Building upon the approach that started with understanding the evidence recovered from the archive, here we show you the twists and turns of history as lived by different kinds of seafarers living in different periods. Dead Men told tales in an earlier section of the site, but now, with the “living” word of autobiographers, raconteurs and interviewees there is an opportunity to centre individuals as thinking, feeling subjects. You will learn about their intentions, desires and beliefs, their hopes and disappointments, and about their reasons for striking out for sea, for rare is the accidental seafarer.

What was it like for them? What was it like to be an officer apprentice, a stewardess or steward, or a ship's fireman? We animate Alex MacKay, Violet Jessop, William Martin and Futley Ali Kala and engage your imagination in these questions. Historians often speculate about how lives unfolded in past times, and indeed they use their imaginations, but they take scrupulous account of the kinds of sources that provide information.

A name that may be familiar to the site user from much earlier is missing from the list above. We have a place for Henry Johnson, but the “revisited” that differentiates the title of his section indicates it as different from the rest: his tale is not delivered in first person. While we gathered a wealth of material about Johnson during the course of this project, little of it was suited to first-person presentation. Instead an actor takes on the role of a project researcher and she provides some interesting answers to questions practical and more contemplative about sources and inspiration. A research process that reveals life as untidily as life itself unfolds is evident in her answers.

What we longed for with Johnson is what Alexander MacKay provides, a wealth of contextualizing information, vivid in its detail. MacKay left words enough in his autobiographical account to inspire research in the Agreements that could conjure actual persons, settings and events into coherent temporal plots or structures. But why did some crew, and more so masters, become the recorders of their own lives? MacKay, two generations younger than Johnson, maybe went to sea under sail with a sense of the portent of the moment, for at the beginning of the twentieth century his ships were among the last of those sailing the oceans. Then again, perhaps the literate and educated Johnson documented his life in reams and nothing of it survived. Family kept MacKay's journals and pictures, and the Registrar General of Shipping and Seaman (the RGSS) preserved his ships' Agreements.

Family was instrumental too in the preservation, and ultimately the publication of Violet Jessop's memoirs. These are priceless: first because working women are less frequent autobiographers than men, and women who worked at sea are anyway few; and second, because of the character of her writing. Jessop was supremely self-aware, and forthcoming about her situation in a man's world. Moreover, she is surprisingly matter-of-fact about one of the shortest engagements of her career, that which ended with the wreck of the Titanic. For the rest of her life she quietly observed its emergence as one of the defining moments of the 20th century, quietly because Jessop refuses to be drawn by that meta-narrative. In her own experience the drama, and more so the trauma, of the Titanic was eclipsed by the wartime loss of the hospital ship Britannic. Her male counterpart, the steward Henry Martin, was accessible via his Discharge Book, and that book was the key to recovering the Agreements of his voyages. We had none of his words so his tale is conjectural in the sense that it depends on parallel stories from oral history and on published sources, including a period publication of instructions to stewards. Only conceivably might he have encountered this publication.

Paradoxically the tale that looks, and sounds, most robust is the one that is least likely to stand up to close inspection as a tale authored by its speaker. In 1902 an organized trade union had emerged at several British ports, and in London Futley Ali Kala, Indian ship's fireman, was questioned by a Parliamentary committee. It was comprised of one labour organizer and a host of shipping industry representatives. His testimony, published as a Commons report, is used verbatim in the Lascar tale. We neither confirm nor deny its veracity. Instead we emphasize that it was secured in translation.

The category Lascar – a category that included Africans as well as Indians – can be traced to the constitutive effects of the Asiatic Agreement. Recruitment of seafarers on those Agreements stands in contrast with the recruitment and administration of British and European seafarers. The Lascar contract apart, industrial labour systems in British imperial shipping presumed the contractual autonomy of the individual. This gibed with the West's embrace of radical individualism. It happened not over the short term, but over the lengthy course that were the centuries of Indian and African dispossession and displacement. It is significant, therefore, that when other stories of Lascars emerge they come by a different route: testimony secured in interviews can be different from the official word when the interviewers are oral historians based amongst Indian, African, Arab and Chinese seafarers and their British descendants.

Yet vibrant as the oral traditions of port settlers are, scope for the generation-by-generation transmission of recollections has limits. So, before revisiting Henry Johnson, we conclude this part of “Telling Tales” by envisaging a future movement of community-based researchers into the digital MHA. We also speculate that the different kind of interpretive reading the Asiatic Agreement needs might lead existing ancestral researchers, and professional historians, and their students, to set a new order upon the contents of the Archive. For if we had not previously thought of it, the question “how did we come to be here” is an historical proposition with a social dynamic and cultural specificity.