American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

JOINING THE NAVY, OR ABROAD WITH UNCLE SAM (1895). Joining the Navy is an autobiographical travel narrative written by African American* enlisted sailor John Henry Paynter (1862-1947). This work describes Paynter’s experiences as a cabin boy, first on the man-of-war Ossipee and later on the Juniata. After graduating from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Paynter had planned to attend medical school at Howard University, but failing eyesight forced him to abandon this plan. Because of limited employment opportunities for educated blacks and because of his desire to travel abroad, Paynter enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1884.

Paynter’s narrative primarily addresses his two years at sea with the navy, ending abruptly with his discharge in late 1885. His detailed observations of everyday life in the navy are mingled with meditations on human nature and the state of race relations in the United States. He often uses descriptions of the sea as metaphors for these reflections.

Paynter’s purpose, as stated in his preface, is to inspire “the youths of our race to cultivate a desire for that broad experience which depends so much on travel.” His cruise took him from the East Coast of the United States to the Azores, then to the Mediterranean Sea and through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea. In the Eastern Pacific he transferred to the Juniata for its homeward journey, returning to the United States by way of the Cape of Good Hope. During his travels, he interacted with Caribbean,* European, Asian, and African cultures. His description of these visits is often conflicted, as his generally pro-American sentiment is tempered by an awareness of his own marginalized status in a country and a navy that subscribe to racial discrimination. A second edition of Joining the Navy, published in 1911, contains a foreword by the African American writer and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois.

Charles F. Warner