Read Life and Adventures 1776-1801 Online

Authors: John Nicol

Tags: #Australian and New Zealand history, #Autobiography

Life and Adventures 1776-1801

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JOHN NICOL was born in Scotland in 1755, and first went to sea in 1776. He served in the American War of Independence, and later sailed to Greenland, the West Indies, the South Pacific, China and the colony of New South Wales.d.

He lived with the convict Sarah Whitlam in Port Jackson in 1790 after their son was born on the voyage to Australia. Later he served in the French Revolutionary Wars in Egypt and the Mediterranean, until he settled in Scotland in 1801.

He died in 1825.

TIM FLANNERY is a bestselling writer, scientist and explorer. He has published over a dozen books, most recently
Among the Islands: Adventures in the Pacific
. In 2011 he was appointed chief commissioner of the Australian Climate Commission.

The Text Publishing Company

Swann House

22 William Street

Melbourne Victoria 3000


Copyright in the Introduction and this edition © Tim Flannery 1997

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this publication shall be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

First published 1822

First published by The Text Publishing Company 1997

This edition published 2012

Designed by WH Chong

Page design by Text

Primary print ISBN: 9781922079398

Ebook ISBN: 9781921961694

Author: Nicol, John.
Title: Life and adventures : 1776-1801 / John Nicol ; Tim Flannery, editor.
Series: Text classics.
Subjects: Nicol, John—Travel. Voyages and travels.
Other Authors/Contributors: Flannery, Tim F. (Tim Fridtjof), 1956-
Dewey Number: 910.45


Map of the world as Nicol would have known it, showing some of his journeys.



by Tim Flannery

circled the globe, in the process visiting all six habitable continents. He fought American revolutionaries and Napoleon’s navy, was in Hawaii when Cook’s murderers were still young, in Port Jackson when Sydney consisted of about a thousand souls, and in the West Indies when African slaves were beginning to experiment with the music which would become blues and jazz. In short, as he roamed the world in the late eighteenth century, he saw the modern age in its infancy.

The world John Nicol records is not one of admirals, governors and high officials, for he was by his own admission a simple ‘bungs’—an ‘unlettered’ cooper. He describes a world seen from below decks; a world peopled by slaves, convicts and Chinese barbers, many of whom Nicol counted among his friends. As such, his story is an extreme rarity. People like Nicol usually lacked the means to have their adventures recorded, and publishers were largely uninterested in such autobiographies. Indeed, a significant fraction of Nicol’s compatriots would not
even have lived to tell their stories. When he sailed, mortality rates of 15 per cent
per annum
were not looked upon as especially bad, yet Nicol survived twenty-five years at sea.

The story of how this book came into existence is almost as remarkable as the one Nicol himself tells. Picture yourself in a street in Edinburgh with the freezing winter of 1822 just beginning to relax its grip. An old derelict totters feebly along, picking tiny fragments of coal from between the icy cobbles. These he places in the pocket of an old apron tied round his waist. They will be used to light a small fire, over which he will crouch, trying to fight off the chill. As he searches for his coals, the old man is approached by a ‘very strange person’ and so begins the encounter which, after a long and happenstance history, places this book in your hands today.

The ‘very strange person’ was John Howell, who was to record and edit Nicol’s work. Even in nineteenth-century Scotland Howell was an anomaly. He described himself as a ‘polyartist’. Although a bookbinder by trade, he was an inveterate inventor and tinkerer by nature. The most enduring of his contrivances is the ‘plough’, a device used by bookbinders
well into the present century. Alexander Laing, who gave some biographical notes on Howell, remarked of this invention that ‘many a careless binder has ruined good books by too exuberant cropping [with it].’

Howell’s other inventions included ‘a reliable salve for the ringworm’ and a method for the fabrication of false teeth. Transport also intrigued him. He invented a flying machine (the testing of which, from the roof of an old tannery, cost him a broken leg), and a sort of prototype submarine. This latter nearly led to fratricide, for John encouraged an unwilling brother to enter the ‘large model of a fish’ for its test run on the River Leith. The brother refused, however, and John took his place. A contemporary account reports that:

Scarcely had the fish entered the water when it capsized: the keel turning upwards, and poor John was submerged. Sounds of an alarming kind were heard to issue from the belly of the fish, and no time was lost in dragging it to the bank, when the inventor was liberated from his perilous position; but it took nearly half an hour before ‘suspended animation’ was fully restored.

Howell’s other great interest lay in the exploits of military men and adventurers. He published five books, three of which concerned such people. The first,
Journal of a Soldier of the 71st, or Glasgow Regiment
was followed by
The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner
The Life of Alexander Alexander Written by Himself.
Howell’s method seems to have consisted of befriending old soldiers and sailors, then spending months writing down or editing their life stories. One wonders whether they moved into his house for the duration. Whatever the case, Howell’s motives were noble ones, for he signed over royalties to his adoptees, and endeavoured to use their stories to obtain for them their well deserved pensions.

Howell’s 1822 edition of
The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner
is a modest little book, measuring just sixteen centimetres by ten. Its only illustration is a simple drawing of Nicol himself—in all probability placed there to evoke the reader’s pity. It shows the weatherbeaten and wistful countenance of one who has seen much of life. The book’s rarity now suggests that the print run was small. Its only republication occurred in 1937 when Cassell issued an edition ‘embellished with numerous original designs’ by Gordon Grant, and with a foreword and afterword by Laing, who claims that
Life and Adventures
is the earliest reminiscence by an ordinary sailor that ‘has any claim to permanence as literature’. The book, he says, ‘acquainted me…with a distinct personality I should have felt far the poorer for not having known, and from time to time I have sought him out again, in his book, with the same pleasure I should take in looking up an old friend.’

John Nicol had ‘seen more of the world than most persons in Edinburgh, perhaps in Britain’ according
to Howell, yet throughout his life he seems to have remained almost unworldly. This may stem from the fact that, like many seamen, he led a largely sheltered life. While at sea, his domestic and financial arrangements were made for him. Decisions were made by others, and there was little time for romance with all its complications. In these ways, going to sea was akin to joining a religious order.

Nicol was not a sailor of the rum, sodomy and the lash school. When he first went to sea he read his Bible daily and it troubled his conscience that he lost the habit. He was shy, did not drink heavily and was appalled by foul language. At times one wonders how this good and simple man mixed it with the recurrent brutality of life at sea.

Nicol’s naivety shows through nowhere more clearly than in his first romance. After meeting a young woman on a coach journey he feels ‘something uncommon arise in [his] breast’. After a number of efforts, he ‘summonsed the resolution to take her hand in mine; I pressed it gently, she drew faintly back’. With little more encouragement than that, Nicol decides upon marriage and, were it not for a recalcitrant prospective father-in-law, may have succeeded in his designs. He was equally ‘at sea’ with the most important female in his life, a convict girl named Sarah Whitlam who became his great love. Yet time has shown that his assessment of Sarah Whitlam was hardly an accurate one.

Given the editorial role Howell played, one
wonders how much of
The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner
represents his input, for the beauty of the language sometimes makes the reader doubt whether it could be the work of an unlettered cooper. Laing speculates that Howell’s influence on the book’s style and content was minor. He notes that the two works published by Howell alone (
An Essay upon the War Galleys of the Ancients
The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk
) ‘lack the passages of terse grandeur which lifts Nicol’s story, from time to time, to the level of great English prose’.
Howell was also a great respecter of facts, and is unlikely to have tampered with the subjects of Nicol’s work. Nicol himself says that he will make his story as interesting as is in his power, ‘consistent with truth’; its detail is in itself a guide to its authenticity. He remembers, for instance, how Chinese washer women kept a pig in ‘a cage-like box fixed to the stern of their sampan.’ On the Falkland Islands the geese he saw were ‘very pretty, spreckled like a partridge.’

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