Johnston, James Henry (17871851), naval officer and developer of steam navigation, entered the navy in 1803 on the Spartiate, under the successive captains George Murray, John Manley, and Sir Francis Laforey. In her he was present at Trafalgar, and in 1809 at the operations on the coast of Italy. In December 1809 he was promoted lieutenant of the Canopus, still on the coast of Italy, and, after being invalided from her in the following year, was in September 1811 appointed to the sloop Kite employed in the North Sea, and afterwards in the Mediterranean. In December 1814 he was appointed to the Leveret (10 guns) on the home station, but in July 1815 was placed on half pay. Seeing no probability of further employment, and having friends in Calcutta, he went there in 1817, and obtained command of the ship Prince Blucher, in which he made two voyages to Britain. In 1821 he attempted to establish a sailors' home at Calcutta; it failed, but Johnston was favourably noted by the marquess of Hastings, who appointed him marine storekeeper, and, before he could enter on the duties, commissioner of the court of requests. However, Johnston returned to England to arrange his private affairs and never filled either office.
Johnston then turned his attention to steam navigation, and drew up a proposal for establishing steam communication with India via the Mediterranean and Red Sea. In 1823 he returned to India to lay his plans before the governor-general. They were not accepted, and Johnston, returning to England, was appointed to the Enterprise, a private steam-vessel, in which he sailed via the Cape of Good Hope to India, and arrived at Calcutta in December 1825. The steamer was immediately purchased for the East India Company's service, and sent to Burma, for the last nine months of the First Anglo-Burmese War. In 1829 Johnston was requested to report on the practicability of steam navigation on the Ganges, and after surveying the river was ordered to England to confer with the East India Company's court of directors. His plans, drawn up in concert with Thomas Love Peacock, were approved in 1831, and for many years the navigation of the Ganges was carried on in iron steamers built to his design. After returning to India in 1833, he was appointed controller of the company's steamers, which post he held until 1850. He was an important pioneer of the practical application of steam to oceanic and riverine service. On 8 July 1849 he was placed on the retired list of the Royal Navy with the rank of commander. On his passage home from Calcutta, after retirement, he died on 5 May 1851. He was married, and had at least one child.
J. K. Laughton, rev. Andrew Lambert
J. Sutton, Lords of the east: the East India Company and its ships (1981) · E. C. Smith, A short history of marine engineering (1937) · R. Gardiner and B. Greenhill, eds., The advent of steam: the merchant steamship before 1900 (1993) · United Service Gazette (19 July 1851) · O'Byrne, Naval biog. dict. · private information (1891) · Boase, Mod. Eng. biog. · GM, 2nd ser., 36 (1851)
E. Morton, lithograph, NPG