Born on Land, Shaped by the Sea: Character Development in James Fenimore Cooper’s Afloat and Ashore

Barbara Rumbinas and Zygmunt Mazur (Jagiellonjan University)

Presented at the 19ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2013.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2013 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 19), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn, editor. (pp. 47-51).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

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

When James Fenimore Cooper published Afloat and Ashore (1844), he was venturing into a tumultuous diurnal debate about the source of racial differences that had begun to gain momentum during the 1820s. Dr. Charles Caldwell argued in provocative and contentious statements that there were innate differences among the races based on his theory of polygenesis (Horsman 117). According to Horsman, by the late 1840s, “the racial question” (133) was at the center of intellectual activity, and these discussions about it would become “commonplace by 1850” (Horsman 120). Cooper was aware of the ongoing debate. Following his deep desire to shape American character in order for people to fulfill the legacy left to them by the Founding Fathers, he cast a Negro slave as one of the main characters in Afloat and Ashore. Kay Seymour House, James Grossman, and Thomas Philbrick have asserted that the central theme of Afloat and Ashore is the growth and development of the character of Miles Wallingford. It follows then that the same development would be true of the other principal characters. In this regard, voyages at sea do not simply reveal character, but help to shape and determine it. House argued that Cooper expanded the character of Miles Wallingford, to become, “if not Everyman, something like a hypothetical American” (222). It would appear that Cooper also followed this pattern with the character of Neb, perhaps not as a representation of all African Americans, but of the latent potential — the capacity of African Americans — to improve and develop if given the opportunity for education and direction.

Luis A. Iglesias has pointed out that throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, American ships were routinely crewed by diverse people from around the world, and that Cooper was “cognizant of the diversity” of the American seafaring industry (Iglesias 5). In this respect, Cooper’s ship can be seen as microcosm of American society, in which he weaves complex social criticism that often contrasts the codified rules on land with those established at sea; viz. “That afternoon the crew came on board, a motley collection of lately drunken seamen, of whom about half were Americans, and the rest natives of as many different countries as there were men ... (49). An analysis of Miles’ interactions with the characters of Neb, his slave and Rupert, the son of Miles’s guardian, also reveals contrasts, distinctions, and transformations of relationships formed on land that were radically transformed by the adventures the characters experience at sea.

Neb, short for Nebuchadnezzar Clawbonny, was one of a group of slaves that had been in Miles’s family since it established the family estate named Clawbonny, in 1607. Miles inherited Neb and the others upon the death of his mother. He explains that slave ownership is a complex social and financial obligation with multifaceted dimensions that may go unnoticed by some. House has noted that Cooper was the first American author to explore the social dimensions of Negro character with any “complexity and depth” (House 73). Cooper followed a set pattern in his characterization of Negroes; when the characters were within the family group, they are “treated as a child ... [in] a less restrictive life ... [(s)he] is granted as much autonomy” (76) as [(s)he] is able to handle. In line with this pattern, we are introduced to Neb while at Clawbonny. He is slightly older than Miles, and had been his “humble playfellow from infancy” (15). At the time the adventure begins, Miles says of his relationship with Neb, that he had, “through an off-hand friendliness ( ... ) characteristic of my habits at that day ( ... ) got[ten] to love me as a brother or comrade” during childhood (15). Our only information about how Neb views Miles is filtered through Miles narration, in which he states that Neb was “fully aware he was my property” (37). Clearly, Neb was a fine companion, even a friend of Miles, when the boys were fishing or skipping school. It is easy to see how the lines between master and slave could become blurred to the point that Neb could come to consider Miles his brother; however, once Miles leaves the secluded world of Clawbonny and makes his entrance into a world of his own choosing, Neb is only “permitted to follow, but at such a distance as to prevent his being suspected of belonging to our party” (41). Any allusion to an equal social relationship between Miles and Neb dissolves with the consent Miles gives to Neb’s presence in his party. Miles can only acknowledge an intimate connection with Neb outside of the public view; once in society, their personal association must become secret. Cooper contrasts the morality of Miles behavior with that of Neb when the latter unhesitatingly exchanges places with Miles on the battle line. Neb’s very public act of selfless devotion to Miles, even unto death, stands in stark relief against Miles “boyish regard” for Neb. Miles appears to minimize the depth of Neb’s devotion not because it is not clearly observable, but rather, because he is unable or unwilling to rise above social {48} distinctions in order to render it possible. Interestingly, Miles is disturbed by the injustice in the lack of acknowledgement of Neb’s heroic action, which foiled an attempt by pirates to board the John. Part of Miles’s sense of injustice is rooted in his guilt over Neb’s unhesitant self-sacrifice. It is also grounded in his budding awareness of Neb’s transformation from an object of utility into an individual capable of free and independent thoughts and actions.

Everybody was praised but Neb, who, being a “nigger,” was in some way or other overlooked. I mentioned his courage and readiness to Mr. Marble, but I could excite in no one else the same respect for the poor fellow’s conduct that I certainly felt myself ( ... ) poor Neb belonging to a proscribed color, it was not in reason to suppose he could ever acquire exactly the same credit as a white man. (62)

Neb’s transformation into a fully sentient person comes as an unforeseen consequence of the John running aground. Cooper uses the scene to expose the danger of the demagoguery in America when Captain Robbins insists on following an unproven theory related to ocean currents, rather than using traditional means of navigation or trusting the experience of his officers who had a prior history of sailing in the area. In this moment, Robbins assumes the role of a demagogue who artfully insists that his course of action was the best one without even considering the consequences if he was wrong. Cooper later remarks that “white America ... [has a] strong ... resemblance to the ‘nigger,’ when he gives up ... [his] mental power” (519) to the demagogues. Robbins follows the ocean currents directly onto the breakers, hopelessly shipwrecking the members of the John’s crew. Under maritime law the shipwrecked crew of a merchant ship are freed from their contractual obligations to the ship’s master and become their “own masters” (74). Although a slave on land, once Neb came aboard ship, he became a member of the crew, who then must include him in the “consultation” (74) of what to do, however hesitant they may feel, in order to secure their future survival. In doing so, Neb is emancipated and brought fully into the society of sailors, which by 1803, accounted for approximately eighteen percent of maritime jobs in America (Bolster 6). Neb’s emancipation offers him the opportunity to be seen as a competent man for the first time in his life.

After being shipwrecked, the men make their way to land and are without resources of any kind. They manage to find a ship, the Tigris, whose Captain is willing to allow them to work their way back to America. When they encounter a French cruiser, it is again Neb in the breech as the Captain assigns him to a small fire engine that had been stored in the ship’s launch. Admittedly, Neb, as a man of color, is one of the most expendable people on an over-crewed ship, as the Tigris was at the time of this encounter. However, Captain Digges had been told of Neb’s actions in saving the John from being boarded by pirates. Neb’s enthusiastic willingness to follow Captain Digges’s orders secures his promotion to Captain of the firemen. Digges orders:

Now, let us see what you can do at that forward dead-eye, darkey, ( ... ) Take it directly on the strap. Play away, boys, and let Neb try his hand.” It happened that Neb hit the dead-eye at the first jet, and he showed great readiness in turning the stream from point to point, as ordered. (86)

When some of the French crew attempt to board, Neb again rises to the occasion when the Captain yells, “Squirt away, ( ... ) Neb!” (88). Neb’s accurate spraying of the boiling water keeps the French crew from boarding the Tigris. The specter of slavery, which had clouded the crew of the John’s ability to recognize Neb’s contribution to their survival has vanished. When the men of the Tigris tell the tale of their exploits with the French on their return voyage to America, “the glory was acquired principally by Neb” (89). The influence of French republicanism on the changed attitude of the crew toward Neb subtly underscores France’s criticism of the American paradox in the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal’ when clearly slavery coexisted. It also provides a vivid dramatization of the capacity of the African American to become equal to, even better than, his white sailor brothers if given an opportunity to do so. Cooper’s image stands in stark contrast to the representations propagated by Southern apologists who were “sharing in and taking advantage of” (Horsman 122) a more general racial shift to push the innate inferiority of the Negro as part of their more general defense of slave ownership.

In order to resolve on plot thread, Miles and Rupert are separated from Neb during the final leg of their journey to America. They are presumed drowned. It is Neb who must carry the sad news to those waiting at Clawbonny. An added burden thrust upon Neb as soon as he steps foot on land, is that his emancipation evaporates and he “return[s] to slavery” (100). Gone is the image of Neb as a heroic seaman capable of saving a ship. Instead, Cooper offers a racist stereotype of a jovial simpleton, an unintelligent black man who goes through his process of “negro excitement” (103) when he hears that Miles is safe, shouting, “Master Miles come home!–Master Miles come {49} home!” (103). Gone too is the image of Miles as a man of action and authority. He is no longer a world traveler and competent sailor; he regresses to the role of an adolescent under the protective guardianship of the Reverend Hardinge. He deferentially listens to Rev. Hardinge instruct him to take time for proper reflection before making a decision about what he might want to do professionally. A prisoner of the social conventions on land, he is frozen, unable to take any action, make any reply, and he simply gives a “respectful inclination of the head” (109) as his answer. At sea, Miles is heir to Clawbonny and all her resources, but on land, as the family’s trip to New York City highlights, he and his party are still “too young to be company” (112) and require the supervision of an appropriate adult to keep them safe and to guide their behavior in polite society.

However, they are not long in the city when Miles, the man of action, reasserts himself. He announces his intention to return to the sea to Reverend Hardinge and requests that Neb be allowed to go with him. Previously, Neb had “received private instructions” (114) to stow their seafaring gear onboard the Wallingford for their trip into the city. Miles and Neb jointly search for an appealing ship, the duo each cast off their respective culturally imposed stereotypic role. Neb returns to being an expert seaman who, “could hand, reef, and steer, knot and splice, and was as useful as nine men in ten on board a vessel ( ... ) a sterling fellow” (114) whom Miles trusts to find an appropriate berth for their next voyage. The call of the sea appears to have washed away the nonsensical black stereotype required on land to allow the reemergence of Neb as a heroic and competent man of the sea. Cooper’s repeated mention of Miles’s age and the limited social mobility his youth affords him on land stands in contrast with the many opportunities open to him at sea when Marble declares to Captain Williams of the Crisis that Miles would “make as good a third mate as can be found in all America” (114-115). Miles’s rise to the rank of junior officer at the tender as of eighteen would have been a bit unusual. Marcus Rediker, points out that generally “captains and mates [were] in their early thirties” (The Devil 13). Cooper justifies the action by saying that so many young men had been pressed into service in the Navy that, “officers were scarce (115) for the merchant ships. Cooper’s early promotion of Miles confirms his exceptional status, which he intimates through Reverend Hardinge’s comment, “it is a feather in your cap, indeed, to have commanded an Indiaman a twelvemonth before you are of age” (343)

The sea is a source of pleasure and inspiration to both Miles and Neb notwithstanding the risks, dangers and sufferings involved; “As for Neb, the fellow was fairly enraptured. So quickly and intelligently did he obey orders, that he won a reputation before we crossed the bar. The smell of the ocean seemed to imbue him with a species of nautical inspiration, and even I was astonished with his readiness and activity” (121). The vocabulary employed by Cooper on this occasion is not to be missed: quickness, intelligence, inspiration, aesthetic pleasure rendered as rapture, are not neutral terms. The highly controversial nature of Neb’s portrayal, both physically and morally is best seen in contrast to a popular image circulating at the time that stated, “the negro species ... [has more] sensual affections than pure contemplation ... his intellect is not ... extensive ... his shape ... [resembles] ... the Orang-Outang (sic) ... Such characteristics show evidently a degradation toward the Ape genus, and should their appearance not betray such gradation, their moral character would show it sensibly” (Guenebault 2-3). In context, Cooper’s descriptors are radical; unfettered by the laws that apply on land, a black slave can go to sea, breathe in freedom, and be accepted, nay, will be appreciated by the community on board of a ship, yet on land must shoulder the yoke of slavery. It appears that Cooper had more esteem and respect, perhaps even more admiration, for black slaves than he cared to admit or that was expedient to admit to his readers.

The sea redefined the nature of Miles and Neb’s relationship and transformed a convenient boyhood association between master and slave in an isolated rural location into a mature lifelong friendship based on shared experiences and trust without regard to rank. Yet, while the trials at sea have defined a forthright and honest character in both men, it has washed away the facade of genteel respectability that Rupert once possessed. Miles association with Rupert also begins on land during his youth when the Reverend Hardinge, along with his children, moves into the main house at Clawbonny after the death of Miles’s mother. Early on, Mr. Hardinge had to acknowledge that Rupert and Miles had very different learning capacities. Rupert was not a diligent scholar, though he was “not absolutely dull, ( ... ) [and he] disliked mental labor (14), while Miles learned quickly and easily. Mr. Hardinge hoped that Rupert would embrace more spiritual concerns rather than temporal interests and would follow him into the office of clergyman, while Miles was prepared to enter Yale to study law a full year before his older schoolmate. Mr. Hardinge’s son had a propensity to come up with sophisms that blur the distinction between right and wrong. Using a “subtle manner and oily tongue [Rupert] began to make the wrong appear as right” (31) saying, “You are now substantially your own master ( ... ) and can do as you please” (21). Through clever manipulations, Rupert convinces Miles to go to sea clandestinely, without obtaining his guardian’s permission saying, “many a ship nets more money in a single voyage {50} than your whole estate would sell for” (24). This bait proves successful and the two set off to New York to ship as “foremost-lads” (24) on an Indiaman because a single voyage could make them both rich.

The sea renders the features of Rupert’s character clear and pronounced, however even at the point of departure, he is described as “too indolent too do anything unnecessarily” (35). Meanwhile the navigation down the Hudson River to New York reveals another unpleasant trait about Rupert, for when he takes his turn at the helm and Miles goes to sleep, he keeps the helm for only an hour before waking Neb and foisting it onto him, even though he has already completed his turn. Onboard ship, Captain Robbins agrees to pay Miles eighteen dollars monthly, while Rupert is “cut down” (44) to only thirteen since he was not likely, in the shrewd eyes of the Captain, “to make a weather-daring man” (44). However, since he could write beautifully and rapidly, the chief mate tells “the dickey [rather unflatteringly] that the parson’s son was likely to turn out a regular ‘barber’s clerk’” (45). Although a clerk’s position was eagerly sought by ambitious rural laborers of early nineteenth century seeking opportunities for “upward mobility, the young men who pursued them were clearly considered subordinate laborers” (Luskey) in an increasingly capitalist culture. At sea, the technical skills, practical knowledge, and work ethic that Miles’s father had taught him, such as tying a “flat-knot, a bowline, a clove-hitch, two half-hitches, and such sort of things” (46) earned him an early compliment from the chief mate — Miles “was the ripest piece of green stuff he had ever fallen in with” (46). Whereas Miles often spends his time in active duty aboard ship, Rupert is content to stand, “lounging against the foot of the main-stay, smoking his cigar like a burgo-master” (45).

After their first voyage has ended and the three young men are safely back at Clawbonny, Rupert takes great pleasure in regaling the girls with his account of their adventures. However, his narration is warped in several ways: skirmishes are elevated into battles, events are falsified, and his role in all of the affairs is embellished with an eye to improving his position with the girls. Rupert becomes the hero of these exploits by an ingenious mixing of facts and inferences to such a degree that even Miles is deceived into believing what he knew was false. Truth and falsity are mixed up to the point that they can never be separated.

Miles was especially hurt by Rupert’s neglect “to do justice to Neb” (104) when he related his account of the adventures. This was particularly distressing because Rupert had “shirked so much duty, most of which had fallen on poor Neb” (104) and had been so “little of a man” (104) while on their voyage that it awakened in Miles the cynical realization that “most of the statements that float about the world are nothing but truths distorted” (104). Throughout the course of their first voyage, Neb had steadily risen in Miles’s esteem. Yet, in listening to Rupert’s account of events, Miles had to admit to himself that during the same voyage his “attachment for Rupert had materially lessened with the falling off of my respect” (104). He could no longer “shut my eyes to the deficiencies of his character” (104). When Rupert announces that he will not seek another voyage, preferring instead to read the law, Miles is surprised that Rupert has recognized that he does not have the makings to be a seaman. Miles believes Rupert’s choice is in keeping with his character, making him a natural lawyer, one who is “good at a subterfuge” (118) and capable of telling “his own story” (118). When Miles and Neb ship out again, Miles insists that Neb be taken aboard, not as his slave, but rather as “an ordinary seaman” (116), which means that Neb would earn a salary just like his free white counterparts. When Lucy, Miles’s love interest in the story, laments that he will be all alone on this new and dangerous undertaking, Miles quickly retorts, “Oh! I shall do well enough — there’ll be Neb ... ” (118). Miles’s rejection of one of his own class speaks to the depths to which Rupert has fallen, just as his preferred association with Neb is illustrative of the height of his opinion of Neb’s character.

As Miles and Neb set off for another journey, Rupert is placed with an attorney. Now, Mr. Hardinge only needs to provide him with clothing and pocket money. However, Miles knows “Rupert too well to suppose he would, or could, be content with the little he might expect” (116) from his father and therefore offers to allow him to draw against his sea pay in the amount of $20 per month. When Rupert willingly accepts the offer, Miles laments that “there are certain acts we may all wish to perform, and yet which bring regrets when successfully performed” (116-117). He had hoped Rupert had enough pride to decline the offer; however, his ready acceptance shatters any remnant of respect that Miles may still harbor for him.

Initially, the three characters share a similar position; they are each wholly dependent upon the Reverend Mr. Hardinge, who must give permission for them to do those things that they wish to pursue. Their shared fate is that none is their own master. Neb and Miles are enslaved — Neb in reality, and Miles by his orphan minority status. Miles’s flight to the sea is a bid for freedom, while Neb achieves freedom by being a devoted servant. By the end of the first voyage, their personal characters are defined and their paths are set. When Miles attains the age of majority, like Neb’s social emancipation, launches him into another social class irrespective of his age. Rupert, by contrast, fails the trials at {51} sea and must then rely solely on his air of “native gentility” and “a readiness of tongue and a flow of spirits” (16) to make his way on land. His attraction to, and the value of, the superficial qualities of life keep him locked in a life of dependency, first on his father and Miles, and later on his wife and sister. Lacking a character of any real substance, Rupert fades into obscurity while Neb and Miles go on to lives of further adventure and prosperity.

According to House, Cooper’s views on equality and slavery are distinctly Aristotelian (73) and it would appear that, to some degree, the two volume novel, Afloat and Ashore is Cooper’s attempt to find “ordered harmony” (House 74) among the races and in the nation. It becomes clear that whenever characters and personalities interact, substance triumphs over superficiality, genuineness over artificiality, sincerity and honesty over hypocrisy and falsity. Cooper rejects the prevailing notion that African Americans are innately predisposed to a lack of morality and points out that class and breeding are no guarantee of good moral character. Ultimately, as in many Cooper works, merit is what is deemed important, while class and social position often mask those of low moral character. Neb never directly asserts either his physical or moral superiority in the novel, but by the end, it is clear that he has achieved both through an unpretentious demonstration of bravery, honest devotion, and steadfast values.

Works Cited

  • Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. Print.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. Afloat and Ashore; or, The Adventures of Miles Wallingford. Ed. Thomas Philbrick and Marianne Philbrick . Vol 1. Flushing, NY: AMS Press, 2004. 2 vols. Print.
  • Guenebault, J. H. The Natural History of the Negro Race; Extracted from the French. Charleston, S.C.: D. J. Dowling, 1837. PDF.
  • Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.
  • House, Kay Seymour. Cooper’s Americans. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1965. Print.
  • Iglesias, Luis A. “Race and the Sea: The Black Sailor in Cooper’s Sea Novels.” The James Fenimore Cooper Society Newsletter Fall 2012: 5-8. Print.
  • Luskey, Brian P. “Dishonest Clerks and the Culture of Capitalism.” Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 10.4 ( 2010). 5 July 2013. .
  • Rediker, Marcus. Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, And The Anglo-America Maritime World, 1700-1750 . New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.