Norfolk’s Navigator

The World of John Secker 1716-95, Quaker Mariner

John Secker was a Norfolk sailor who penned his personal recollections of around 65 voyages, mainly undertaken in British and foreign merchant vessels, to encompass destinations in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas between 1729 and 1755. The son of a Quaker miller and born at Swafield near North Walsham in 1716, he was taught to read and write, and through the influence of maritime relatives, he first put to sea aged fourteen. A remarkable narrative of his working life is among the treasures of the Norfolk Record Office, one of just a handful of autobiographical accounts that survive for able seamen before the Napoleonic Wars.

Secker was almost constantly at sea between the ages of 14 and 40 years of age, progressing through the roles of servant, cook and cabin boy, to seaman and chief mate in coastal and long distance voyages. He became a self-taught navigator in the process, and learned foreign languages such as French and Spanish on board vessels with multi-national crews. His independent mindedness, perhaps instilled in him during his Quaker upbringing, led him into many clashes with the captains and authority figures he served under, whose incompetence his journal repeatedly calls into question.

In many ways, Secker’s seafaring life was highly representative of that of contemporary sailors. His first voyages were on the coasting trades and to the Low Countries. By his late teens he embarked on transatlantic voyages, crossing that ocean sixteen times in all, with his longest voyages following in his twenties and thirties to India, St Helena and Peru. He travelled to some places where few English had ever been before. When he put ashore at La Conception in the South Seas, he was no doubt surprised to discover ‘an ancient English man’ from Great Yarmouth who had lived there since being taken out of an English privateer 36 years earlier.

Like all good seafaring journals, Secker’s account of his wages, cargoes and ventures provides useful evidence for economic historians. His cargoes were generally foodstuffs rather than manufactured luxury items, although they did include semi-luxuries such as coffee, tea, wine, spirits and tobacco, mainstays of a colonial economy that enabled the increasing British ascendancy in global trade. This success was paid for by merchant seamen enduring cramped quarters, poor food, disease, disabling accidents, shipwrecks and pay arrears.

By far the largest ship on which Secker served was the Spaniard, The Grand Tuscany, which carried him to Peru, and which he recalled at ‘about 1000 tun burden’ with a crew of 160. It was from on board this vessel that Secker provided us with his many observations of the Spanish Pacific, including his passage round Cape Horn, and the colonies from the island of Chiloé in southern Chile to Guayaquil in Ecuador. The sketches he made of these coastlines and anchorages appear in the volume.

Secker’s plan of the port of Callao and city of Lima, and the adjacent country during his time there from 1750–1752.
Norfolk Record Office, Y/D 41/10, The Travel Narrative of John Secker

Like many of his counterparts, his last voyages reverted to the short-haul and coasting trades of his youth, returning to his home port of Great Yarmouth. Despite its eastward facing towards the ‘German Ocean’, Norfolk was far from disconnected from the Atlantic World. In the first two-thirds of the eighteenth century, Great Yarmouth was prospering among England’s most important ports and Secker’s narrative affords us some rich contemporary descriptions of the town. One of his last vignettes gives a detailed account of his narrow escape from the pressgang there, no doubt a factor in his decision to retire from seafaring.

The South-West Prospect of Yarmouth Drawn and engraved by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, 7 January 1741.
Prints Collection, Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, Norfolk Heritage Centre.

Soon after his retirement inland, Secker married a Quaker shopkeeper, Phebe Ransom of Ashill, at Swaffham, on 10 March 1756. They moved to Holt, where they bought a house to run as a grocery. Trading as a grocer was a logical step for Secker. He had already spent years transporting the colonial, consumer goods that adorned many English village shops by the late eighteenth century. In around 1765 he wrote his seafaring narrative, looking back on his life at sea. His writing was guided by his memory, understandably imperfect at times, along with notes and sketches he made during his voyages, having begun keeping a sea journal while still a teenager. He hoped to justify his seafaring life, and that his readers might learn from his navigation, travels and experiences. He had no wish to offend Quaker sensibilities by including subjects that were better left out. He felt compelled to record his deliverances to give gratitude to God and underline his Quaker credentials. His need to think well of himself was an important shaping factor. But he did not intend for his story to be published in print. His narrative was written for the Norfolk Quaker community of which he was part.

Secker died and was buried at Holt in 1795. Two shops now occupy the site of his resting place, next to the Post Office. After his death a copy of his narrative was made in 1800 by Samuel Mason, a Yarmouth Quaker related to Secker’s wife. It is likely that this copy adorned the ‘Museum of Natural and Artificial Curiosities’ in Great Yarmouth’s market place. This museum was owned by Secker’s cousin, Daniel Boulter, who did much to bring the manuscript to local attention.

Engraving of Secker’s cousin, Daniel Boulter (d.1802), proprietor of Yarmouth’s ‘Museum of Natural and Artificial Curiosities’.
Dalrymple Collection, Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library, Norfolk Heritage Centre.

Today, John Secker provides us with a rare glimpse of what a middling-sort, trading man from Norfolk made of the wider world. His independent, questioning temperament will endear him to modern readers. He offers us a rare view of seafaring from the ‘bottom up’, and a reminder that for an empire based on its commerce, Britain relied upon its John Seckers just as much as its Horatio Nelsons.

The World of John Secker 1716-95, Quaker Mariner was edited by Andrew Hopper (Published October 2011) and is available from the Norfolk Record Society.

This blog post was written by Andrew Hopper