In his many voyages, the Scottish-born sailor John Nicol twice circumnavigated the globe, visiting every inhabited continent while witnessing and participating in many of the greatest events of exploration and adventure in the eighteenth century. He traded with Native Americans on the St. Lawrence River and hunted whales in the Arctic Ocean. He fought for the British navy against American privateers in the Atlantic Ocean and Napoléon’s navy in the Mediterranean Sea. En route to Australia he met the love of his life, Sarah Whitlam, a convict bound for the Botany Bay prison colony, who bore his son before duty forced them apart forever.
At the end of his journeys, John Nicol returned to his homeland and a life of obscurity and poverty, until the publisher John Howell met him one day while he was wandering the streets of Edinburgh, searching for dregs of coal to fuel his hearth. After hearing the fascinating stories of Nicol’s seafaring experiences, Howell convinced him to write his memoirs—the publication of which eventually earned Nicol enough money to live comfortably for the rest of his days.
Tim Flannery has edited Nicol’s original text, providing accompanying footnotes and an introduction (updated for this North American edition) that give historical context to the sailor’s exploits.
“Lively . . . Exciting . . . Nicol has made a lasting place for himself in the literature of the sea and the ships he loved so deeply.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Author's Birth — Early Propensities — He Goes to London — Is Apprenticed to a Cooper — Enters the Navy — Smugglers — Arrives at Quebec.
I WAS BORN in the small village of Currie, about six miles from Edinburgh, in the year 1755. The first wish I ever formed was to wander, and many a search I gave my parents in gratifying my youthful passion.
My mother died in child-bed when I was very young, leaving my father in charge of five children. Two died young and three came to man's estate. My oldest brother died of his wounds in the West Indies, a lieutenant in the navy. My younger brother went to America and I have never heard from him. Those trifling circumstances I would not mention, were I not conscious that the history of the dispersion of my father's family is the parallel of thousands of the families of my father's rank in Scotland.
My father, a cooper to trade, was a man of talent and information, and made it his study to give his children an education suited to their rank in life; but my unsteady propensities did not allow me to make the most of the schooling I got. I had read Robinson Crusoe many times over and longed to be at sea. We had been living for some time in Borrowstownness. Every moment I could spare was spent in the boats or about the shore.
When I was about fourteen years of age my father was engaged to go to London to take a small charge in a chemical work. Even now I recollect the transports my young mind felt when my father informed me I was to go to London. I counted the hours and minutes to the moment we sailed on board the Glasgow and Paisley Packet, Captain Thompson master. There were a sergeant and a number of recruits, a female passenger, my father, brother and self, besides the crew. It was in the month of December we sailed, and the weather was very bad. All the passengers were seasick; I never was.
This was in the year 1769, when the dreadful loss was sustained on the coast of Yorkshire — above thirty sail of merchantmen were wrecked. We were taken in the same gale but rode it out. Next morning we could hardly proceed for wreck, and the whole beach was covered. The country people were collecting and driving away the dead bodies in wagons.
My father embraced this opportunity to prejudice me against being a sailor. He was a kind but strict parent and we dared not disobey him. The storm had made no impression upon my mind sufficient to alter my determination. My youthful mind could not separate the life of a sailor from dangers and storms, and I looked upon them as an interesting part of the adventures I panted after. I had been on deck all the time and was fully occupied in planning the means of escape. I enjoyed the voyage much, was anxious to learn everything, and was a great favourite with the captain and crew.
One of my father's masters was translating a French work on chemistry. I went to the printing office with the proofs almost every day. Once, in passing near the Tower, I saw a dead monkey floating in the river. I had not seen above two or three in my life. I thought it of great value.
I stripped at once and swam in for it. An English boy, who wished it likewise but who either would or could not swim, seized it when I landed, saying 'he would fight me for it'. We were much of a size. Had there been a greater difference, I was not of a temper to be easily wronged — so I gave him battle. A crowd gathered and formed a ring. Stranger as I was, I got fair play. After a severe contest, I came off victor. The English boy shook hands, and said, 'Scotchman, you have won it.'
I had fought naked as I came out of the water, so I put on my clothes and carried off the prize in triumph — came home and got a beating from my father for fighting and staying my message; but the monkey's skin repaid me for all my vexations.
I remained in London scarcely twelve months when my father sent me to Scotland to learn my trade. I chose the profession of a cooper to please my father. I was for some time with a friend at the Queensferry but, not agreeing with him, I served out my tedious term of apprenticeship at Borrowstownness. My heart was never with the business. While my hands were hooping barrels my mind was at sea and my imagination in foreign climes.
Soon as my period of bondage expired I bade my friends farewell and set out to Leith with a merry heart; and, after working journeyman a few months, to enable me to be a proficient in my trade, I enteredon board the Kent's Regard, commanded by Lieutenant Ralph Dundas. She was the tender at this time (1776) stationed in Leith Roads.
Now I was happy, for I was at sea. To me the order to weigh anchor and sail for the Nore was the sound of joy. My spirits were up at the near prospect of obtaining the pleasures I had sighed for since the first dawn of reason. To others it was the sound of woe, the order that cut off the last faint hope of escape from a fate they had been impressed into much against their inclination and interest. I was surprised to see so few who, like myself, had chosen it for the love of that line of life. Some had been forced into it by their own irregular conduct but the greater number were impressed men.
Ogilvie's revenue cutter and the Hazard sloop of war had a short time before surprised a smuggling cutter delivering her cargo in St Andrew's Bay. The smuggler fought them both until all her ammunition was spent, and resisted their boarding her until the very last by every means in their power. A good many of the king's men were wounded, and not a few of the smugglers. When taken possession of they declared the captain had been killed in the action and thrown overboard. The remainder were marched to Edinburgh Castle and kept there until the evening before we sailed. When they came on board we were all struck with their stout appearance and desperate looks; a set of more resolute fellows I have never in my life met with. They were all sent down to the press- room. The volunteers were allowed to walk the decks and had the freedom of the ship.
One night, on our voyage to the Nore, the whole ship was alarmed by loud cries of murder from the press-room. An armed force was sent down to know the cause and quell the riot. They arrived just in time to rescue, with barely the life, from the hands of these desperadoes, a luckless wretch who had been an informer for a long time in Leith. A good many in the press-room were indebted to him for their present situation.
The smugglers had learned from them what he was and with one accord had fallen upon him and beat him in a dreadful manner. When he was brought to the surgeon's berth there were a number of severe cuts upon his person. From his disgraceful occupation of informer, few on board pitied him. After a few days he got better and was able to walk, but was no more sent down to the press-room.
Upon our arrival at the Nore, a writ of habeas corpus was sent on board for one of the smugglers for a debt. We all suspected him to have been the captain, and this a scheme to get him off from being kept on board of a man of war.
I was sent on board the Proteus, twenty-gun ship, commanded by Captain Robinson, bound for New York. The greater number of the smugglers were put on board the same vessel. They were so stout, active, and experienced seamen that Captain Robinson manned his barge with them.
We sailed from Portsmouth with ordnance stores and 100 men to man the floating batteries upon Lake Champlain.
I was appointed cooper, which was a great relief to my mind, as I messed with the steward in his room. I was thus away from the crew. I had been much annoyed and rendered very uncomfortable, until now, from the swearing and loose talking of the men in the tender. I had all my life been used to the strictest conversation, prayers night and morning. Now I was in a situation where family worship was unknown and, to add to the disagreeable situation I was in, the troops were unhealthy. We threw overboard every morning a soldier or a sheep.
At first I said my prayers and read my Bible in private, but truth makes me confess I gradually became more and more remiss, and before long I was a sailor like the rest; but my mind felt very uneasy and I made many weak attempts to amend.
We sailed with our convoy direct for Quebec. Upon our arrival the men, having been so long on salt provisions, made too free with the river water and were almost all seized with the flux. The Proteus was upon this account laid up for six weeks, during which time the men were in the hospital. After having done the ship's work, Captain Robinson was so kind as allow me to work on shore, where I found employment from a Frenchman who gave me excellent encouragement. I worked on shore all day and slept on board at night.CHAPTER 2
Canada — Mode of Fishing — Serpents — Floats of Wood — Author Sails to the West Indies — Slavery — Arrives at Newfoundland.
CANADA IS A fine country. Provisions abound in it and the inhabitants are kind and humane. Salmon abound in the St Lawrence. The Indians come alongside every day with them, either smoked or fresh, which they exchange for biscuit or pork. They take them in wicker baskets wrought upon stakes stuck into the sand within the tide mark. The baskets have two entrances, one pointing up the river, the other pointing down. The entrances have no doors, but sharp-pointed wands prevent the exit of the fish or their returning: if once the head is entered the whole body must follow. They resemble in this the wire mouse trap used in Britain. Some have shutting doors, as in Scotland, that swing with the tide. When it is back, the Indians examine their baskets, and seldom find them without more or less fish.
The French eat many kinds of the serpents that abound in the country. Whether they are good eating I do not know, as I never could bring myself to taste them. They must be good, as it is not for want of other varieties they are made choice of. I often went of an evening with my master to catch them. We caught them with forked sticks; the Frenchman was very dexterous and I soon learned. We often caught two dozen in an evening. When we perceived one we ran the forks of the stick upon its neck, behind the head, and, holding it up from the ground, beat it upon the head with the other until we dispatched it. When we came home the heads were cut off and the snakes skinned. Their skins were very beautiful and many of the officers got scabbards made of them for their swords.
I was much surprised at the immense floats of wood that came gliding majestically down the river like floating islands. They were covered with turf, and wood huts upon them, smoke curling from the roofs, and children playing before the doors and the stately matron on her seat, sewing or following her domestic occupations, while the husband sat upon the front with his long pole, guiding it along the banks or from any danger in the river, and their batteau astern to carry them home with the necessaries they procured by the sale of their wood, the produce of their severe winter's labour.
They had floated thus down the majestic St Lawrence hundreds of miles. It looked like magic and reminded me of the fairies I had often heard of, to see the children sporting and singing in chorus upon these floating masses, the distance diminishing the size of their figures and softening the melody of their voices, while their hardy enterprise astonished the mind upon reflection, and the idea of their enjoyment was dashed at the recollection of their hardships. They really are a cheerful race.
I can think of no pleasure more touching to the feelings and soothing to the mind than to lie upon the green banks and listen to the melodious voices of the women of a summer evening as they row along in their batteaux, keeping time to the stroke of the oar. For hours I have lain over the breast-netting, looking and listening to them, unconscious of the lapse of time.
The time I had passed since my entrance into the St Lawrence was very pleasant. In our passage up we had run at an amazing rate — the trees and every object seemed to glide from us with the rapidity of lightning, the wind being fresh and direct. We passed the island of Antecost at a short distance and anchored at the island of Beak where the pilots live. It had an old sergeant, at the time, for governor, Ross his name, who had been with Wolfe at the taking of Quebec.
We then stood up the river, wind and tide serving, and passed next the island of Conder. It appeared a perfect garden. Then the Falls of Morant, the mist rising to the clouds. They appeared to fall from a greater height than the vane of our topmast, and made a dreadful roaring. We last of all made the island of Orleans, a most beautiful place. It is quite near the town and is, like the island of Conder, a perfect garden from end to end.
At length our men were all recovered and the stores landed. I bade farewell to my French master and friends on shore, and sailed for Gaspé Bay. We were joined here by the Assistance, fifty-gun ship, commanded by Captain Worth.
All the crew got a handsome treat from Governor O'Hara at the baptism of his family. They were beautiful children, five in number, the oldest a stately girl. None of them had yet been baptised, and the governor embraced the opportunity of the chaplain of the Assistance to have this necessary Christian rite performed, as there was not a clergyman at the station and the children had all been born in the Bay. The contrast between the situation of these children and their parents, and the people in Scotland, at the time, made a deep impression upon my mind; and I can say, at no period of my life had the privileges I had left behind appeared so valuable.
From Gaspe Bay we sailed with convoy for the West Indies. The convoy was loaded with salt fish. The American privateers swarmed around like sharks, watching an opportunity to seize any slow-sailing vessel. We took a few of them and brought the convoy safe to its destination.
While watering at St Kitt's we got free of the smugglers. The manner of their escape is the best comment upon their character. Captain Robinson went ashore in his barge. The crew, as I said before, was composed of them, coxswain and all. Soon after the captain left the water's edge they took to their heels. One of them became faint-hearted after he was away and returned. The others, that very night, while search was making for them, seized a boat belonging to the island and rowed over to St Eustatia, a Dutch neutral island, boarded, overpowered and carried off an American brig, and sold her at one of the French islands. None of them were ever taken that I heard of. The one that returned never again held up his head, as he was looked down upon by the crew.
While we lay at any of the West Indian islands our decks used to be crowded by the female slaves, who brought us fruit and remained on board all Sunday until Monday morning — poor things! And all to obtain a bellyful of victuals. On Monday morning the Jolly Jumper, as we called him, was on board with his whip; and, if all were not gone, did not spare it upon their backs.
One cruel rascal was flogging one on our deck, who was not very well in her health. He had struck her once as if she had been a post. The poor creature gave a shriek. Some of our men, I knew not which — there were a good many near him — knocked him overboard. He sunk like a stone. The men gave a hurra! One of the female slaves leaped from the boat alongside into the water and saved the tyrant, who, I have no doubt, often enough beat her cruelly.
I was one of the boarders. We were all armed, when required, with a pike to defend our own vessel should the enemy attempt to board; a tomahawk, cutlass and brace of pistols to use in boarding them. I never had occasion to try their use on board the Proteus, as the privateers used to strike after a broadside or two.
While we lay at St Kitt's I took the country fever and was carried to the hospital, where I lay for some days; but my youth, and the kindness of my black nurse, triumphed over the terrible malady. When able to crawl about the hospital, where many came in sick the one day and were carried out the next to be buried, the thoughts of the neglect of my Maker, and the difference in the life I had for some time led from the manner in which I had been trained up in my youth, made me shudder. With tears I promised myself to reform.
I could now see the land-crabs running through the graves of two or three whom I had left stout and full of health. In the West Indies the grave is dug no deeper than just to hold the body, the earth covering it only a few inches, and all is soon consumed by the land- crabs. The black fellows eat them. When I asked them why they eat these loathsome creatures their answer was, 'Why, they eat me.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner"
Copyright © 1997 Tim Flannery.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction by Tim Flannery,
A Most Interesting Character by John Howell,
The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner,
Service of John Nicol,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Tim Flannery is to be commended in resurrecting this book, first published and 1822 and last reprinted in 1937. But just as Flannery has brought this tale of a humble sailor in the merchant and Royal Navies of the late 1700's back into print, it was also the work of another man, John Howell, who first wrote down Nicol's story and published it. Howell directed all of the profits of the book to providing Nicol, who had fallen on hard times, with a comfortable old age. There's a charm in the story, as there must have been in the man, to have touched so many of his contemporaries, and indeed his story still resonates with the modern reader.Every fan of C.S.Forrester or Alexander Kent should read this authentic account of a common sailer in the days of Nelson. Whether he's stuck below decks in the Battle of the Nile, or falling in love with a convict girl on a transport ship to Australia, or in any of a hundred encounters with folk quite unlike himself, Nicol observes himself and all around him with a wonderfully accurate gaze. Through privations, heartbreak and poverty, Nicol never loses that moral compass that directs him to do the best he could by others and think the best of them, despite witnessing and relating tales of utmost horror and despair amongst ships' crews around him. Along with Dobree and Manwaring's 'The Floating Republic' this is a rare and engaging story of life below decks in the days of sail. Highly recommended.
This was a great little book to read. A nice introduction to explain alterations made to the text to help the modern reader. This sailor has been around! I came across his name whilst reading 'The Floating Brothel' by Sian Rees and wanted to know a little bit more about him. The book talks about his life, in his words, including the people and places in it. Well worth a read, it's highly informative, entertaining and thrilling.