The Sailors' Memoirs Project

The Sailors' Memoirs Project

Sketch between Decks, May 75, Gabriel Bray, 1775, National Maritime Museum

These are the personal memoirs and journals of eighteenth century common sailors. I am currently working my way through them, and will update this page as I finish (or re-read) each book. My citations are for the copies that I am reading, though there may be other editions. If you are aware of any common sailors' memoirs that are not included here, do not hesitate to contact me. Officers and admirals are beyond the scope of this project

The memoirs here are organized alphabetically by the last name of the author.


The Unfortunate Shipwright: Or Cruel Captain. Being a Faithful Narrative of the Unparallel'd Sufferings of Robert Barker
Citation: 
Barker, Robert, The Unfortunate Shipwright: Or Cruel Captain. Being a Faithful Narrative of the Unparallel'd Sufferings of Robert Barker, Late Carpenter on Board the Thetis Snow, of Bristol, in a Voyage to the Coast of Guinea and Antigua, London: Robert Barker, c1760 [?].


Log-Book of Timothy Boardman
Boardman's 'Log-Book' is not the official ship's log, but a sailor's private journal kept in the style of a log-book. Despite covering two separate and eventful voyages, Boardman's work is very brief. The book's length was padded by Rev. Boardman's late nineteenth century recounting of the Boardman family's entire tedious genealogy. Skipping straight past the later Boardman's family tree does reward the reader with a few gems, but the account is largely unexceptional.
Citation: 
Boardman, Timothy, Log-Book of Timothy Boardman, edited by Rev. Samuel W. Boardman, Albany, New York; Joel Munsell's Sons, 1885.
Via the Internet Archive


The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813)
In what might be the earliest memoir by an American sailor, Bowen describes his numerous adventures sailing to and from New England. Particularly memorable are his brief interactions with James Cook and General Wolfe before Quebec.
Citation:
Bowen, Ashley, The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813), edited by Daniel Vickers, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2006.
Available on Amazon



Ramblin' Jack: The Journal of Captain John Cremer (1700-1774)
Citation:
Cremer, John, Ramblin' Jack: The Journal of Captain John Cremer (1700-1774), edited by Richard Reynell Bellamy, London: Jonathan Cape, 1936.
Available on Amazon


The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African
Equiano was enslaved at a young age, and spent nearly his entire enslavement and much of his free life as a sailor. He served in the Royal navy, sailed merchant vessels throughout the West Indies, and even participated in several slave voyages from the Caribbean to the British colonies in mainland North America. Equiano is nearly the only voice for enslaved sailors and the innumerable men of color who sailed the Atlantic World.
Citation:
Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003.
Via Documenting the American South through the University of North Carolina


The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox in the Revolutionary War
Christopher Hawkins and Ebenezer Fox are very similar fellows. Both were young New Englanders who signed on for sea voyages against Britain in the American Revolutionary War, and both were captured and imprisoned on the notorious hulk Jersey. Both served the British at different points in the war, and both escaped from them.
Hawkins narrative was written much later, and dwells less on the Jersey than Hawkins does. His service at sea is interspersed with a few other adventures irrelevant to the project, but there's a lot here to draw from in learning about sailors' everyday lives.
Citation:
Fox, Ebenezer, The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox in the Revolutionary War, Boston: Charles Fox, 1847.
Via Internet Archive



The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins
Hawkins endured the dubious honor of being captured by the Royal Navy twice in his service during the American Revolutionary War. His service aboard privateers as a teenager provides numerous interesting anecdotes in his memoir. Hawkins is rightly remembered for the account of his sufferings on the shockingly brutal prison barge Jersey in New York, and much of his memoir is justly focused on that experience. As the goal of this project is on the lives of common sailors, only the first quarter of the book is relevant to the Sailors Memoirs Project, but it is a helpful source nonetheless.
Citation:
Hawkins, Christopher, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins, edited by Charles I. Bushnell, New York: Privately Printed, 1864.
Via the Internet Archive


Samuel Kelly: An Eighteenth Century Seaman, Whose Days Have Been Few and Evil
Kelly's work is dense with anecdotes and telling memories. It follows Kelly's life as a sailor from entering as a young man on a fishing vessel all the way to his command of vessels on the Philadelphia trade. Readable and informative.
Citation:
Kelly, Samuel, Samuel Kelly: An Eighteenth Century Seaman, Whose Days Have Been Few and Evil, edited by Crosbie Garstin, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925.
Available on Amazon



The History of the Female Shipwright
Mary Lacy's adventures as a woman disguised as a man to work afloat and ashore are riveting. Her constant fear of being discovered and willingness to fight any man who questions her masculinity make for an entertaining read. Thankfully, the book is also peppered with plenty of useful stories and anecdotes for exploring life at sea.
Citation:
Slade (Lacy), Mary, The History of the Female Shipwright, London: M. Lewis, 1773. in in The Lady Tars: The Autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot, Tucson, Arizona: Fireship Press, 2008.


The Nagle Journal: A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841
Nagle's life story is unbelievably adventurous. Privateering in the Caribbean, escaping death when an attractive young jailer's daughter throws herself between Nagle and the bayonet of a misled French sergeant, fighting off a boatload of loyalists by strapping a cannon to a capstan and firing a load of nails and thimbles, sailing with the First Fleet to Australia, fistfighting a large bosun and succeeding to the delight of a company of regular soldiers and an entire ship's company, and more adventures strain the reader's belief. Surprisingly, there are other primary sources that back up some of Nagle's narrative. Definitely useful in exploring both the exceptional and the mundane in a sailor's life.
Citation:
Nagle, Jacob, The Nagle Journal: A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841, edited by John C. Dann, New York: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1988.
Available on Amazon


The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner
A Scotsman by birth, John Nicol traveled the world as a cooper, and experienced adventures that typify sailor memoirs of the eighteenth century. The thing that sets apart his memoir is that it appears to have been dictated. While wandering the streets in 1822, a printer met Nicol and was moved by his stories. Putting pen to paper, the printer related Nicol's words for his audience. Other sailors wrote their own memoirs and for their own reasons, but this is a case where someone else found his story important enough to write and publish the story despite the circumstances of the subject.
Citation:
Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997.
Original via Internet Archive


The Autobiography of a Yankee Mariner: Christopher Prince and the American Revolution
Prince's narrative is an interesting one because of the fluidity of his career. He served on both sides of the American Revolution, rose to become a first mate, was offered a position as sailing master in the Royal Navy, then enlisted as a landsman in the Connecticut State Navy and rose through the ranks again. Proving the permeable nature of maritime and naval hierarchy in the period, Prince also offers an interesting narrative full of strange and fascinating anecdotes like the murderous Wreckers of Virginia, the Quaker letter of marque, and more.
Citation:
Prince, Christopher, The Autobiography of a Yankee Mariner: Christopher Prince and the American Revolution, edited by Michael J. Crawford, Washington, D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2002.
Available on Amazon


The Female Soldier; Or, The Surprising Life and Adventures of  Hannah Snell
Hannah Snell was a celebrity in mid-eighteenth century England for her life disguised as a man in the marines. Her biography is ghost written by a male printer who clearly imposes his own perspectives into the story, and dilutes her voice considerably. Further, her career as a soldier is largely irrelevant to this project. However, Snell is described as a "tar," and a few observations in the memoir relating to service at sea are valuable despite her biography's deficiencies.
Citation:
Snell, Hannah, The Female Soldier; Or, The Surprising Life and Adventures of  Hannah Snell, London: R. Walker, 1750, in The Lady Tars: The Autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot, Tucson, Arizona: Fireship Press, 2008.
Via Project Gutenberg


Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens
Spavens had a sharp memory and never rose above the rank of a common seaman. His experiences are both exciting and typical for sailors of the time. Spavens pads out the length of his account with an informative description of everything to do with the navy (from navigation to rations to signal flags) for the second half of his book. While much of this is only passingly relevant to the lives of common seamen, he peppers these textbook like definitions with personal recollections.
Citation:
Spavens, William, Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens, edited by N.A.M. Rodger, County Somerset: The Bath Press, 2000.
Available on Amazon


Mr. Penrose: The Journal of Penrose, Seaman
A fictional novel written by the artist and former sailor William Williams, this is semi-autobiographical and therefore worth examining. It is considered by some to be the first American novel. Unfortunately, it was not published until well after Williams' death, and then in an edited form. The full, unabridged version was published in 1969, with an additional afterward published in 2013.
Citation:
Williams, William, Mr. Penrose: The Journal of Penrose, Seamanintroduction and notes by David Howard Dickason, afterward by Sarah Wadsworth, Indianapolis: University of Indiana, 2013.
Available on Amazon


The Life and Surprizing Adventures of James Wyatt
Wyatt had a hard time of it. Shot and captured by the Spanish, Wyatt's life was saved by a barber who hacked with his razor until he could remove the bullet still lodged in his shoulder. And that was before he was cast away and sold into slavery. Wyatt's account is not as packed as those of Nagle, Spavens, or Nicol with anecdotes and tales of his life at sea, as he spends much of his account relating the difficulties that followed capture. Nonetheless, his is an exceptionally early memoir, and does contain some relevant bits for understanding sailor's lives.
Citation:
Wyatt, James, The Life and Surprizing Adventures of James Wyatt, London: W. Reave, 1753.
Via Google Books

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