Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner

by Tim Flannery Edited by Tim Flannery

“Lively . . . exciting . . . Nicol has made a lasting place for himself in the literature of the sea and ships he loved so deeply.” –Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 208
  • Publication Date November 15, 2000
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3746-3
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $12.00

About The Book

The Thrilling True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Sailor’s Extraordinary Voyages

The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner is a recently rediscovered text that vividly renders the unforgettable story of a man whom history has nearly forgotten.

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 Napol”on’s navy in the Mediterranean Sea. In Grenada he witnessed the horrors of the slave system and befriended slaves who invited him to join in their dance celebrations. In the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) he was entertained by the king’s court mere days after the murder of Captain James Cook. En route to Australia he would meet the love of his life, Sarah Whitlam, a convict bound for the Botany Bay prison colony, who would bear 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.

An international best-seller, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner is a rousing, eminently readable memoir of an ordinary man’s extraordinary life–a great, true-adventure tale. Celebrated scientist and historian 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 ships he loved so deeply.” –Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“Fresh, unstudied, and spectacularly observant, it ranks with many of the better known classics.” –The Sunday Age (Melbourne)

“A knockout . . . Nicol is a sunny, charming, highly observant guide and a first- rate storyteller. . . . His life was hard and dangerous–bad food, storms, hostile natives, pirates, war, separations, poverty, sickness–but he never grew bitter or cynical, even when press-ganged into the navy or hiding out from its agents, and always did his best for king and country.” –The Sun Herald (Sydney)

“If Nicol didn’t really exist, surely Voltaire or Swift would have had to invent him. As the wide-eyed ship’s cooper travels the globe, observing and absorbing, he brings to mind an errant Candide or Gulliver sent into the world to comment on its foibles and our misperceptions about people and their inclinations. . . . Wonderfully real.” –Jeff Turrentine, Forbes FYI

“A remarkable memoir . . . A gem worth far more than its weight in gold doubloons.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


Chapter One

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 dimes.

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 entered on 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 Note, 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 ordinance 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.


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 Gasp” 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.’

I returned on board free from the fever, but very weak. Soon after we took convoy for England, then sailed into Portsmouth harbour and were docked and repaired. While my weakness lasted, my serious impressions remained, but I must again confess: as I became strong in my body, the impressions upon my mind became weak.

As soon as the Proteus was repaired we took convoy for St John’s, Newfoundland. On this voyage we had very severe weather. Our foremast was carried away and we arrived off St John’s in a shattered state, weary and spent with fatigue. To add to our misfortunes we were three weeks lying before the harbour, and could not make it, on account of an island of ice that blocked up its mouth. During these three tedious weeks we never saw the sun or sky, the fogs were so dense. Had it not been for the incessant blowing of the fishermen’s horns to warn each other, and prevent their being run down, we might as well have been in the middle of the ocean in a winter night. The bows of the Proteus could not be seen from her quarter-deck. We received supplies and intelligence from the harbour by the fishermen. At length this tedious fog cleared up, and we entered the harbour. The Proteus, having been an old East Indiaman, was now quite unfit for service; and the admiral caused her be made a prison-ship.

After this I was wholly employed on shore, brewing spruce for the fleet. I had two and often three men under me to cut the spruce and firewood for my use. I was a man of some consequence even with the inhabitants, as I could make a present of a bottle of essence to them. They made presents of rum to me. I thus lived very happy, and on good terms with them.

Nothing surprised me more than the early marriage of the Newfoundland females. They have children at twelve years of age. I had some dealings with a merchant, and dined two or three times at his house. I inquired at him for his daughter, a pretty young woman whom I saw at table the first time. To my astonishment he told me she was his wife and the mother of three fine children.

In the winter, the cold on the Barrens, as the inhabitants call them, is dreadful. The Barrens are the spaces where there is no wood. Over these we must use our utmost speed to reach the woods. When once there, we are in comparative comfort; it is even warm among the trees. The thoughts of the Barrens again to be crossed is the only damp to our present enjoyment, as we are soon in a sweat from the exercise in cutting the wood.

When the snow first sets in it is necessary to remain at home until the weather clears up. Then the men put on their snow shoes, and three or four abreast thus make a path to the woods. In the middle of the day the sun hardens the path, and along these the wood is dragged upon sledges to the town by dogs. A person, not knowing the cause, would smile to see us urging on our dogs, ourselves pulling with one hand and rubbing our ears with the other. I am certain it would be a cure for tardiness of any kind to be forced to cross the Barrens in winter.

Numbers of the fishermen, who have gambled away their hard-won summer’s wages, are forced thus to earn their winter’s maintenance. At this time the greater part of the fishers were Irishmen, the wildest characters man can conceive. Gambling and every vice was familiar to them. Their quarrelling and fighting never ceased, and even murders were sometimes perpetrated upon each other. St Patrick’s day is a scene of riot and debauchery unequalled in any town in Ireland.

I saw them myself march in line past an unfortunate man who had been killed in one of their feuds, and each man that passed him gave the inanimate body a blow, at the same time calling him by a term of abuse, significant of the party he had belonged to. It was unsafe to carry anything after nightfall. I have been attacked and forced to fight my way more than once. The respectable inhabitants are thus kept under a sort of bondage to this riotous race.

In the summer I was much annoyed by the mosquitos and yellow nippers, a worse fly; for they bite cruelly. They make such a buzzing and noise at night I could not close an eye without my mosquito dose, that is, rum and spruce.

First published in 1822. Introduction and the editing in this edition ©1997 by Tim Flannery. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.