What with Twain’s Wayward Tourist and now John Nicol’s autobiography, I’ve been on a rather enjoyable journey into Australia’s past. I wanted to read this book because of the Australian connection, but it is just one of the several intrepid voyages John Nicol undertook in his life. Taken as a whole, there are adventures aplenty, and fascinating historical contexts abound – American and Napoleonic wars, slavery, convicts, whale hunts, trade, indigenous peoples, visits to China, press gangs, storms and superstitions, daring rescues and lucky escapes, illnesses, remedies and heart-breaking deaths, alien customs, and if that wasn’t enough, love on the high seas. All told in short chapters of plain yet eloquent language – which is an interest in itself.
Given the incredibly high mortality rate of sailors in those days – 15% per year – John Nicol was certainly a lucky charm for the many ships he sailed on, and whilst his memory lets him down occasionally, it is remarkable that he remembers so much from such a varied and busy life at sea. His eye for detail is excellent and adds to our understanding and interest at every turn. Further context is added by Tim Flannery’s introduction. It may well be the life of a simple man, but there is greatness in him too.
There are numerous sections worthy of recall, but I shall relay just two:
Whilst in China, Nicol relates how the ship’s dog Neptune bit a local boy whose father subsequently requested some of Neptune’s hairs which he cut off and then used to dress the wound. Nicol writes: “I had often heard, when a person had been tipsy the evening before, people tell him to take a hair of the dog that bit him, but never saw it in the literal sense…” Other interesting herbal remedies are noted here too.
I also can’t resist noting that whilst in China, the ship engage a man named Tommy Linn as a barber for the crew and as a trade agent. Each day he walks onto the ship like a cast member from Project Runway, with his customary salutation: “Hey, yaw, what’s fashion?”(!)
The chapter relating to the Lady Juliana and her voyage from London to Port Jackson (Sydney) is of particular interest to me, being a Sydney-sider and someone with convict blood, (though not of this ship). It is intriguing hearing first-hand accounts of life in and around this very special transport – with a cargo of all female convicts. Every crewman ‘took a wife’ (lover) whilst onboard and several babies were born on route as the voyage took almost one year. Nicol was no different, falling in love with Sarah Whitlam, whom he believes is “as kind and true a creature that ever lived”. He confesses that he would have married her on the spot had a clergyman been on board, (so perhaps captains of ships weren’t allowed to do such a duty in those days?).
Sarah tells Nicol that she had borrowed a mantle from an acquaintance and was subsequently tried for theft when this person prosecuted her. She received seven years transportation. We sigh and say ‘what a poor unfortunate girl’, as Nicol himself does, but records show that she was arrested for the theft of a large amount of clothing. Many such stories were falsified in those times. Reputation was king. Sarah bears him a son before they reach Port Jackson, where they are separated; despite Nicol’s efforts to stay, he had no choice and had to leave.
They promised to remain ‘true’ until they could be re-united. But Sarah was married the very next day(!). It must have been the only choice available to her in a colony of around one thousand souls, with a newborn baby to look after. It is touching that Nicol left his trusty bible with Sarah, a constant companion to him on all his previous voyages. He believes she had gained great comfort in reading it on the voyage out. However, it turns out she was illiterate, signing the marriage certificate with an ‘X’. Sarah was clearly not the women Nicol thought she was! She was living by her wits, with what little she had available to make a life from. But we feel for poor lovesick Nicol as he travels off, trying to create some pathway back to Sydney and to Sarah, all to no avail.
I also have to add that on just my first reading of this paperback it started to fall apart in my hands. I felt like I was reading Nicol’s own time-ravaged papers as I raced to get through them before they blew off into neighbourhoods unknown! If publishers really want to stave off the rise of the e-reader then they’d better produce sturdier binds than this.
The Dilettante’s Rating: 4/5
The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner – by John Nicol, edited by Tim Flannery, with an Introduction by Tim Flannery
198 pages, (which includes an 18 page Introduction)
Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.