Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Through the South Seas with Jack London by Martin Johnson

I sailed with Adventure
When word got out that Jack London was building a yacht with the intention of sailing around the world, hundreds of fans and would-be adventurers wrote to the famous writer to apply for a spot on his crew. As the 45-foot boat finally set sail on April 23, 1907, one of the chosen applicants on board was 22-year-old Martin Johnson of Independence, Kansas. Johnson was signed on as ship’s cook, despite having no culinary experience. Later Johnson would assume the role of engineer, and he also served as London’s photographic assistant, developing all of the author’s photos as well as many of his own. In its two years at sea, the Snark underwent many crew changes, but Johnson was the one sailor who stuck it out with London from start to finish. After sailing to Hawaii, the Marquesas, Tahiti, the Solomons, and many more islands in the South Pacific, the voyage came to an end in Australia due to London’s medical problems. Johnson writes about his experience of the trip in his 1913 book Through the South Seas with Jack London.

London published his own account of the journey, The Cruise of the Snark, in 1911. While London’s book is written as a series of magazine articles, Johnson’s book is more of a straight-up memoir. I didn’t care so much for London’s account of the expedition. His ego often gets in the way, resulting in self-praise and pretentious prose that only make the travelogue duller. Johnson relates many of the same events that one finds in The Cruise of the Snark, but his writing is clear, engaging, and free of ostentation. He comes across as a very likable guy, one the reader would gladly accept as a traveling companion, and he conveys the average Joe’s wonder at exotic locations and peoples in a way that the larger-than-life London could not. While London and his wife are off having dinner with the king or governor of whatever island the Snark is visiting, Johnson is frequently living the life of a common sailor, hanging out with the locals, or merely exploring the sites—activities which make for a far more interesting travel memoir. Though Johnson’s account is not free of romanticization, and one can infer that he withheld some racy details from the prudish American reading public, his telling of the tale feels more honest and authentic than London’s.

One caveat is that on a few occasions Johnson uses racial labels for Blacks and Asians that are no longer acceptable (not the n-word, but in the same ballpark). Given the time period, one could safely say he just didn’t know any better. For the most part, he speaks favorably of other races and demonstrates an openness towards diverse cultures and perspectives. Johnson actually comes across as less of a racist than London, probably because Martin doesn’t share Jack’s superiority complex. Johnson only uses the term “savages” when he is speaking about actual cannibals, which is an improvement over most white writers of his day.

The Snark may not have made it all the way around the world, but Johnson did, and then some. Johnson’s voyage with London was but the first step in a life filled with adventure. Martin and his future wife Osa would become celebrities through a series of wildlife documentaries and travel films shot in Africa and the South Seas. After Martin’s death, Osa’s autobiography I Married Adventure was a bestseller in 1940. The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas, is devoted to artifacts from the couple’s adventures.

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