American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE NAGLE JOURNAL: A DIARY OF THE LIFE OF JACOB NAGLE, SAILOR, FROM THE YEAR 1775 TO 1841 (1988). Jacob Nagle (1762-1841) was rarely not “in articles,” or not signed aboard some vessel, during a forty-five-year career at sea that took him, via impressment, from the U.S. Navy during the Revolution into nineteen years of service in the Royal Navy. He was present at a remarkable series of historic events. He fought under George Washington at the Battle of Brandywine and spent some time at Valley Forge, then served in highly successful American privateers before being captured and impressed into the British navy. Footloose in London at the end of the war, he volunteered for the First Fleet to Australia and served as a member of Governor Arthur Phillip’s boat crew, witnessing most of the historic moments in the first days of landing. Nagle was in the party from the First Fleet that settled Norfolk Island. He also served under Horatio Nelson in the Mediterranean. Nagle then spent more than twenty years of service in the merchant marine. His description of the China trade in the first decade of the nineteenth century is particularly interesting.

Although he served for a time as a master’s mate and as a master of prize vessels, his journal, edited by John C. Dann 139 years after Nagle’s death, presents a view from before the mast. Through his seaman’s eyes, we see the wandering life of the sailor, an expert in the world of vessels on the high seas, but adrift and at the mercy of crimps, prostitutes, innkeepers, and other shady landsmen ashore. However, there are goodhearted landsmen as well as villains and fair masters and mates as well as cruel ones. This journal offers a view from the bottom up and gives a good sense of what one voice from the forecastle thought of the seafaring life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Dann has done an excellent job of preserving the vigorous “oral” quality of Nagle’s writing.

James F. Millinger