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John Nicol, Mariner

JOHN NICOL, MARINERIn the charity shop, I recently bought a small book, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner.  It is more memoirs than autobiography.  The book was first published in 1822, and the blurb on the cover of my 1997 edition is effusive:

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 18th century.  He traded with Native Americans on the St Lawrence River and hunted whales in the Arctic Ocean.  He fought in the Royal Navy against American privateers in the Atlantic Ocean, and against Napoleon´s navy in the Mediterranean.  In Grenada, he witnessed the horrors of the slave system and befriended slaves who invited him to join their dance celebrations.  In the Sandwich Islands, (now Hawaii) he was entertained by the king´s court only days after the murder of Captain Cook.  John met the love of his life, Sarah Whitlam, on a convict ship bound for Botany Bay.  She bore his son before they arrived in Australia, and they were then forced apart by circumstances and duty.  She soon married another.

In his late forties, Nicol (1755 – 1825) retired from his adventures in 1801 and returned penniless to Scotland, and as he searched the streets of Edinburgh for scraps of coal, a publisher met him and heard of his adventures.  John Howell took down these stories at dictation, published them, assigning the royalties to Nicol himself, and in this way Nicol earned enough money to live out his last three years in relative comfort.

One of these adventures reminded me of the stories I talked about last year in The Tragic History of the Sea.  In that talk about the Carreira da Índia, I mentioned the Portuguese proverb which dates from the 1560s: If you want to learn to pray, go to sea. In 1560, the São Paulo became becalmed, and During most of these nights we organised processions, in which the captain and the Fathers with the rest of us went barefoot, including all the boys, of whom there were about thirty from the age of twelve downwards, and we disciplined ourselves until Our Lord lifted his punitive hand from us.  The ship was later dismasted to the south of Sumatra and while we did not fail to work hard in this emergency, we first had recourse to the divine aid, and placed on the poop the banner of the holy relics………And when this banner had been hoisted in position, everyone fell on their knees and prayed to it with many tears and sighs, imploring Our Lord for mercy and the pardon of our sins.  And in 1589, as the São Thomé was on the point of foundering, the people on the ship lit candles and passed the whole night in processions and litanies, commending themselves to God. 

Nicol´s ship Amelia happened to be at Rio de Janeiro in 1793/4 (he had just heard that the King of France had been executed).  The Amelia was delayed, and desperate to return to Britain in search of Sarah Whitlam, he learned of a Portuguese fleet about to return to Europe.  He was one of four Britons who volunteered to serve on the Commodore´s ship on the return voyage to Lisbon, hoping the sooner to reach London. In John Nicol´s own words:

Had I known the delays, the fatigue and vexations I was to endure from these execrable superstitious Portuguese sailors, I would never have left the Amelia for any reward the Commodore could have given me – and he was very kind to us.  He knew our value, and his whole reliance was on us.  We were to work the ship, and fight the ship should an enemy lay us alongside.  He had been forty years trading between Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro, and in all that time never had made a winter´s voyage.

The Portuguese are the worst sailors in the world in rough or cold weather, and we had plenty of both, but worse than all we had a black fellow of a priest on board to whom the crew paid more attention than the captain.  He was forever ringing the bell for mass and sprinkling holy water on the men.  Whenever it blew harder than ordinary they were sure to run to the quarterdeck to the black priest.

We were almost foundered at one time by this unseamanlike conduct.  The whole crew ran to the quarterdeck, kneeling down, resigned to their fate, the priest sprinkling holy water most profusely on them, while we four Englishmen (sic – yes, I know he was Scotch) were left to steer the vessel and hand the sails.  It required two of the four to steer, so that there were only two to hand the sails.  The consequence was she broached to.  William Mercer and I ran and cut the foregeers, and allowed the yard to swing.  At the same time, the captain, mate and boatswain hauled in the forebrace and she righted in a moment.  Had her commons [I suppose the raised timbers around the hatch entrance] not been very high, she must have filled while she lay on her beam ends.  The sea was all over her deck round the hatch, but so soon as she righted and we were going to make sail the Portuguese left their priest and lent us a hand.

We were wrought almost to death and never could have made out the voyage had we not been well fed and the captain given us plenty of liquor.  The black priest rung his bell at his stated time whatever we were doing and the Portuguese would run to their berths for their crosses.  Often the main tack was left half hauled aboard at the sound of his bell, and the vessel left to drift to leeward until prayers were over.  As two men could do nothing to the sail when the wind was fresh, after prayers they would return and begin bawling and hauling, calling upon their saints as if they would come to assist.

We were thus almost driven to distraction by them and could scarce keep off our hands from boxing their ears.  Many a hearty curse they and their saints got.  Then they would run to the captain or priest and make complaint that the Englishmen had cursed Saint Antonio or some other of the saints.  I often wondered the captain did not confine the priest to his cabin in foul weather, as he was sure to be busiest then.  When they complained, the captain took our part and overawed the Portuguese, or I really believe they would have thrown us overboard.  They often looked at us as if they could have eat [sic] us without salt, and told us to our face that we were star pork that is all the same as swine – that we knew nothing of God or the saints.

I showed them my Bible and the names of the saints.  They were quite surprised.  Had I made another voyage I would have made converts of many of them.  I was bald headed and they called me an English padre.  Often the bell rang while we were at dinner.  They inquired why I would not go to mass.  I mess with the Coussinero, I replied (ie cozinheiro – the cook).  They began to think I had the best religion.  They seemed to think the foul weather was all on our account, and the virgin and saints sent it because they employed heretics aboard.

We had a supercargo on board as passenger, who had made his fortune in the slave trade and was returning home to Portugal.  He took unwell and died.  At his funeral, there were the following manoeuvres gone through. Everyone had a candle in his hand, and all stood in a double line on the deck.  There were even lanthorns hung over the ship´s side to light him to the bottom.  The body was carried along the double line, the priest chanting, and everyone touched him before he was thrown overboard.  The captain requested us to do as the others did.  Says Will Mercer, Captain, I will throw him overboard for you, if you please.

At length, after a tedious voyage of three months, I got out of this vile crew.  When we reached the Tagus, the Portuguese began to quarrel and knock us about.  We stood our ground the best way we could until the captain got five of them sent on shore under a guard of soldiers.  We remained at the captain´s house until we got our wages.  The owners gave us a doubloon apiece over and above our agreement for saving the ship, as the captain did us every justice to the owners at the time, saying If the English were as careful of their souls as they are of their bodies, they would be the best people in the world.

I had many conversations with the captain concerning the ignorance of the Portuguese people in general, and asked why the priest did not inform them better.  He said, Were we to inform them they would soon turn the priest about his business and rise against the government.  They must only get knowledge little by little.

We assisted at a religious ceremony before we came away, at the special request of our kind friend the captain.  The foresail that was set when she broached to was given as an offering to the church, as the black priest told them it was through it they were saved.  Although the worst sailor in the world knew it was the sail that would have sunk us, they dared not contradict the priest.  The whole ship´s crew carried it through the streets of Lisbon upon handkerchiefs to the church where it was placed upon the altar with much mummery.  We came away and left them but the owners of the vessel bought back the sail again, after the priests had blessed it to their minds, as the church had more use for money than foresails.

William Mercer and I entered on board a brig bound for London, which was to sail in a few days, during which time we rambled about through the filthy streets of Lisbon.  The higher orders of the Portuguese are very kind and civil.  I was too late one evening to get aboard the brig.  A Portuguese merchant noticed my perplexity, for it is no pleasing thing to have a lodging to seek in Lisbon at a latish hour.  Without my requesting him, he took me in his own house, gave me an excellent supper and bed.  Had I been a gentleman of his acquaintance, he could not have been kinder or paid more attention.  He ordered his servant to call me at any hour in the morning I chose.

As war was now looked for, we were afraid for the press (ie press gangs).  The Portuguese captain, at our request, got each of us a protection from the British consul at Lisbon.………  When we arrived at Gravesend a man-of-war´s boat came on board to press any Englishmen there might be on board.  William and I did not choose to trust our protections now that we were in the river.  So, we stowed ourselves away among some bags of cotton, where we were almost smothered but could hear every word that was said.  The captain told the lieutenant he had no more hands than he saw, and they were all Portuguese.  The lieutenant was not very particular, and left the brig without making much search.

The rest of the book is just as lively, but this is the sole passage which deals with Portugal and the Portuguese.  While it gives some impression of the religious nature, even perhaps superstition, of the common seamen as late as the 1790s, Nicol´s opinion is balanced by the gentlemanly and generous conduct of the Portuguese owners, the merchant and the captains of the two ships.


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