- Historic Sites
The Bonins—isles Of Contention
Americans settled early on the tiny, strategic Pacific islands, and dominate them again today. But the Japanese want them back
Februrary 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 2
The Japanese knew the Bonins existed, but they had been turning their backs on the Pacific for centuries. They used their own closest southern outliers, the Izus, as a dumping ground for political criminals and other undesirables; the Bonins, only a few hundred miles farther out to sea, might just as well have been on the other side of the earth. From time to time junks in distress fetched up there, and their crews hurried to build new boats and go home. Occasionally a well-equipped expedition would be proposed, and one or two actually sailed, but the only result was the naming of the islands. A Japanese named Shimaya Jchixaemon spent several months ashore in 1675, and perhaps to compensate for the fact that he found no one living there, he turned the main islands themselves into a family. The northern cluster he named Bridegroom Island (Muko Jima), Bride, and Matchmaker. The central cluster’s biggest island became Father Island (Chichi Jima), and three smaller ones, Elder Brother, Younger Brother, and Grandson. The southern cluster he called Mother Island (Haha Jima), Elder Sister, Younger Sister, and Niece. On his return to Japan. Shimaya confirmed earlier reports that the islands were mun-in or bun-in , empty of men. The group became known in the western world by a corruption of the latter term, Bonin.
In the eighteen twenties whaleships began to comb the Western Pacific north of the Equator, and in 1824 and iSs$ an American, James Coffin of Nantucket, visited the southern, central, and northern clusters of the Bonins in the British whaler Transit . In 1826, another British whaler, the William , ran on the rocks and sank in the harbor at Chichi Jima. Most of her crew left aboard another ship, but two sailors named Wittrein and Peterson stayed behind to salvage the William ’s cargo, a job made easier for them by a huge tidal wave that washed parts of the wreck a good way inland.
Wittrein and Peterson set themselves up in plank houses built from the debris of their ship, and they were eating well olf hog meat and vegetables from (heir garden by the time the next visitors appeared, in June, 1827. H.M.S. Blossom , commanded by Frederick William Beechey, was the first man-of-war to anchor at Chichi Jima. Without making too much of it, Beechey claimed the Bonins for Great Britain. “Taking possession of uninhabited islands,” he wrote, “is now a mere matter of form; still I could not allow so fair an opportunity to escape, and declared them to be the property of the British government.”
Beechey named the central cluster alter himself, its principal island—Chichi Jima—Peel Island, and the harbor there Port Lloyd. He offered Wittrein and Peterson passage home, but they chose to stay awhile. Wittrein even toyed with the idea of living permanently on Peel Island. He had a house with a sign that read “Charles Wittrein’s premises,” a gun, a Bible, and a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and he was thinking of getting a wife from Hawaii. For some reason he gave up this scheme and left with Peterson in 1828 on the next ship that came, the Russian man-of-war Seniavin .
At the end of the eighteen twenties, then, the Bonins had been sighted and visited by ships of several nations, and they belonged to Great Britain, but only as a “matter of form.” In 1830 a small colonizing expedition was put together at Honolulu. The British consul there gave the settlers a Union Jack and his vague blessing. Beyond that he did nothing to help them, and he did not bother to report the venture to his home government. In his only letter on the subject of the Bonins, written eighteen months after the expedition set out, he merely mentioned that the islands might be useful “if colonized.”
The leader of the settlers was Matteo Mozarro, an Italian who claimed to be a British subject. Mozarro was something of a flag waver for his adopted country, but he did not, or could not, recruit only Britishers. His four fellow settlers were an Englishman, Richard Millinchamp; a Dane named Richard Johnson; and two Americans from Massachusetts, Aldin Chapin and Nathaniel Savory. All were sailors tired of the sea, deck hands who from now on wanted to look at the ocean across a wide beach rather than over the side of a ship. The ports of the Pacific were full of such men, and only accident brought these five together at Honolulu. Savory had left his ship after losing part of one hand in an accident with a saluting cannon in Honolulu harbor. Mozarro, whose checkered career included shipwreck on an uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean, arrived rather mysteriously at Honolulu in 1830 with a boatload of girls from the Marquesas Islands. The others were men of obscure past, and not much future as long as they continued to go to sea. They had nothing to lose and perhaps something to gain by settling a new island.