John Nicol is a little known hero of the 18th century. He was born in Currie, near Edinburgh, Scotland in 1755 and after having followed in his father's footsteps and learnt the trade of a cooper (barrel maker), he set off to quench his thirst for adventure on the high seas in 1775. After 25 years of adventure and service, and almost 21 years spent hiding from press gangs, he was discovered destitute and ruined, picking lumps of coal off the streets of Edinburgh in 1822 by John Howell. Howell was a book-binder and 'tinkerer'. He also loved befriending old army men and sailors and writing down their histories. His friendship resulted in the publication of John Nicol's memoirs meant that Nicols could retire happily, after having been denied both a pension, and a certificate of service.
John Nicols adventure begins in 1775 when first signed up to serve on board the Proteus, a twenty gun ship bound for New York to take part in the American War of Independance. He was amazed at the number of sailors who had been press ganged and who did not want a life on the ocean wave, as that was all he had ever dreamed of throughout his coopering apprenticeship. He was also uneasy at the manner of the crew, for he was a quiet and religious man and had been brought up with a strict protestant ethic of reading the Bible morning and night. However, by the end of the voyage his ways had changed, and he is constantly berating himself for not being a better man despite being a person of good spirits and gentle nature.
On the Proteus he travelled across the Atlantic and visited Canada and the West Indies, while dodging American privateers. He never reached New York, but took a fever in the West Indies and spent a lot of time observing the culture. From here he sailed back to Portsmouth in the UK, and then to Newfoundland. Here he spent much time, making spruce liquor for the men and wondering at the strange customs of the Newfoundlanders.
In 1778 he joined the Surpirse, a twenty eight gun frigate who was patrolling the Atlantic taking out privateering vessels. He had many sea battles aboard her, and roved about the Atlantic between Spain, England and Canada fighting privateers until 1783 when the war ended, the crew were paid off and Nicol returned to Scotland. Here he learnt of the sad demise of his father, and after a few weeks ashore, once again grew restless for the life of a sailor and managed to join the Leviathan. This ship was bound for the shores of Greenland to hunt whales in the Atlantic. Nicols did not enjoy the whaling work as it was ...no sight for the eye". He also disliked the bitter weather conditions and was gratified to return to London. "I resolved to bid adieu to the coast of Greenland for ever, and to seek to gratify my curiosity in more genial climes."
In 1784 he was signed upon the Cotton Planter, bound for Grenada. When they arrived, he was amazed at the cruelty meted out to the black slaves considering their innocent and gentle natures. He became a favourite amongst them and would share out his food with them. They in return invited him to their Saturday and Sabbath festivities and he goes into great detail explaining these joyful events which obviously made a great impression on him. From Granada he returned to England and joined the King George, a trading vessel setting off on a voyage of commerce and exploration. For the next three years he travelled the world seeing the Falklands, rounding Cape Horn, visiting Hawaii, experiencing volcanos at the Cook Inlet in Alaska and exploring the port of Macau in China. China made a great impression on him and he writes with great clarity of some of the harsh customs of the junk mandarins and interesting characters of the harbour. From here he returned to England arriving in September 1788.
Nicols had resolved to stay in Scotland, but a letter from one of his former captains soon had him as steward on board the Lady Julian, a ship full of convicts bound for Australia. On this voyage he met many colourful female criminals, (many of their stories told as footnotes), and met Sarah Whitlam who was to be the first and only real love in his life. During their two years travelling to the colonies together she bore him a son and they pledged their troth, though there was no one to wed them. Unfortunately once they had arrived, Nicols could not remain in the colonies as his contract bound him to remain with the ship. He resolved he would find his way back to Sarah and that they would stay true to one another. His ship left Port Jackson bound again for China on the 25th July 1790. On the 26th of July, Sarah Whitlam is recorded to have married another convict and left Nicol's life forever. Over the next three years he continually tried to try to return to Australia to find her, but later, learning of her betrayal resigned himself to never seeing her or his son again. There is no record of Sarah after she and her husband sailed for England in 1796.
After three years of frustrated attempts to reach the colonies and many adventures including a brief stint on another whaler, John Nicol was pressed into service to fight in the French War. He spent seven years in service on various ships, and sailed extensively in the Meditterranean and along the North African seaboard. Finally in 1801 the war ended and he returned to Scotland where he married and set up a coopers shop in Edinburgh. Though Edinburgh had doubled in size since his journies had begun, he "felt more sincere pleasure and enjoyment in beholding the beauties of Edinburgh than ever (he) felt in any foreign clime..." He had finally come home and made a solemn promise to his wife that he should never go to sea again.
Sadly, just a year after he had settled down the Napoleonic Wars broke out and he retired deep into the country for fear of the press gangs taking him back to sea. He lived away from the water for 11 years until the end of the wars, and in 1813 returned to Edinburgh. Sadly work was very hard to come by and he and his wife grew deeper and deeper in debt until in 1818, when Margaret died. Then Nicols was forced to sell everything and take up just one small room and a cellar in which to do any occaisional work he chanced by. Funded by a cousin he travelled to London in an attempt to find Captain Portlock, his most faithful friend and favourite captain. He arrived only to find that Portlock had died just six weeks before. Then he travelled to the Admirality Offices to obtain his pension, only to be told he had left it too late to apply. He returned to Edinburgh a broken and penniless man.
Luckily, John Howell's discovery and subsequent publishing of Nicols memoirs meant that he lived out the rest of his days in comfort and died at some point in the 1820's well into his seventies, even leaving a small sum to his remaining family.
The story is published in full today by Tim Flannery under it's original title The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, ISBN 1 84195 091 2. It's a fantastic story with wonderful descriptive scenes of people and places that have long since vanished today. It provides an insight into the life of the ordinary sailor, rather than an officer, and in an inspiring story for anyone who loves the sea, or has the urge to travel. I highly recommend it.