Jacob Nagle

Seaman –HMS Sirius


Nagle, Jacob (1761–1841), sailor and diarist, was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on 15 September 1761, the son of George Nagel (1735–1789), a German immigrant, and Rebecca Rogers (d. 1793).

On the outbreak of the American War of Independence George Nagel assumed command of a series of Pennsylvania regiments. Jacob joined him in August 1777.

He served in George Washington's artillery, saw action at the battle of Brandywine, and then wintered at Valley Forge. Upon his father's abrupt resignation of his commission in June 1778, Nagle also left the revolutionary army.

Early in 1780 he joined the Saratoga, a 16-gun sloop then being built at Philadelphia for the navy. With the launch of this ship delayed, Nagle changed to the Fair American, a 16-gun privateer. In company with the Holker, this captured more than twenty ships in six months' cruising. In 1781 Nagle went on two cruises on the 20-gun Rising Sun. In October he was shipwrecked on the Virginia coast, after which he joined the Trojan, only for it to be disabled in a storm, then captured by HMS Royal Oak. This led to Nagle's serving in another navy.


Still a prisoner of war, Nagle went down to St Kitts in the Royal Oak, and regained his liberty when French forces took the island in January 1782. This respite was brief, for in early March he was imprisoned at Fort Royal, Martinique, for aiding a British sailor. In May 1782, after the battle of the Saints, he was among prisoners of war exchanged for French ones. On and off Nagle was to serve in the Royal Navy for twenty years. On 25 May he joined the St Lucia as able seaman. The following April, upon the ending of the war, he transferred to the Ardent, in which he sailed from Antigua to Plymouth, where he was paid off in August 1783. Rather than return home, he first joined the Ganges, which went down to Gibraltar, and then one of the guardships at Portsmouth.


In March 1787 Nagle was one of the young seamen selected for service on the HMS Sirius, the frigate escorting the first fleet to New South Wales. He experienced the long voyage down the Atlantic and across the Indian Oceans, with stops at Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro, and Cape Town, before arriving at Botany Bay in January 1788. In October Nagle went in the Sirius to Cape Town, returning to Sydney in May 1789. In March 1790 he was in this ship when it was wrecked at Norfolk Island, and distinguished himself by twice swimming between ship and shore as the crew struggled to save its precious supplies.


After twelve months on Norfolk Island Nagle returned to England in April 1792 in the Waaksamheyd.


For some months he lived in London's East End, experiencing its life to the full. In August he was pressed into the Hector, where he stayed for seven months, which included the time when the Bounty mutineers were held onboard. He next went into the Brunswick, from which he deserted in April 1794 to enter the East Indiaman Rose, in which he voyaged to Madras and Calcutta, where he met two convict women from Sydney who had established a brothel.


The Rose returned to England in July 1795, whereupon Nagle entered HMS Gorgon.

At this time he married a Miss Pitmans (d. 1802)—‘a lively hansome girl in my eye’ (Nagle Journal, 186)—and the pair had several children in the next years.


In November 1795 the Gorgon sailed to Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean. At Corsica in April 1796 Nagle transferred to the Blanche, so that he then saw action under the general command of Horatio Nelson and John Jervis.

He returned to Portsmouth at the end of June 1798. In July he entered the Netley, which cruised most along the coasts of Portugal. Appointed prize-master, he prospered from the ship's success. In June 1801 he transferred to the Gorgon, which sailed to Alexandria, and from which he was discharged at Woolwich in April 1802, as the peace of Amiens briefly held.


Nagle now decided to return to America. After visiting family members he went to sea again in the merchant navy, sometimes American, sometimes British, where he continued for twenty-two years. During this long period he voyaged to the West Indies, to Central America, to China in the Neptune (1806–8), and to Canada, Florida, and South America. In 1811 he sailed to Brazil, where he stayed until 1821. After several more trading voyages, in mid-1824 he retired from the sea. Thereafter Nagle had a somewhat restless life, sometimes working, sometimes living with relatives or friends until their patience ran out.


He died in Canton, Ohio, on 17 February 1841 and was buried there on 18 February.


Jacob Nagle prided himself on being the most skilful of sailors. He also took pride in his personal appearance, being given to wearing waistcoats and silk jackets. He frequented prostitutes, towards whom he acted charitably when he thought their case merited it. He did not gather worldly possessions about him. However, late in life he wrote a long and surprisingly accurate reminiscence, which is full of details of and insights into the life of an ordinary seaman in the eighteenth-century royal and merchant navies.


As the form will for seamen put it so eloquently, Nagle knew all ‘the Perils and Dangers of the Seas, and other Uncertainties of this transitory Life’. He suffered severely from scurvy, felt the lash on his back, saw men killed in battle and executed. He was robbed and cheated of his money. He lost his wife and children to yellow fever at Lisbon in 1802. In twenty years he did not see his family; and by the time he returned to the United States his parents were dead.

When in the throes of illness in Brazil, he wrote feelingly:

though I had traveled a good many years through the four quarters of the globe, been a prisoner twice, cast a way three times, and the ship foundering under me, two days and a night in an open boat on the wide ocion without anything to eat or water to norish us, and numbers of times in want of water or victuals, at other time in action, men slain along side of me, and with all, at this minute it apeared to me that I was in greater distress and missery than I ever had been in any country during my life. I fell on my nees, and never did I pray with a sincerer hart than I did at that presentime. (Nagle Journal, 312–13)


Jacob Nagle was an ordinary man who lived an extraordinary life. It is for this life, so richly recorded in his journal, that he deserves the remembrance of posterity.


Submitted by William Hempel FF Associate # 6740.1


Sources  The Nagle journal: a diary of the life of Jacob Nagle, sailor, from the year 1775 to 1841, ed. J. C. Dann (1988)

Archives  U. Mich., Clements L., library, personal memoirs of time in Royal Navy


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Alan Frost, ‘Nagle, Jacob (1761–1841)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/64833, accessed 11 Feb 2014]

Jacob Nagle (1761–1841): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/64833 



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