- 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
A British schooner dropped Mozarro and his company at Peel Island in June, 1830. The first year was very hard, but after a season or two it became clear that they could grow almost anything they wanted in the fertile soil around Port Lloyd—corn, sweet potatoes, yams, melons, beans, onions, taro, sugar cane, coconuts, bananas, even tobacco. They turned their hogs and goats loose in the hills and then hunted them with dogs. In the harbor at Port Lloyd lazed hundreds of gigantic turtles, so many that in season the shallow water was thick with them. The meat was delicious, either fresh or cured. (There were almost as many sharks as turtles in the harbor, and one astonishecl visitor mentioned seeing intrepid dogs run into the shallows and drag small sharks out by the fins.)
Mozarro and the others had brought with them fifteen Hawaiians, five men and ten women, to work their farms on a sharecropping basis. The scheme failed. In a very short time each settler withdrew to his own hut and truck garden with his one or two native “wives.” Many of the Hawaiians left as soon as they could and had to be replaced by “Kanakas,” lazy, indigent drifters from Hawaii and other Pacific islands. The women were disinclined to raise children, and some followed the old Hawaiian customs of abortion and infanticide. Shipwrecked sailors, deserters, mutineers, and sick and disabled seamen came ashore—more than sixty in the first seven years—but only a handful stayed, and very few of those were interested in hard work.
Life could be comfortable all the same. Aldin Ghapin was well set up by 1836, so a visitor reported. In his square, one-room house stood “a table, covered with newspapers and writing materials, and over it, upon the wall, hung a spy glass, and a thin manuscript, headed ‘Laws of the Bonin Isles.’ A sea chest stood on each side of the room, and a bed, with calico curtains, filled each corner. A few French prints, and a shelf of fifty or sixty miscellaneous volumes, occupied rather than adorned the walls. A chair of home manufacture and a three legged stool completed the furniture.”
Chapin was the most literate man at Port Lloyd, a natural keeper of the “laws.” The settlers’ code was simple enough, suitable to a colony where only three men (including Savory and Chapin but not Mozarro) could write their names. All disputes were supposed to be settled by majority vote. No one was to help sailors desert from ships, and no one was to “maltreat the slaves or servants of another, or endeavour to seduce any woman from her lord.” Those who made their marks at the foot of this document in 18^6 did so grudgingly, at the urging of a visiting American naval commander. A few years later another commander, this time a Britisher, called a meeting to discuss law and order, but his spokesman, the English settler Richard Millinchamp, “was assailed with the most violent oaths and the greatest abuse, which were accompanied with the threat of his life.” No piece of paper would protect such men from each other or from themselves. Every so often Mozarro hoisted his Union Jack, and once he made a trip to Honolulu, returning with written confirmation of his leadership supplied by the acting British consul, but these were the emptiest of gestures.
Port Lloyd really had no law to stand between grievance and vengeance, and Mozarro was as ready as the next man to look for direct redress. Over the years he found Savory and Chapin on the opposite side in arguments far too often. He decided the colony would be better oft without the disputatious Americans. His plan to rid himself of them backfired, and in 1838 Savory and Chapin got from one Francis Silver a remarkable document: “I … do make oath of die following: That Mr. Matthew Mozarro told me some time since that if he could get Chapin and Savory out of the way he would give everything he possessed in the world. … He said for me to … wait for Savory … and for me to go close alongside of him for to make friends with Savory and when he turns his head … to heat his Brains out with a club, and if that did not kill him to stab him with a knife until dead and throw him into the sea. I then answered that I would not do it. A few days after he told me he would give me some Laudanum and for me to give it to Savory’s girl and for her to put it in Savory’s tea and poison him.”
Quite apart from the murderous fantasies of Moxarro, Savory and the other islanders had to contend with rioting seamen who came ashore from passing whalers. At Port Lloyd during the busy “Japan season” the settlers were powerless, forced to retreat to the hills while the whalemen cut a careless swath through the village, drinking, firing their guns, and pursuing the Kanaka women.
Yet Savory had something to gain from the whalers. An industrious New Englander, with commercial contacts at Honolulu and other ports in the Pacific, he had built up a fortune of a few thousand dollars selling rum and supplies on Peel Island. Ky the end of the eighteen forties he was easily the richest man at Port Llo)d. This meant that he also had a lot to lose. In iS^y a merchant captain named Barker put in for supplies and repairs, and stayed to loot the settlement. Savory and the others Med to the highlands. In the midst of Barker’s attack, a French whaler arrived. Nine of her men jumped ship and joined the wreckers, and when their captain tried to get them back, Barker gave them weapons. Savory lost about two thousand dollars in cash and several thousand dollars’ worth of provisions; the rioters emptied his house down to his diary. When Barker sailed in January, iH^o, lie took with him the French deserters and also two Kanakas, one of them Savory’s girl, who apparently had led the sailors to her “lord’s” cache of money.