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The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner


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The life of a late-18th-century sailor was, to steal a quote from Hobbes, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Frequent European wars and revolutions made life at sea so perilous that, as Flannery notes, a crew mortality rate of 15% per year was not considered unusual. Yet John Nicol (1755-1825), a Scotsman of humble beginnings, managed to survive a quarter of a century at sea during which he fought against Napoleon's navy, battled pirates, befriended natives of China, Jamaica and Hawaii, and twice circumnavigated the globe. On one voyage, he even found time to marry a convict bound for Australia (but soon lost her when he was compelled to ship out, leaving wife and child behind; he tried to get back to her and never could, eventually marrying another woman). At the end of his long career, Nicol returned home to Edinburgh, where, for over a decade, he was forced to hide from the press gangs who were eager to return a salty old tar to service in the Royal Navy. At the age of 67, a chance meeting with an eccentric bookbinder gave him the opportunity to publish this autobiography, which has now been rediscovered and reissued. Nicol may have been just a common seaman, but he is a superb narrator with a surprisingly modern voice and a gift for noting odd details (such as the "wooden jacket," a barrel with holes cut for the head and arms, inside of which hapless sailors and prisoners were confined as punishment). Equal parts history, diary and adventure story, his book wonderfully describes what it was like to traverse the globe in one of the most tumultuous periods in human history. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Flannery (Throwim Way Leg; principal research scientist, Australian Museum) has brought to life the fascinating adventures of John Nicol (1755-1825), an unlettered cooper who spent the years 1776-1801 at sea in the Royal Navy and in various merchant ships. These years saw Nicol circumnavigate the world twice and visit America, Greenland, China, the South Seas, and Egypt. Here he provides a rare glimpse of late 18th-century seafaring life from the perspective of the ordinary seaman as opposed to a ship's officer, as is the case with most accounts. A keen observer of humanity, Nicol describes exotic ports of call and the peoples he encountered with a wit and sensitivity that one would not expect from a man of his station in life. There is also much pathos, as in his description of his first wife, a convict transported to the Botany Bay penal colony. Written in 1822, two decades after he quit the sea, this book has the strengths and weaknesses of any oral history yet is still an excellent read for those interested in the period. Recommended for public libraries.--Harold N. Boyer, Springfield Twp. Lib., Aston, PA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

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