Henry Johnson Revisited: Revisiting

Click here to listen to a part 1 of our three-part interview with a professor about researching Henry Johnson.

Interviewer: The user of “More Than a List of Crew” “meets” many merchant seafarers on the site, but you return to just one, Henry Johnson?

Professor: Yes. If our listeners have looked at the sample foreign-going Agreement reproduced in the toolkit part of the site they already know something about Johnson. He was an Able Bodied seaman aboard the Juno on its Liverpool to New Orleans voyage between 1870 and 1871.

Int: Johnson is the “buttoned” seafarer, then, the man whose details sustain a discussion of how to interpret the Agreement in respect of individual seafarers.
And as I recall from those details, he came from this part of the world, from Atlantic Canada.

Prof: Yes, he gave his place of birth as Digby in Nova Scotia. That was how we came to find our next reference to him.
This was in the census of 1871, when Johnson was living with his parents and siblings in a small farming and fishing settlement known as Sandy Cove.

Int: I think you have an image of Sandy Cove earlier on the site and it looks to be a farming and seafaring settlement.

Prof: Many seafarers were born there. In fact in 1923 the local newspaper paid tribute to its master mariners. Using a title that derived from one of Rudyard Kipling’s imperial adventure stories, it called them “Captains Courageous”.

Int: I guess that was more flattering than “Bluenosers”, the term by which I know masters hailing from Atlantic Canada.

Prof: “Bluenosers” were tough: they were risk-takers, but you’re right, the term had come to connote masters who were ...how shall I put this ... not too particular about observing what the law allowed in the disciplining of crew members.

Int: So posthumously Captain Henry Johnson joined the roll call of Sandy Cove’s “Captains Courageous”?

Prof: Well, there is no doubt that he became a ship’s captain. In the next census he was listed as a master, and not long after finding that the team located his service record as an officer. It started when he received a master’s certificate in 1876. For whatever reason Johnson did not make it onto the list of Sandy Cove’s “Captains Courageous”. But instead of asking ourselves why he had not measured up, the team began to feel that there might a little more to Henry Johnson than to some of the more conventional career masters.

Int: Clearly you were gathering information from many sources: newspapers and censuses, as well as the crew agreements?

Prof: Yes, several searches were going on in parallel, but with the Maritime History Archive’s resources to hand our first priority was the record of his career. It is still not complete, and we may never discover what vessels Johnson was on between 1871 and 1876, and during 1885. But the table included in the “Toolkit” gives a pretty good idea of how Johnson spent his sea-time. Realize that what we have here is twenty years of a working life, a working life that would have gone unrecorded had Johnson made his living in ...(Prof searches for words)

Int: ... a sawmill, barber’s shop, or a bank.

Prof: Exactly.

Henry Allen Johnson
Career Vessels*

Official Number
Port of Registry Rig Where Built
When Built
Vessel Owner
Owner's Address
Blair Athol
443 tons
Annapolis, NS Barque Granville, NS
John Johnson
Granville, NS
1388 tons
Grangemouth Ship St.John, NB
Alexander Thompson
Eastern Belle
1103 tons
Greenock Ship Medford, US
Robert Cuthbert
734 tons
Windsor, NS Barque Newport,NS
J. Curry
268 tons
W. Stewart &Co.
955 tons
Windsor, NS Ship Newport, NS
Thomas Curry
Windsor, NS
Crown Jewel
716 tons
St. John, NB Barque Granville, NS
Troop & Son
St. John, NB
St. Patrick
726 tons
St. John, NB Barque St.John, NB
Hall & Fairweather
St. John, NB
466 tons
St. John, NB Barque St. Martin's, NB
Howard Troop
St. John, NB
JV Troop
1295 tons
St. John, NB Ship Tynemouth,NB
Howard Troop
St. John, NB
1445 tons
St. John, NB Ship Tynemouth, NB
Troop & Son
St. John, NB
894 tons
Digby, NS Barque Bear River, NS
William F. Marshall
Bear River, NS

*Johnson did not work on any steamers in his career. Therefore, horsepower is not included.

Int: But I asked you “why Johnson?”

Prof: I could make it simple and say the volume of what we discovered about Johnson in a matter of a few months: it was too much to be conveyed at just one attempt.
But I’d like to make a more sophisticated answer: in revisiting Johnson we have an opportunity to explain more of the process of historical research. The life of Johnson might appear streamlined, at least on looking at the career table you could well form that impression, but to the contrary. As you will see our discoveries about Johnson unfolded as untidily as life itself.
A further point .... At the outset he was one of the least promising of our seafarers. With no personal papers, no journal, log or diary we had no idea how he might have explained himself. For Alexander MacKay, by contrast, we had a journal that was self-revealing on almost every page. What’s more in entries tracking the progress of his voyage, MacKay provided us, his historians, with a coherent temporal plot. But with Johnson, a subject less centred in the evidence, we can show you what a large part conjecture plays in the work of an historian.

Int: So, trips back and forth to manuscript collections and references to printed period sources have a part in this account. And it looks too as if we will be following historians’ use of inference and speculation.

Prof: Indeed you will, and remember what we are trying to do with Johnson’s story and the others in this section of “More than a List of Crew”: our narrative moves between individual and larger stories so that perspectives of global, imperial and industrial change are brought into the accounts of these individuals.