Updated: Sep 26
There were a number of attempts by Americans to open the closed country of Japan (see the first post of this series for a short discussion of Japan’s closure). The first was by a southern New Englander, John Kendrick from Wareham, MA, who tried to establish trade at Wakayama in 1791, but his ship, the Lady Washington, was repulsed and towed out to sea by Japanese small boats. (note: there is a Rhode Island connection to the story, Captain Kendrick had been in command of Columbia and exchanged commands with the captain of the Lady Washington, Captain Robert Gray of Tiverton, RI)
Other American-owned ships were chartered by the Dutch for their annual trade and successfully entered Nagasaki harbor under a Dutch flag. When one of them, the Eliza from Boston, tried to return sailing under an American flag in 1803, it was repulsed. In 1807, another American ship, the Eclipse, tried and also failed.
Starting in the late 1810s, American whaling ships, mostly from southern New England, moved into the Pacific Ocean looking for additional sources of whale oil to feed the expanding and lucrative whale oil market. During the 1819-20 season, the first American whalers entered the Japanese whaling grounds. In 1823, a ship from Nantucket “discovered” the Bonin Islands. These American whalers, plying their trade off the coasts of Japan, would occasionally run into trouble or needed supplies. When they attempted to acquire water, wood, or shelter from the local Japanese, they were not welcomed. Shipwrecked whalers would be captured and eventually taken to Nagasaki to be sent out of the country.
It wasn’t just foreigners who were not allowed to enter Japan during this period. The 1635 Sakoku edict (closed country law) stated that any Japanese who left the country would be executed if they returned, making it difficult for shipwrecked Japanese to return home. However, the reality was that returnees were interrogated, ordered to never again discuss the outside world, and usually resettled away from their families.
In 1834, a Japanese ship wrecked near the American side of the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Only three sailors survived, but the Native tribe in the area enslaved and moved them across the strait to Vancouver Island. Americans eventually freed them and returned the three castaways to Asia via England. In Macao, they were placed with an English Missionary group which was told to return them to Japan when possible. The group also received four other Japanese who were shipwrecked in the Philippines. In 1837, the American ship Morrison was chartered to return those seven Japanese to Edo, but the ship was fired upon and driven away. A month later, the Morrison tried again at Kagoshima, again was fired upon, and was forced to return to Macao.
Less than ten years later, in 1845, the whaling ship Manhattan, a Long Island-based vessel, found shipwrecked Japanese in two locations south of Honshu. The Manhattan’s logbook from this voyage can be found at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Within it, Captain Mercator Cooper writes that, on 15 March 1845, they discovered 11 Japanese who were stranded on the island of St. Peters and the next day they came upon a “Japanese junk with her stern stove in” and rescued 11 more Japanese sailors. On 25 March 1845, they approached the Japanese coast and sent two sets of two rescued Japanese sailors into Edo (Tokyo) on Japanese boats which were around the Manhattan. The sailors were sent in to get permission for the Manhattan to enter Edo Bay and anchor. On 16 April 1845, they received “orders to go to anchor.” The next day they entered the bay, anchored on the 18th, and were surrounded by 300 boats with 3000 men who acted as guards. Captain Cooper wrote that several “nobility came on board to see the ship...they [appeared] very friendly.” On 20 April 1845, the Japanese sent them many supplies and took the recovered Japanese sailors. Captain Cooper wrote “The Emperor sends his compliments to me and thanks me for picking up their men and sends me word that I must not come again.”
In the next blog post we will look at an interesting case that shows another connection of Japan with southern New England. It is the tale of the boy known as John Manjiro and his unique relationship with his rescuer, Captain William H. Whitfield of the New Bedford-based whaling ship John James Howland.
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