Henry Johnson: Clewing Up

As a master who had spent rather more time than most in the fo’c’sle, the superannuated Capt’n Johnson would appreciate the importance of a story that held its audience through its beginning, middle, and end. In this extended treatment of Henry Johnson, we have told you about his life, though not strictly in the order that a storyteller would recommend. Such is the prerogative of a team that has taken time to explain that theresearching and writing of history is not seamlessly done.

There are parts of the story still missing, and other parts we resist straightening out. The team might never recover Johnson’s beginning: meanwhile we hope for a clue that might send us back to the resources of the Maritime History Archive. Perhaps the tip that allows us to locate the documentation of his earliest voyages will be provided by a website user. Soon after the site went online we were contacted with information about the end of Johnson’s life. While acknowledging the reference that led us to his online obituary, we also extend our thanks to other individuals who have shared details of their relatives when they have found them featured on this website.

That Johnson’s story would run over several sections of the site was not predicted when his signature attracted attention at the point of his signing on the Juno: he was preceded by the hapless Mulby, who turned out never to be a shipmate. We might well credit Johnson with the skills of a story-teller, but the fact is that he was not a self-chronicler, not in the fashion of the officer apprentice, Alexander MacKay. MacKay’s sense of his place on the sailing ship Armadale reflected on the significant structural change in the turn-of-the century industry. One complete foreign-going agreement survives from Johnson’s short period of commanding the Electa, and there he is seen responded conscientiously, but not effusively, to the requirement that every voyage be logged. Thus his story has been elaborated mostly in the conjunction with other seafarers’ lives. Timely, then, is the reminder that in the space of a voyage, people are left behind, and new ones encountered.

Recall that Johnson was already sea-going when we first introduced him to site-users in the “Toolkit”. He signed onto the Juno as an Able-Bodied [A.B.] seaman in 1870, when he was of an age (27 years) at which the Captains Courageous of his day would already have progressed to being a master or mate. It is as well that we had no reason to see him then as a seafarer who was destined to be master. For had we thought him a man nourishing early ambitions that could be thwarted, what we next discovered in his past would have been reflected upon in that light. This is a reference is to his premature departure from Venus when only recently appointed its bo’s’un, and its cause, the sickness that also seems to have spoiled his chances of remaining in the employment of the Kewadin’s owners. While these would have been serious checks for a career seafarer, for a deckhand they were rather routine, so we turned instead to give due attention to what Johnson had already seen and done at sea, and neither then, nor in the future, imputed to him ambitions we can never be sure he had.

During his early years Johnson had sailed in North American, British and Caribbean waters. By his mid-20s he had already visited many ports. Then in 1867, at the age of 24, he signed up for a voyage from Greenock in Scotland to the East Indies knowing that if he made the round trip he would be away for at least a year. In Bombay and Calcutta, he probably assisted the officers in organizing Indian port runners to stow exotic cargo on the Eastern Belle and, more somberly, he witnessed sickness creep on board to claim the lives of two shipmates. Johnson might well have been a by-stander as the two new recruits picked up outward-bound at Bombay chafed under the heavy hand of the second mate. Perhaps he spied her captain returning to the ship bloodied after the subsequent showdown in Calcutta’s streets. Could it have been Johnson who persuaded his remaining shipmates to use more subtle means of ridding the ship of an officer who was proving irksome? He might have been the one to appreciate the added complexity of the relationship of the master and his second, for it is likely they were siblings. Indeed when Captain Andrew McBride came to indicate that the second mate had departed to another ship at Bombay, he made an exceptional note in his log. Fairly brimming with pride he reported Archibald McBride was joining that ship as chief mate. The fo’c’sle might have found something to celebrate in the departure of one of the two McBrides, and for Johnson perhaps there was relief that he would not be assigned to the watch of the precocious Archibald McBride on the final leg home. Then again, when the Eastern Belle dropped anchor in Greenock a whole year later than had been anticipated outward bound, did the Atlantic Canadian Henry Johnson really think himself returned home?

It is to be wondered whether Johnson’s experiences of long distance trades with British shipowners during the 1860s persuaded him into more familiar waters of the North Atlantic during the subsequent decade. His engagement for the Juno in Liverpool proved to be the last occasion he was recruited from the pool of labour assembled at a British port. Working on the sailing ships of Canadian shipowners in the 1870s involved a changed geography of employment for Johnson. Even though the voyages of his vessels did not officially begin and end in the timber ports of Atlantic Canada, he was often there, and with time to spare. While this voyage pattern reflects Johnson’s own mid-career decisions, it was facilitated by a sufficiency of cargoes for sailing ships across the North Atlantic. There was timber especially to keep an Atlantic Canadian fleet occupied. Had he continued to work from British ports he would have been under greater pressure to change to steam, but the shipmaster’s certificate that Johnson acquired in 1876 qualified him only for sailing ships. His promotion to mate on its strength allowed him to continue working at sea. It meant his wages were increased at a time when sailoring was ceasing to provide a living to non-officer crew unless they were prepared to economize on subsistence by living almost entirely on board ship. Johnson was to be further promoted, but the vessel he commanded was modest in size, and he was Electa’s master for just two years. The Troops’ priorities in the 1880s were determined by the impending collapse of sailing ship freights in the North Atlantic. They did not replace the smaller vessels in their fleet, but acquired more ships of upwards of 1,000 tons for deep-sea trades. Johnson had sailed on a vessel similar in size to the Herald almost twenty years previously, but the key difference now was that these ships were manned with fewer crew. We will never know whether Johnson’s transfer to the Herald, via the J.V. Troop, was eagerly or reluctantly made, though a first-time voyage around Cape Horn to the post-bellum South American coast surely tested his dedication to sea-going in his declining years. Significantly he went as second to a fellow Nova Scotian who though a dozen years his junior, had already commanded several ships. But unlike that Captain Courageous, Henry Johnson died in his bed.

How is this “against the grain” profile of the seafaring life of Henry Johnson intended to help the researcher who has joined us on this site out of an interest in learning more about the Crew Agreements? With Johnson more than any other of the website’s seafarers we mark the change from the serial recovery of Agreements as an archival process to their treatment as episodic. What we have attempted in “Seafarers Tell Their Tales” is to have every voyage seen as a stream of events unfolding as a story of the individual and of his or her collective, the ship’s crew. Voyages happen in calendar time and are charted in cartographic space, but when they are assimilated as the discursive time and space of the seafarer and their shipmates the days, weeks, and months between the opening and closing of an Agreement are the intervals in which researchers come to think afresh of how people in the past made sense of their life and work.