The unaffected remembrances of an 18th-century mariner, eerie in their ability to make readers feel contiguous with the events, edited by Flannery (Throwim Way Leg, 1998, etc.). This is a remarkable memoir in that its author was neither famous nor infamous but a Common Joe who happened to attract the attention of a publisher interested in the lives of adventurers, to whom Nicol told his story. He was a sailor, though not, as Flannery puts it, "of the rum, sodomy, and lash school." He was a ship's cooper and candlemaker, intimate with the below-decks world of slaves, convicts, and Chinese barbers. With a solid reputation and a widely appreciated touch for brewing spruce beer, Nicol was routinely requested to join voyages, managing to twice circumnavigate the world, engage in trade and discovery and strife, find a wife and then lose her as he fled the press gangs. Nicol had an eye and an ear for the background music of the everyday, of language (though surely tidied by Flannery for today's readers), and catches of verse and song or the work chant of West Indian slaves: "Work away, body, bo / Work aa, jollaa." Equally appealing are his responses to wild landscapes—he doesn't bother with the heroic, as in this on Greenland: "Desolation reigns around: nothing but snow, or bare rocks and ice. The cold is so intense and the weather often so thick. I feel so cheerless." And an immediacy rings in the account, pulling you in. "The natives came on board in crowds and were happy to see us. They recognized Portlock and others who had been on the island before, along with Cook." That's Hawaii and that's Captain Cook. This memoir has seen two printings in Great Britain, one in 1822 and another in 1937, and it appears here now for the first time, the lucky find of treasure hunters who discovered a gem worth far more than its weight in gold doubloons.
Read full book review >