Joseph Johnson

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Joseph Johnson was a black sailor defrauded of his rightful pension despite his many years of service in the merchant marine. Reduced to poverty, he supported himself by singing - especially songs with a naval and patriotic character such as The British Seaman's Praise and the The Wooden Walls of Old England - and by begging. To make his performance more striking he frequently wore a tall hat in the shape of a frigate.*

Stephen Black meets him one day in St James-street, but though Johnson holds out the hand of fellowship Stephen ignores it and, in the common phrase, 'cuts' him, following his private rule of never being seen mixing with negroes of low station. This is undoubtedly a moment of shameful weakness on Stephen's part, but we need not insist too much on this flaw in his character. Although a man of great natural gifts, he faces a daily battle to establish his worth and respectability in the eyes of his countrymen, among whom his dark skin is perceived as a badge of inferiority.


  • This may have been more than a personal eccentricity. Opinion is divided as to whether Johnson was burlesquing the fashionable ladies' headwear of the late 18th century (which included enormous hats in the shape of ships, as shewn on the right) or reproachfully alluding to his unrewarded years of naval service, or both. It is even possible he was simply following African custom: some authorities point out that wearing a headress in the shape of a boat is by no means uncommon on the coast of West Africa, especially among the Kalabari people.