Henry Johnson Revisited: A Signature

Click here to listen to a part 2 of our three-part interview with a professor about researching Henry Johnson.

johnson signature

Interviewer: Well if as you say you did not know anything of Henry Johnson when the team first took a look at the Juno Agreement – no family papers, no journal– then how was it that you chose him to be the “buttoned” seafarer? There were nine more ABs who joined the Juno with him, so why was it Johnson you chose?

Professor: I might once have replied, “serendipity”, but maybe this is the time for second thoughts. The signature did influence our choice of Henry Johnson. By that I mean the clarity of the signature: it was the clearest made by any man aboard.

Int: Yes, it is easily read.

Prof: ...and that’s important. We wanted people using the site to read the Agreement. Nineteenth-century hand-writing can be frustrating. Just think of how much comes to us word-processed, so in our present, when anything hand-written is a novelty, cursive script is additionally challenging.

But your question “why Johnson?” merits another answer.

We scanned the Juno’s Agreement and thought Johnson unexceptional, your “ordinary Joe”, so to speak. Remember at that time we had no way of knowing how his career would unfold.

Int: You didn’t take the signature as a sign that there might be different things in store for Henry Johnson than for other seamen on the Juno? Wasn’t Johnson’s ability to sign his name this clearly indicative that his prospects were better than the rest?

Prof: You have a point. By the time Johnson became master men could only gain certificates by sitting exams. Writing skills were expected of them. Johnson’s years as a child learning his letters in a Sandy Cove classroom were to pay off.

Int: And didn’t we learn from the census that he had a sister and a brother who were school-teachers? The family must have valued education.
“Mulby” above him, the AB who made such a mess of his signature, maybe he did not have such a good start in life?

Prof: That’s an interesting point and it would help to search out some information about the patterns of seafarers’ literacy. Historians’ usual source materials for literacy are church records. When they speculate on populations and their educational attainments it is by using the autograph on marriage or baptismal records with an ‘x’ taken to identify illiterates. So this is where it becomes important that seafarers were routinely called upon to make signatures.

Int: What do we know then about seafarers’ ability to make their names? Were they better or worse than the general population in these literacy stakes?

Prof: David Alexander, lead researcher of the Atlantic Canada Shipping Project, published on this topic. It was the article in which he coined the project’s signature reference to “working men who got wet”. That’s a great image if you think about it.

Int: Well, some of us might prefer “Working people who got wet”, remembering that there were women who signed onto Agreements!

Prof: That’s true, but what I like about it is that it expresses how seafarers can be simultaneously different from, and the same as, non-seafarers. It refuses the outlandish stereotypes, but does not reduce seafarers to an uninteresting condition of sameness.

Following from this observation, Alexander wanted to know whether his “working men” were literate in the same proportion as non-seafarers. He was out to disprove those who said only desperate and ill-qualified men took employment at sea. Reassuringly what he found was that there was no significant difference in literacy between seafaring and non-seafaring males. But this was not the only point that Alexander made. Because he had hit upon one of few sources that provided for tracing the relationship between literacy and workforce skills over a long period, Alexander could take the argument further. He was out to influence contemporary policy makers to give a greater priority to investing in the education of a workforce. Thus it came to matter that the more literate groups exemplified greater occupational mobility within the seafaring workforce. He used a sample of seafarers consisting of the crews of vessels registered in the Canadian port of Yarmouth between 1860 and 1899. What his work revealed of their literacy when the sample was broken down by region or country of birth is indicated in the graph we have included on the site.

Int: Yes, looking at that graph I can see some marked differences in the percentages. And, since it’s Johnson we’re concentrating on, it is impressive to see that by birth he belongs to a group which was just short of 90% literate. Only the German seafarers in that sample have higher literacy rates than the Nova Scotians.

Prof: If you recall how our discussion began with a question about whether AB seaman Johnson’s signature might have given us an inkling of his future prospects of becoming a mate and master, on this information I can still maintain he was something of the “ordinary Joe” we first thought him. After all, seven of the nine ABs who joined the Juno in Liverpool at the same time as him signed their names. Literacy by this measure was the norm, not the exception, for merchant seafarers in 1870.

Int: And yet I could come back and task you with “Mulby” if that indeed is his name, for it's a transcription of what he scrawled. This man, “Mulby” or maybe “Muldy” or ”Munby”, you’ve counted him as one of the seven literate AB’s of the Juno, despite his apparent difficulties in making a signature.

Prof: It’s true we can learn more from finessing those two categories “literate” and “illiterate” and “Mulby” scarcely able, or perhaps choosing not to make his name, deserves a little more attention. I would also like to reference a man in command of a Newfoundland registered vessel, Captain Dunn, who in the records we found of him from the 1870s, gives every appearance of being illiterate.

Int: So those categories might not hold up very well, and family historians should contemplate an ancestor’s signature on a case-by-case basis.

Prof: Certainly it is intriguing to work through the case that the Liverpudlian Mulby was strategically illiterate. What if the necessary signature is a subterfuge, the result of a name still unfamiliar because only recently assumed: or what if this is a man hiding his tracks from creditors in port, a tailor or publican who had given him credit on the advance note he took for this voyage of the Juno. The clincher would seem to be that he signed, took the advance, but did not turn up for work. He was the kind of seafarer who had shipowners despairing. Men like Mulby seemed to them the epitome of the irresponsible and ill-disciplined seafarers they would rather see eliminated from the labour pool.

Int: And yet if we think of Mulby as a man making his living in uncertain times, we might be more understanding of subterfuge.

There was another example you wanted to introduce, Captain Dunn of Newfoundland?

Prof: This ship’s master was Irish by birth. Alexander’s figures show that as many as one in three of Irish-born seafarers serving on the Yarmouth fleet were, like Dunn, illiterate. As a shipmaster Dunn would have been in dire straits without his son to administer the documentation of the ship’s business. The son’s mediation made it possible for the family to continue in shipping.

Int: On the logic by which you argued above for the strategic illiteracy of Mulby, Dunn or rather Dunn’s ship, was functionally literate.

Prof: Just so.

The research on literacy that provides figures from making a simple distinction between those who signed and those who made an ‘x’ is well worth consulting, but I hazard a guess that family history researchers will want to draw upon more when they find a relative’s signature on a Crew Agreement.

Int: There is a thrill in that find.

Prof: One the team shared every time we found Henry Johnson making his neat and clear signature. The autograph was the only personal artifact we had. We were without a photograph or physical description, no diary exists, there is no extensive ship’s log compiled by him.
The signature did not resolve our problem however: just how were we going to tell the tale of a man whose intentions for his life are not recorded anywhere? In 1870, where we started, researchers had no inkling of what was in store. Going forward from the Juno was possible when his officers’ record showed us on what ships he sailed, but going backwards was a strategy with a starting point in the Juno Agreement.