The story of J.S. Johnson Insurance Agents and Brokers starts with ‘the sweetest pineapple on the planet.’ The hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside fruit may not immediately be what you think of when you think of The Bahamas, just as an insurance and brokerage agency is not what you think of when you think of pineapples, but both are synonymous with The Bahamas.
As soon as you bite into its sharply sweet, tangy flesh, the juices burst in your mouth. You taste nothing but nature’s greatest joy as tears of goodness streak down your hands and, if you’re so lucky, down your arm, too.
Pineapple farming was the nation’s first major agricultural export industry, long before The Bahamas was known for its sun, sand and sea. The perfect marriage of hot climate and rich soil allows the pineapple plant to grow just about anywhere on these islands, particularly in light red soil that is found in valleys and the rocky soils of Eleuthera.
Pineapple exportation became a million-dollar industry, selling for up to $9 per dozen and shipping over 92,000 dozen to the United States and Europe. Pineapples were sold in nine large cargo ships at a time. With that, the pineapple canning industry also flourished as The Bahamas’ first retail industry.
There were a few successful pineapple “packers,” but none flourished like the J.S. Johnson Company. In 1886, the J.S. Johnson Company became the first corporation to successfully ship sliced pineapple and pineapple juice to the United States and Europe.
Joseph Samuel Johnson, then a Member of Parliament, and William C.B. Johnson acquired and merged with other canning companies in the country in order to partner with New York-based distributors and investors. In 1892, the J.S. Johnson Company shipped about 75,000 cases of cut and cored pineapples.
Each jar label described its sweet contents as “packed in syrup, sliced eyeless and coreless (and) allowed to fully ripen before packing, thus obtaining full flavor. Free of adulterations and preservatives.” No wonder kings and presidents sent their servants to the Bahama Islands for their pineapples.
For over 100 years the pineapple exportation industry flourished, that is until the 1920s, leaving most of the fields fallow for 20 years. The decline was attributed to many factors, but perhaps the most detrimental was the flourishing of pineapples in Hawaii and the Philippines (harvested from the pineapple roots Bahamian farmers sold to merchants) and a U.S. import tax initiated in 1898 to protect the pine fields of Hawaii. Bahamian farmers simply could not compete.
It was about this time that the J.S. Johnson Company diversified and became an insurance and brokerage agency, known today as J.S. Johnson & Company Limited. Determined to protect its land assets, the agency struck an agreement with Eagle Star Insurance Company Limited in London to write insurance. A few years later, it became the first binding authority to write insurance through Lloyd’s of London. J.S. Johnson & Company Limited was incorporated in 1959, about a decade before the pineapple canning industry stopped.
The 1980s saw an expansion within J.S. Johnson & Company Limited as it began expanding its branches throughout the other islands and the company's shares traded publicly for the first time.
In 1986, Charles Fernie was elected the Company’s first Chairman of the Board of Directors and later became the Managing Director. Through his acute industry knowledge, vision and a sense of humor, Fernie led the agency to substantial growth that propelled it among the largest and most respected insurance agencies in the country.
Among his attributes were company shares being traded publicly for the first time in 1986, the Britam Brokers and Agents (Bahamas) Limited acquisition and the appointment of J.S. Johnson & Company as the Insurance Company of The Bahamas’ principal-agent in 1997.
Fernie led the establishment of a subsidiary in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, and brand expansions to several other Bahama Islands. The Company’s headquarters also relocated to Collins Avenue in Nassau. A big a step since its humble beginnings on Union Street.
In its 2018 Annual report, Chairman Brian Moree described the 100th year achievement as a testament to the long-term success and sustainability of the company.
“J.S. Johnson has demonstrated these qualities and has established its credentials as a company worthy of the trust and confidence of the public in The Bahamas based on a track record of 100 years of business,” Moree wrote.
Today, the Company provides personal, commercial, marine, aviation and, life and health insurance. It commemorated their 100th year anniversary by partnering with various non-profit and civic organizations through community outreach, client appreciation initiatives, including cake cutting at various branches and visiting the then Governor-General, Dame Marguerite Pindling at Government House.
Although there are no living relatives to tell the story of the pineapple packers, the staff at J.S. Johnson have managed to capsulate remnants of the pineapple canning era, including the original can labels—free of adulterations. The pineapple industry, although nothing like it was before, is still a profitable business for those intent on keeping the traditions of their grandparents alive. Farmers supply the local market and host tours for visitors. Hop off a boat or airplane, then drive to the valleys of Hatchet Bay or Gregory Town, Eleuthera and you’ll find pine fields about a quarter of a mile long. An endless sea of bright pink, purple, green and yellow leaves. Patient laborers wearing gloves up to their biceps are weeding and picking. Nearby, Bahamians are salivating and waiting with others so lucky to taste the sweetest pineapples on the planet.