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The Nagle Journal

July 2024
1min read

A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841

Edited by John C. Dann; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 352 pages.

In Jacob Nagle’s forty-four years as a sailor, he lived through quite a lot. Beginning in 1780, the Pennsylvania native traveled to every inhabited continent. He sailed aboard men-of-war, privateers, merchants, and passenger ships. He helped establish the first penal colony in Australia and served under Nelson in the Mediterranean. In between he caroused, brawled with fellow sailors, and dodged press gangs. Near the end of his life, he sat down to write about it all. The authentic voice of the lower gun deck is rare enough; this one came to light quite unexpectedly when John C. Dann, director of the Clements Library at the University of Michigan, found an interesting-looking 161-page manuscript in a New York auction house and bought it.

Like many seventy-nine-year-olds spinning yarns, Nagle can be tedious one moment and fascinating the next. Delightful accounts of seaport life at the turn of the nineteenth century, descriptions of battles and gales at sea, and tales of exotic lands are interlarded with dense technical passages and ramblings of no apparent point.

At its best, the “journal” (“memoirs” would be a better term) gives us a firsthand glimpse at life in Nagle’s time with an immediacy that no present-day historian can match. His account of the Battle of Brandywine, which he experienced during his brief career in the army during the Revolutionary War, shows that famous engagement, known to most of us for its strategic and historic importance, through the eyes of a scared teen-ager who was not quite sure of what was going on. He describes his experiences in the early days of the Australian colony—the struggles to establish a settlement, the encounters with strange flora and fauna, and the unfamiliar habits of the natives. Perhaps most interesting are the occasional stories where he shows his personal side—in particular, one about how he and a shipmate rescued a fallen woman from her life of sin. These passages have a guileless charm.

Unfortunately, Nagle’s narrative all too often bogs down in quotidian details of what ship he joined when, and how many guns it had, and what ports it called at, and what cargo it was carrying, and so on. At one point he covers a two-year voyage in a couple of paragraphs, while elsewhere he rattles on about some minor incident. There is little detail on the day-to-day routine and duties of a sailor. The understandable lack of historical background, remedied to some extent by the editor’s notes and chapter introductions, often makes the events hard to follow for the nonspecialist. And Nagle’s Chauceresque spelling, while quaint, eventually becomes trying.

The professional historian, or the reader who has a fairly extensive knowledge of nautical matters from this era, will find something of interest on almost every page. For anyone else the best way to approach The Nagle Journal is to read it bit by bit. The book is a gold mine of interesting facts and details, but it can take some digging to get to the nuggets.

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