jonathan and joseph

As Stephen walked up St James’s-street, he saw a strange sight - a black ship sailing towards him through the grey rainy air above the heads of the crowd. It was a frigate, some two feet high, with dirty, ragged sails and peeling paint. It rose and fell, mimicking the motion of the ships at sea. Stephen shivered a little to see it. A beggar emerged from the crowd, a negro with skin as dark and shining as Stephen’s own. Fastened to his hat was this ship. As he walked he ducked and raised his head so that his ship could sail. As he went he performed his curious bobbing and swaying movements very slowly and carefully for fear of upsetting his enormous hat. The effect was of a man dancing amazingly slowly. The beggar’s name was Johnson. He was a poor, crippled sailor who had been denied a pension. Having no other means of relief, he had taken to singing and begging to make a livelihood, in which he had been most successful and he was known throughout the Town for the curious hat he wore.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke

So when I first read this bit, I was sure this was something that was actually, historically recorded (especially since it also apparently shows up in the TV series Taboo). Well, I was doing some research-reading today, and by pure chance, stumbled over this:

Despite the benefits of Greenwich Hospital, plenty of men in seaman’s dress were to be seen begging on the streets of London. […] Joseph Johnson was a negro who had only served in merchant ships and was not eligible for Greenwich. He gained fame by touring the streets with a model of the ship Nelson on his head, which could ‘give the appearance of sea motion’ when he nodded his head.

(Royal Tars: The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy, 875-1850, Brian Lavery)

So now I know. :)


Though the chains of destiny may bind you, though you may be fated to fight, know that a noble heart is strong as a diamond, and as free as golden wind in the sky. Though you may be imprisoned in a sea of stone, you can keep walking toward the light. There’s always a blessing waiting in the wings, and as many signposts to guide you as there are stars in the sky. Go now, and journey beyond the stars!