THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF JOHN NICOL, MARINER
Edited by Tim Flannery
Atlantic Monthly. 198 pp. $21
John Nicol was born in Scotland in 1755 and died there in 1825. Three years before his death, during a brutally cold winter in which he was reduced to foraging for bits of coal to make a fire to warm himself, he was met in a street in Edinburgh by one John Howell, a bookbinder and "inveterate inventor and tinkerer" who had an intense amateur interest in "the exploits of military men and adventurers" and helped several of these write and publish their memoirs.
In Nicol, Howell found one of these. For a quarter-century he had been a sailor, most often serving as cooper aboard both merchant and military vessels. Over the course of their long conversations, Howell found Nicol to be "as sober and steady a man as ever sailed," a judgment substantially confirmed by Nicol's own narrative of his adventures: "Twice I circumnavigated the globe; three times I was in China, twice in Egypt, and more than once sailed along the whole landboard of America from Nootka Sound to Cape Horn."
The result of their collaboration, "The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner," was originally published in 1822; as Tim Flannery writes, "the book's rarity now suggests that the print run was small." It was republished only once, in London in 1937. This new edition, it seems safe to assume, is occasioned as much by the current vogue for books about the sea as for its intrinsic merits, though the latter are not to be belittled.
The book is offered as an adventure story, but by and large Nicol does not narrate it as one. He was modest, decent, pious to a degree, all in all a most atypical professional seaman of his or any other age; though he had a taste for rum and such, he kept it well under control, and though he liked the ladies, he was not given to whoring. His prose reflects himself; though it can be lively and descriptive, he prefers to downplay even the most exciting of his adventures.
"The first wish I had ever formed was to wander," he says, "and many a search I gave my parents in gratifying my youthful passion. . . . I had read 'Robinson Crusoe' many times over and longed to be at sea." He got there for good in 1776, when he was taken aboard "the Proteus, 20-gun ship, commanded by Captain Robinson, bound for New York" to defend Britain's interests in the war for American independence. Duty took them to Canada ("a fine country") and the West Indies, where Nicol was appalled by slavery; then and in a subsequent visit to Grenada he made many black friends, whom he "esteemed . . . in my heart," a most unusual attitude for an Englishman of his time and class.
After the war Nicol found work aboard the Leviathan, a ship bound for Greenland, in the course of which duty the ship became "for 10 days completely fast in ice." Nicol's description of this is worth quoting, for it shows him as a prose stylist:
"The horrors of our situation were far worse than any storm I ever was in. In a storm upon a lea-shore, there, even in all its horrors, there is exertion to keep the mind up, and a hope to weather it. Locked up in ice, all exertion is useless. The power you have to contend with is far too tremendous and unyielding. It, like a powerful magician, binds you in its icy circle, and there you must behold, in all its horrors, your approaching fate, without the power of exertion, while the crashing of the ice and the less loud but more alarming cracking of the vessel serve all to increase the horrors of this dreadful sea-mare."
Nicol's next voyage was the first of his two circumnavigations, which he began "with a joyful heart," a mood he for the most part maintained. He reached the Sandwich Islands only days after the murder of Capt. James Cook; he saw the Falklands, St. Helena, Cape Horn and China, which Nicol initially found alluring but eventually came to dislike, the Chinese being--to this Scots egalitarian--"the most oppressed people I ever was amongst."
Nicol's attachment to the underdog became intimate on his next ship, the Lady Juliana, which was taking female convicts to what we now know as Australia. With one of these, Sarah Whitten, "as kind and true a creature as ever lived," he fell deeply and lastingly in love: "I had fixed my fancy upon her from the moment I knocked the rivet out of her irons upon my anvil, and as firmly resolved to bring her back to England when her time was out, my lawful wife, as ever I did intend anything in my life. She bore me a son in our voyage out."
Matters did not end as happily as Nicol wished. He could not bring Sarah back to Scotland with him, and never saw her again; he married a cousin, to what degree of connubial bliss we have no way of knowing; he spent more than a decade hiding from the "press gangs" that drummed up manpower for England's ships in the Napoleonic Wars; his final years too often found him destitute, hungry and alone. Yet he managed to live seven full decades in an age when that was a long life, and he made, with this little book, a small, lasting place for himself in the literature of the sea and ships he loved so deeply.
Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is email@example.com.