The Independence of the Pilot
From Life on the Mississippi
by Mark Twain
If I have seemed to love piloting, it is no surprising thing, for I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it.
The reason is plain: a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth. Kings are but the hampered servants of parliament and people; parliaments sit in chains forged by their constituency; the editor of a newspaper cannot be independent, but must work with one hand tied behind him by party and patrons, and be content to utter only half or two thirds of his mind; no clergyman is a free man and may speak the whole truth, regardless of his parish’s opinions.
In truth, every man and woman and child has a master, and worries and frets in servitude; but in the day I write of, the Mississippi pilot had none. The captain could stand upon the hurricane deck, in the pomp of a very brief authority, and give him five or six orders, while the vessel backed into the stream, and then that skipper’s reign was over.
The moment that the boat was under way in the river, she was under the sole and unquestioned control of the pilot. He could do with her exactly as he pleased, run her when and where he chose, and tie her up to the bank whenever his judgment said that course was best. His movements were entirely free; he consulted no one, he received commands from nobody, he promptly resented even the merest suggestions.
Indeed, the law of the United States forbade him to listen to commands or suggestions, rightly considering that the pilot necessarily knew better how to handle the boat than anybody could tell him. So here was the novelty of a king without a keeper, an absolute monarch who was absolute in sober truth and not by a fiction of words.
I have seen a boy of eighteen taking a great steamer serenely into what seemed almost certain destruction, and the aged captain standing mutely by, filled with apprehension but powerless to interfere. His interference, in that particular instance, might have been an excellent thing, but to permit it would have been to establish a most pernicious precedent.
It will easily be guessed, considering the pilot’s boundless authority, that he was a great personage in the old steam-boating days. He was treated with marked courtesy by the captain and with marked deference by all the officers and servants; and this deferential spirit was quickly communicated to the passengers, too.
By long habit, pilots came to put all their wishes in the form of commands. It “gravels” me, to this day, to put my will in the weak shape of a request, instead of launching it in the crisp language of an order.
The full text of Life on the Mississippi: