I finished reading this last night, the autobiography of a 17th century seaman called Edward Coxere (pronounced "Coxery"). It has humour and tension but clearly comes from a time when the novel as an artform was still in its infancy. It has the free-roaming quality of a picaresque as Coxere simply reports one episode after another. It's filled with wonderful detail and incidental glimpses into how people talked and behaved. Coxere describes being sent to France in 1647 as a child in order to learn the language by being brought up in a French household. It's not long before he goes to sea. The book shows how fluid was the national loyalty of a seaman at the time as Coxere served on Dutch, French, Spanish, and English ships.
As I was at first with the Hollanders against the English I continued in this frigate in the wars against the Hollanders till about the peace. I had not been long in this ship but I was made coxswain: so that I served several masters in the wars between King and Parliament at sea. Next I served the Spaniards against the French, then the Hollanders against the English; then I was taken by the English out of a Dunkirker; and then I served the English against the Hollanders; and last I was taken by the Turks, where I was forced to serve then against English, French, Dutch, and Spaniards, and all Christendom.
In one of the more amusing anecdotes, he describes going home to England at last where everyone, including his mother, thought for certain he was Dutch.
My mother, spying of us, says to the other woman, 'Here come Master Dehase with a Fleming. It may be they may bring some news of Ned.' she little knowing I was he. The old man bid me say nothing, he being pleased at the conceit. When we came to my mother, she looked on me, but knew me not, but asked the old man if he could tell no news of her child, not thinking her child stood before her. The old man bid her patience; she should well hear. This was to her but the old tone, I suppose. I discerned the yearning bowels of a mother, yet notwithstanding I kept myself undiscovered awhile, till at last I made myself known with much joy and gladness.
Yes, there was a time when "yearning bowels of a mother" could be written without thoughts of other connotations.
Coxere also describes the period of time he spent as a slave, having been captured by the Turks. As bad as he makes it sound, even worse is his imprisonment in England after becoming a Quaker and refusing to swear oaths.
He describes the personalities of different shipmates, including a captain who's constantly trying to get drunk. Several times he describes having to rig sails and whole masts in disastrous battles or during storms. At one point he describes holing up in a gunroom and drinking wine during an attack.
The copy I found for a few dollars on Amazon is a lovely little 1946 edition marked "discard" from a school library in Montana. It includes a foldout map and Coxere's original illustrations.