A Foreign-Going Seafarer At Home

When the Canadian census was taken in 1871 Henry Allen Johnson, one-time crew member of the Juno, was on shore at his parents' home in Sandy Cove, Digby, Nova Scotia. [view census transcript]The census shows him born to a mother of Scots descent and a father of English origin. He is the eldest of their offspring present. A decade later the couple was still living in rural Nova Scotia, but in old-age they presided over a changed household. Their eldest daughter, a school-mistress in 1871, had gone from the home, perhaps in consequence of her marriage, and Alfred, a son fourteen years Henry's junior, had in turn become a school instructor. Helen, the youngest child remained at home, though there was no sign of her siblings Charles and Wallace. Another son, closer to Henry in age, was present in 1881 (but not in 1871), and this son, Robert, was also employed as a "seaman". Meanwhile, a fifth son, George, had grown to maturity, and though he had taken maritime employment, he had not followed his older brothers into foreign-going voyaging. George was a fisherman.

A pattern emerges here, one frequently reproduced in nineteenth-century maritime settlements. The parents of a large and growing family commonly consigned their early-born male children to an occupation that relieved them of some subsistence costs. Perhaps little persuasion was needed for young men to make this move for life in the ship's fo'c'sl might be imagined preferable to a home over-crowded with children. In his youth and middle age, Henry ventured far from Nova Scotia, though never, during two decades and more of seafaring, did he entirely forsake either Sandy Cove or, when his parents moved there, the nearby settlement of Rossway. Most times his visits were brief, a matter of a few weeks, but the unpredictable and distant deployment of his vessels makes it remarkable that he was even an occasional sojourner. We owe this insight not just to the record noting him in two censuses, but a record we have compiled of his voyages and vessels. From rural Nova Scotia Henry Johnson remained part of an extensive maritime world. His progress in that world, moreover, seemed to be of the kind of which a respectable Baptist settler family would approve. The Sandy Cove "seaman" of 1871 had advanced by 1881 to be enumerated as a "sea captain".

Seafaring men were sons, and brothers, fathers and lovers whose neighbours were often seafarers.The census is a useful source to draw upon for these facets of seafarers' lives. Nineteenth century British and Canadian censuses respectively treated populations differently they were constituted in households, institutions and settlements: the Canadian censuses came with the instruction that temporary absentees should be enumerated in the households in which they were normally present. This should mean more comprehensive coverage of merchant seafarers as compared with British censuses where the rubric constrained householders to declare only those present on census day. Gaps in the enumeration of the young males in the Johnson household in two censuses of 1871 and 1881 raise questions however about just how the instructions to Canadian enumerators were applied. In either case the historical researcher should take note that censuses are to be treated as "snap-shots". When two or more census records exist the historian can fruitfully speculate about what changes had unfolded in the intervening period, as is the case above. What the research team had gathered about Johnson from the census made us curious to see more of his seafaring records. Conceivably there might be more robust evidence of how Johnson made his way in the world in the Crew Agreements. Paradoxically it was the mobility of this group, the fact that often makes them elusive in censuses, that makes them better documented than other populations.