Author Tags: 1700-1800
John Nicol was a sober, Bible-reading man who twice circumnavigated the globe. An uncomplicated and observant narrator, his visit to Nootka Sound did not result in any details but he verified Captain John Meares' disastrous failure of discipline on his ship Nootka.
Born in 1755, Nicol sailed on 12 ships between 1776 and 1801. During his 25 years at sea he visited all six habitable continents and observed life in the West Indies, Newfoundland, Portugal (three times), Greenland, the Canary Islands, Cape Verde Islands, the Falklands, Hawaii (three times), South Africa, Australia, St. Helena, China (three times), the Marianas, Indonesia, Peru, Norway, France, Spain and the Mediterranean. He served as a cooper aboard Captain Nathaniel Portlock’s ship the King George when it helped rescue John Meares and the remaining members of his stranded, scurvy-ridden crew in Prince William Sound in May of 1787. He described Meares’ predicament aboard the Nootka: “There were only the captain and two men free from disease. Two and twenty ... had died through the course of the winter; they had caused their own distress, by their inordinate use of spirits on Christmas eve. They could not bury their own dead; they were only dragged a short distance from the ship and left upon the ice. They had muskets fixed upon the capstan, and man-ropes [to the triggers] that went down to the cabin, [so] that when any of the natives attempted to come on board, they might fire them off to scare them. They had a large Newfoundland dog, whose name was Towser, who alone kept the ship clear of Natives. He lay day and night upon the ice before the cabin window, and would not allow the Natives to go into the ship. When the natives came to barter, they would cry ‘Lally Towser’ [meaning We're friends, Towser] and make [him] a present of a skin before they began to trade with Captain Mairs [sic], who lowered from the window his barter and in the same way received their furs ... We gave him every assistance in our power in spruce [anti-scorbutic beer made from spruce needles] and molasses, and two of our crew to assist in working the vessel.”
Nicol befriended slaves in Grenada and recorded their songs, and he documented slavery in Jamaica. While serving aboard a convict ship bound for Australia, he fell in love with Sarah Whitlam, a convict bound for the Botany Bay prison colony. She bore him a son during the year-long voyage but Nicol’s seafaring duties forced them apart. Nicol’s tour of duty on the Lady Juliana has been used as grist for Siân Rees’s non-fiction study The Floating Brothel: The Extraordinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and Its Cargo of Female Convicts. It examines how and why the penal colony in foreign lands was a newly popular alternative to the death penalty.
When Nicol was sixty-seven, his chance encounter with a generous bookbinder, publisher, editor and self-described “polyartist” named John Howell in Edinburgh allowed Nicol, as a destitute sailor, to dictate and publish his memoirs. Howell performed the same task for other working class men of his era. Nicol lived in comfort for the rest of his days, even leaving £30 in his will.
Nicol’s story was reprinted by Farrar and Rinehart in 1936, at which time it was claimed it was the earliest memoir by an ordinary sailor that “has any claim to permanence as literature.” In a foreword Alexander Laing declare's Nicol's memoir is written in "prose surpassed in its kind by none but that of Melville." Upon its reisue in 1999, editor Tim Flanders described Nicol as “not a sailor of the rum, sodomy and lash school.”
The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner (Edinburgh, 1822).
John Nicol's Life and Adventures (Edinburgh, 1832).
The Life and Adventures of John Nicol Mariner: His Service in King's Ships in War & Peace, His Travels & Explorations By Sea to Remote & Unknown Countries in Merchant Vessels, Whalers, and Other Sundry Craft (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1936). Foreword by Alexander Laing.
The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner (Atlantic Monthly, 1999). Edited by Tim Flannery
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "1700-1800" "English"