Dick, “because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck. For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. In much the same way do the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it” (6-7). Marcus Rediker, in his fine study of eighteenth- century Anglo-American maritime culture, reinforces Ishmael’s preferences: “Mobility, dispersion, and social diversity governed the sailor’s life and conditioned his cultural practices. His rituals were generally simple, unaffected, and straightforward; the seaman, ‘a Man of no Ceremony,’ made the best he could of necessity” (198). Among the sailor’s cultural practices was a powerful disposition to egalitarianism: “The seaman’s egalitarianism was of a piece with other aspects of his culture. It was an essential part of an emphasis on hospitality and cooperation, reciprocity and mutuality, and generosity over accumulation. ... Egalitarianism was also congruent with the all-important reality of movement. Since mobility tended to limit accumulation to transportable property, material differences among seamen were relatively limited. Egalitarian forms of social organization and social relations have been commonplace among history’s nomadic peoples” (248).

The freedom and mobility of the seaman’s life suggest one reason it was an occupation that appealed especially to people who felt themselves marginalized by the economic and social forces of their places in life. We think of the impoverished Redburn, leaving his pleasant village on the Hudson River because of the “Sad disappointments in several plans I had sketched for my future life” (43), or Ishmael, who goes to sea “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul” (3). As W. Jeffrey Bolster has noted, the egalitarianism of life aboard a ship had, for African-Americans, the additional appeal of a stark contrast to the racism and poverty of life ashore:

That egalitarianism frequently confounded shoreside racial etiquette. Three white sailors from the American brig Neptune, after being befriended in 1787 by a Georgian black man named Charles, “thanked him, [and] shook him by the hand” — a gesture unthinkable to the mass of white Georgians. During the War of 1812, the crew of an American warship, invited to a theatrical performance in New York City honoring their bravery in battle, “marched together into the pit, and nearly one half of them were negroes.” Forecastle culture evolved in shipboard populations recruited by merchants with more of an eye to muscle than complexion. ... One observer summed it up by writing, “The good will of ‘old salts’ to negroes is proverbial.” (1179) 2

For economic reasons, too, life at sea was especially attractive for African-Americans. Black sailors were generally paid at exactly the same rate as whites doing the same job. “The best-paid sailor aboard the Rhode Island brig Mary sailing to Cuba in 1819 was Cato Burrill, a black veteran of twenty-five years at sea. Sixteen years later, when the Panther cleared for the East Indies, only one black man was aboard. Paid the same as the white sailors, he earned three times as much as the white “boys” and would not have deigned to stoop to their menial and unskilled tasks” (Bolster, 1180-81). In fact, maritime service was one of the very few avenues providing economic mobility to African-Americans before the Civil War. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), for example, details how an African boy kidnapped into slavery could work as a sailor, win the confidence of his owners, engage in a little private mercantile activity as he circulated from port to port, and eventually save enough to purchase his freedom. Paul Cuffee (1759-1817) a Quaker of African-American and Native American ancestry, was a highly successful shipbuilder, shipmaster, owner of a number of vessels, exporter, importer, merchandiser, and navigation instructor who founded a kind of family dynasty. Absolom Boston became a whaling captain and sailed from Nantucket on the Industry in 1822 with an all- black crew (Putney, 54).

For these reasons among others, African-Americans were drawn to the sea in disproportionate numbers in the first half of the nineteenth century. Bolster’s survey of the allotment of berths on vessels shipping out of Providence, Rhode Island, for example, shows that in the first decade of the century African- Americans constituted 8.6% of the population, but held 22% of berths. The number peaked in 1836 at 30.5% before falling to just 7.5% by mid-century, probably because of a combination of increasingly restrictive Negro Seamen’s laws, the declining economic position of sailors in general, and the increasing racism that accompanied increasing tension between North and South before the Civil War. 3

[89] One of the effects of the black sailor in American culture, then, depends on the way he stands out among the white crew, the attention he attracts as racial other and the social and economic consequences of his difference. But another important effect, paradoxically, is that he may escape attention — that the racial difference of the black sailor may not signify at all, or that racial identity may be ambiguous. This is a difficulty every researcher of African-American history encounters. Martha S. Putney, in her study of the numbers and condition of black seamen and whalemen in American ships before the Civil War, notes that crew lists were sometimes clear about the racial origin of individual seamen and sometimes were not: “Words such as ‘black and white’ and ‘mixed’ in the complexion column might strike modern readers as odd, but they would have no doubt about the ethnic origin of the person so described. On the other hand, the excessive and indiscriminate use of the word ‘dark’ for complexion and hair poses a serious problem. The records show that individuals born in Africa as well as in the United States, England, France, Italy, and elsewhere had dark complexions and hair” (2). She often found that persons identified merely as having “dark” or “yellow” complexions on one voyage were listed as “black” on another. Sometimes men were described as having dark complexions and brown hair on one voyage and brown complexions and dark hair on another. Mixed ancestry made descriptions even more difficult: “one seaman reportedly had fair complexion and sandy hair. Had not the record maker entered the word ‘colored’ in parentheses in the appropriate space, this man would have been counted among the non-black” (4). In 1837 a man listed as having a light complexion and brown hair was jailed on his arrival in New Orleans and later shipped to Philadelphia on another vessel.

Complicating the problem of identity still more was the problem of the “protection papers” that every American seaman was supposed to have. As Frederick Douglass’s story indicates, it was common for anyone who needed a new identity or free movement to borrow the papers:

many slaves could escape by personating the owner of one set of papers; and this was often done as follows: A slave nearly or sufficiently answering the description set forth in the papers, would borrow or hire them till he could by their means escape to a free state, and then, by mail or otherwise, return them to the owner. (177)

The practice seems to have been nearly as common among seamen, including those of European extraction. In Miles Wallingford (1844), Cooper referred to these borrowed papers as “beggars’ certificates, they not unfrequently fitted one man as well as another” (quoted in Putney, 11). Any papers whose description didn’t fit their bearer were confiscated and destroyed. Putney found a great many sailors listed as having “no proofs.” These could have been foreign or black sailors; there is rarely any way of being certain. Putney eloquently summarizes the difficulties in identifying the presence of black sailors on American ships: “The thousands of ‘no proofs’ and unidentified, the thousands more with vague and confusing descriptions, the hundreds of apprentices with no personnel data, and others whose identities cannot be ascertained because of torn and deteriorated crew lists render it impossible to determine with mathematical certainty how many blacks were on the ships” (12).

Moreover, the anxiety of identifying racial origin, or linking identity to racial origin, is not just a modern problem of historical research. As the whole apparatus of “protection papers” suggests, the problem of the sailor’s identity was very much an early nineteenth-century preoccupation as well. The immediate reason for that preoccupation was the hazard every American sailor ran on the high seas, where the danger of being impressed into the British navy was quite real. In the standard histories of the U.S., the British practice was one of the leading motives for the War of 1812:

British officers regarded the right of searching American ships and taking off British subjects as essential. They did not claim the right to impress American seamen, but they refused to admit that a Briton could be naturalized into an American citizen. ... It was humiliating for American vessels to lay to under the guns of a British cruiser while a lieutenant and a party of marines lined up the crew and examined them. Moreover, many British officers were arrogant and unfair. (Nevins and Commager, 159)

Exactly such a case is described in chapters XIII and XIV of Miles Wallingford, including the arrogant and unfair officers.

But of course there is a strong racial motive to the problem of the black sailor’s identity, as well. The whole history of the development of ideas about “race” in British North America is a fascinating study. From our twentieth-century perspective, we tend to think of race as a relatively simple concept, a matter of “genetics,” as we like to say, at least until it is complicated by the intermingling of genetic pools. As many scholars have noted, though, this particular idea of race is a mid-nineteenth-century development. In its earlier forms, the word “race” meant something more like “kind,” and was a synonym for everything from “family” to “nation.” When Europeans first saw Africans, Native Americans, Asians, they seem not to have experienced what we would recognize as “racial difference.” Dana Nelson has put it this way:

early European representations of Native Americans had much more to do with cultural, rather than so-called racial, differences. Textual and artistic representations from the period of early contact reflect much more interest in personal ornamentation and social organization than a physiognomy. Although European representations of Africans had virtually always drawn attention to the darkness of African skin, which increasingly carried a host of negative connotations in European thought, still, early observers depicted African darkness as something of a marvel, even accepting the fact that Africans themselves found their so-called blackness beautiful. (6) 4

On this view, the modern concept of racism was developed as part of a strategy for consolidating a cultural self-representation for the descendants of European settlers in North America. To quote Nelson once more:

Conceived as such, colonial ideology and its manifestations in literature may be viewed as forwarding various strategies for “winning” in the “New World,” a maneuver on the part of “white” Europeans to reclaim and affirm a central role in the order of things. Intrinsic to this maneuver is a process of positioning, of naming situations so that they fit European conceptual necessity. “Race” was a name that evolved into precisely such a winning strategy for Anglo colonialists. Yet as a discontinuous and heterogeneous apparatus, there were always challenges to, and ruptures within colonial discourse on “race.” (20-21)

One consequence of the positioning Nelson describes is that literary and artistic representations of race will emphasize and even caricature the signifiers of racial difference. If we look once more at Darley’s titlepage illustration, we can see this pressure at work. The representation here is of the “Sambo” variety: intensely dark skin, woolly hair, broad, flat nose and wide lips, and, for an exotic touch, an earring. It’s more appropriate as an illustration for a minstrel show than as the image of any African-American body, but Darley, like virtually every artist of his period, imagined racial difference in this exaggerated way.

And he imagined it this way despite the evidence of Cooper’s own description of S’ip:

His features were more elevated than common; his eye was mild, easily excited to joy, and, like that of his companion [Dick Fid] sometimes humourous. His head was beginning to be sprinkled with gray, his skin had lost the shining jet colour which had distinguished it, in his youth, and all his limbs and movements bespoke a man whose frame had been equally indurated and stiffened by toil. (33)

The issue for Darley, for Cooper, for many artists and writers attempting to represent African-Americans, was the clash between the ideological “fact” of unmistakable racial differences and the historical “fact” of the difficulty in maintaining racial boundaries. Where Darley’s illustration implies a fixity of racial categories, Cooper’s text allows for at least some movement between categories — or rather, Cooper subscribed to a different set of categories altogether. I don’t want to be understood as arguing that Cooper was no racist; by our standards, or even by those of Herman Melville, he certainly was, in that he believed there were important physical and intellectual differences between himself and, say, Richard Jackson, a black man living in Cooperstown, New York in the 1830s. On the other hand, like those earlier European explorers, Cooper considered the physical differences to be incidental and inconsequential, and the intellectual differences he considered to be a matter of environment, not of genetics. The Red Rover begins in Rhode Island, which, the narrator is careful to inform us, had become the “chosen retreat of the affluent planters of the South,” and this explains why Rhode Island became the most “southern” of New England colonies: “The inhabitants of the country, while they derived from the intercourse [with the planters] a portion of that bland and graceful courtesy for which the gentry of the Southern British Colonies were so distinguished, did not fail to imbibe some of those peculiar notions concerning the distinctions in the races of men, for which they are no less remarkable” (15-16). The word “peculiar” carries its original meaning of “individual, special, particular, unique,” but it also carries the burden of the “peculiar institution” that distinguished the South from the rest of the United States. 5 Cooper’s own sense of the source of “distinctions in the races of men” is implied when his narrator remarks that Scipio was “intently employed in tossing pebbles into the air, showing his dexterity by catching them in the hand from which they had just been cast, an amusement which betrayed alike, the natural tendency of his mind to seek pleasure in trifles, and the absence of the more elevated feelings which are the fruits of education” (33). That this character is in no way racial is certified by the narrative linking of Dick Fid and Scipio: they are bosom companions, they are perfect matches in both intellect and character, and after Scipio’s death, Fid takes the unlikely measure of lashing himself to Scipio’s body to keep the pirates from throwing it overboard, even as they are preparing to hang Fid himself:

“Where was the man in your lubberly crew that could lay upon a yard with this here black, or haul upon even a lee earing, while he held the weather line! Could any one of ye all give up his rations in order that a sick messmate might fare the better, or work a double tide to spare the weak arm of a friend! Show me one who had as little dodge under fire as a sound main mast, and I will show you all that is left of his better. And now sway upon your whip, and thank God that the honest end goes up, while the rogues are suffered to keep their footing for a time.” (427)

In short, a combination of one’s individual nature, education and environment make one’s character, not one’s racial origins. 6 Going to sea has a salutary effect on everyone, argues The Red Rover: the environment of a ship is particularly conducive to the growth of social feelings and to the breaking down of barriers between people: “One hour of the free intercourse of a ship can do more towards softening the cold exterior in which the world encrusts the best of human feelings, than weeks of the unmeaning ceremonies of the land. He who has not felt this truth, would do well to distrust his own companionable qualities” (191).

Within Cooper’s conception of human character, then, the black sailor displays an intellectual and social mobility that escapes the racial fixity suggested by Darley’s illustration. It is also a balanced mobility-that is, between the stuck- in-the-mud stolidity of the novel’s technical hero (who ironically has adopted “Wilder” as his nom de guerre but who is better represented by his actual name, de Lacey) and the lawless vagaries of the Red Rover himself, the pirate chief who glories in chaos and who orders his men “All hands to mischief, ahoy!” (267) — between these extremes the figure of Scipio Africanus represents growth, responsible change, and transformation.

I began by asking why Scipio has such a central role in the imaginative universe of The Red Rover and located the answer in the mobility and mutability of the black sailor. I am not claiming that Cooper thought African Americans were somehow more mobile than other Americans, that he knew one or more black sailors who influenced him in some material way, or that he was more “liberal” on racial questions than the majority of people living in the United States in 1827 (though all these things may be the case). Rather, I am arguing that forces at work in the culture of the Early Republic made the black sailor a particular arresting figure for a writer attempting to portray his understanding of the racial diversity of American life. In this, Cooper was responding to an insight similar to that which led Melville to open his last, uncompleted novel of the sea, Billy Budd, with his own image of the black sailor:

a common sailor so intensely black that he must needs have been a native African of the unadulterate blood of Ham — a symmetric figure much above the average height. The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest, in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humor. In jovial sallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the center of a company of his shipmates. These were made up of such an assortment of tribes and complexions as would have fitted them to be marched up by Anacharsis Cloots before the bar of the first French Assembly as Representatives of the Human Race. At each spontaneous tribute rendered by the wayfarers to this black pagod of a fellow — the tribute of a pause and stare, and less frequently an exclamation — the motley retinue showed that they took that sort of pride in the evoker of it which the Assyrian priests doubtless showed for their grand sculptured Bull when the faithful prostrated themselves. (292)

Works Cited

  • Bolster, W. Jeffrey, “’To Feel Like a Man’: Black Seamen in the Northern States, 1800-1860.” The Journal of American History 76 (1990), 1173-1199.
  • Boose, Lynda E., “’The Getting of a Lawful Race’: Racial Discourse in Early Modern England and the Unrepresentable Black Woman.” In Margo Hendricks and Patricia Parker, eds., Women, “Race,” and Writing in the Early Modern Period (New York: Routledge, 1994), 35-54.
  • Brodhead, Richard, “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America.” In Philip Fisher, ed., The New American Studies: Essays from Representations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 141-170.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Miles Wallingford: Sequel to Afloat and Ashore. [1844]; rpt. New York: Townsend, 1860.
  • ------. The Red Rover, a Tale [1827]; rpt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.
  • Douglass, Frederick, The Narrative and Selected Writings. Ed. Michael Meyer. New York: The Modern Library, 1984.
  • Lowell, James Russell, A Fable for Critics [1848]; rpt. in The Shock of Recognition: The Development of Literature in the United States Recorded by the Men Who Made It . Ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: The Modern Library, 1943), 23-78.
  • Melville, Herman, Billy Budd and Other Stories. Ed. Frederick Busch. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
  • ------. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale [1851]; rpt. Chicago: Northwestern- Newberry, 1988.
  • ------. Redburn: His First Voyage [1849]; rpt. New York: Penguin, 1976.
  • Nelson, Dana D., The Word in Black and White: Reading “Race” in American Literature 1638-1867. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Nevins, Allan, and Henry Steele Commager, A Short History of the United States. 5ᵗʰ edition. New York: The Modern Library, 1969.
  • Putney, Martha S., Black Sailors: Afro-American Merchant Seamen and Whalemen Prior to the Civil War. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1987.
  • Rediker, Marcus, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Wallace, James D., Early Cooper and His Audience. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.


1 W. Jeffrey Bolster, citing this same incident from The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, remarks on historians who, “like the train conductor who let Douglass slip by, have usually been blind to Afro-American sailors,” but that seems just the opposite of Douglass’ meaning. He represents the conductor as genuinely engaged with him as in individual precisely because of his sailor’s disguise.

2 The quotations Bolster cites are from William Butterworth, Three Years Adventure of a Minor in England, Africa, the West Indies, South Carolina and Georgia (Leeds, [1831]), 205-11; William C. Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons: To Which Is Added a Brief Survey of the Conditions and Prospects of Colored Americans (Boston, 1855), 314, emphasis added; S. G. Howe, Report of the Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, 1864: The Refugees From Slavery in Canada West (1864; rpt. New York, 1969), 75.

3 Bolster (1192-1199) mentions all these factors, but admits that the decline in numbers of black sailors remains something of a mystery. Interestingly enough, the one port city in Bolster’s survey that did not show such a decline was Quaker Philadelphia, where Equiano had won his freedom a century earlier, which hovered at around 17% of berths held by black sailors from 1800 to 1853.

4 For another view of the development of “White Racism” — one that ingeniously links representations of race with those of gender — see Boose.

5 The Dictionary of American English cites J. S. Buckingham’s Slave States of America (1842) as the earliest use of the phrase “peculiar institution,” but of course Buckingham was a British traveler reporting on a trip he had taken in 1839, and the phrase appears in a gloss to a poem that had been published somewhat earlier: “Slavery is usually called here ‘our peculiar institution.’” It’s likely that Cooper had heard the phrase earlier yet from one of his Southern naval friends, like William Shubrick.

6 Miles Wallingford, who is represented as a slave owner and something of a racist, albeit a generous and kindly one, is the first-person narrator of two novels, Afloat and Ashore and Miles Wallingford. He is accompanied throughout by his faithful and loving slave-companion, Neb, but when they are at sea, Neb’s status changes: “Neb was never half as much ‘nigger’ at sea, as when he was on shore,-there being something in his manly calling that raised him nearer to the dignity of white men” (177).