The Life of an American Seaman
He was a patriot who took up arms in the Revolution against the Crown. Jacob Nagle was aged just fifteen when he set out from his Pennsylvania home in 1777 to join his father in Washington’s army. Once independence had been won, however, Nagle had no difficulty in taking to the sea and crossing to the old enemy’s navy.
Loyalties were always more flexible among sailors than soldiers, and Nagle’s warrior life under the British flag in the heroic age of sail illuminates why. The notion that he might have been a turncoat would have mortified him—and earned a walloping for anyone bold enough to suggest as much. For men like Nagle, fidelity was not to a president or king: it was to his ship and his shipmates; and this tribal bond made the common seaman an indomitable force—on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nagle’s seafaring career coincided with the rise of Britain as an imperial power. It was not just naval battles with France that established this global reach, but trade and discovery, navigation and mapping, from the Indian Ocean to the South Seas. Nagle was what appreciative officers called a prime hand—one strong and agile enough to battle the elements while standing a hundred feet above a plunging deck, braced against the yards, feet planted on ropes and swaying with a mast that moved through sixty degrees. Men like Nagle were a vital resource, and always in demand.
Pay was variable. Nagle had an eye for a voyage that would bring at its pay-off a lively carouse around Portsmouth with shipmates and the tavern lasses with whom he enjoyed an affectionate, even if commercial, relationship.
But what kept him at sea was the spirit of adventure—voyaging to lands of outlandish peoples and mystifying customs—and pride in the trade at which he excelled. As well as being part of a brotherhood, he had an independence unknown to his class at the time. If he did not like a ship, he could desert at the next port and sign on with a new captain. Ships’ records, kept at the National Archives in London, testify that his abilities were noted and respected. Promotion was often on offer: yet Nagle opted to remain among the hands of the lower deck; his rank of choice was Captain of the Maintop.
That the details of Jacob Nagle’s escapades are known—from descriptions of battles and mutinies to shipwreck and being cast away—is down to the memoir that he set down toward the end of his life. That this extraordinary document was identified is thanks to Professor John C. Dann of the University of Michigan.
As Professor Dann has written, the Nagle Journal, which came to light at a New York auction, seemed too good to be true: yarns of service under Admiral Horatio Nelson, spicy adventures in bordellos, voyages to the East Indies and China—all told in the author’s uniquely phonetic lingo. Thanks to the London archives, however, Nagle’s story is substantiated by the records of the ships he sailed in. His character—a man rambunctious among his fellows and quick with his fists, yet, when it came to women, thoughtful and generous—comes alive on the page.
Nagle’s twenty-year career in British ships illustrates, moreover, a wider truth about the common seaman. History has tended to depict them as illiterate, wretched underlings, slaves to the press gangs that preyed on US and British shores. Certainly, impressment under the British flag was a hazard that most hands faced at one time or another. But they became adept at means of evasion, and the frequency with which desertion is recorded in ships’ logbooks testifies to the success of this form of resistance.
Seamen were a diverse species. As well as Britons, Nagle served alongside other Americans, Swedes, Spaniards, Africans, and Indians. The tide ran in the other direction too. A great number of British seamen found the liberties and opportunities across the Atlantic to their liking. Thanks to his transportable skills, the able seaman was never short of a berth to stow his trunk. Sailors were citizens of the world.
Toward the end of his seafaring days, Nagle returned to his native land. He applied for a pension for his service in the Revolution, but it was delayed by years of bureaucracy, and he still endured hardship. Even in his final years he remained on the move, only now on foot, a knapsack on his back. He died in Canton, Ohio, in 1841, his sole legacy an absorbing chronicle of his life.
Stephen Taylor is a writer of maritime history, biography, and travel. He has worked as a foreign correspondent for The Times, The Observer, and The Economist, and is the author of The Caliban Shore, Storm and Conquest, and Commander.