The Bonins—isles Of Contention

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Savory was almost back where he started. A less stubborn man might have quit the island, but Savory stayed. Within a few years he was the only one of the original white settlers left. Millinchamp and Johnson drifted away, and Chapin died. Savory’s old enemy Moxarro had died in 1847, and in 1850 Savory married his widow, Maria, a handsome young woman from Guam. Showing more respect for form than was usual at Port Lloyd, he took Maria out beyond the three-mile limit in a Yankee whaler called No Duty On Tea and had the captain legally marry them. During the next few years lie and Iiis wife began to pick up the threads of a settled life again.

On the other side of the world, late in 1852, Commodore Perry’s expedition was heading eastward. All the way across the Atlantic, Perry gave thought to the problem of combining his long-term plans for the Konins and his immediate task of negotiating a treaty with the unapproachable government of Japan. “As a preliminary step, and one of easy accomplishment,” he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, “the squadron should establish places of rendezvous at one or two of the islands south of Japan, having a good harbor, and possessing facilities for obtaining water and supplies.” Perry the great stage manager wanted, in fact, some sort of prepared base to which he could withdraw after making a first dazzling impression on the Japanese, and from which he would return in due. course to consummate his treaty.

Two places came to mind—the town of Nalia on the island of Okinawa in the Ryukyus, vaguely a dependency of Japan, and Port Lloyd on Peel Island, the only safe harbor in the Kon ins. Perry decided to visit Okinawa first. With luck, he could learn something there about eastern diplomacy before the time came to commit himself in Japan, and in turn the Okinawans might send advance notice to the Japanese that Perry’s black warships came in peace. It was one of those good ideas that did not work at all. For two weeks Perry and the governors of Okinawa indulged in a wary and absurd “ritual dance of protocol, and then, with very little accomplished, Perry broke off negotiations and sailed for the Bonins.

The Susquehanna and the Saragota were welcomed heartily at Port Lloyd when they arrived on June 14, 1853, and the squadron’s surveyors, scientists, artists, and writers were able to go about their business on Peel Island free from the government surveillance that had plagued them at Okinawa. Perry himself found it unnecessary to stay aboard his flagship rejecting inept overtures from unsuitable envoys, as he had done at Naha. Hc went ashore, met Savory, and bought from him for fifty dollars a stretch of land one thousand yards by five hundred, close to Ten Fathom Hole, the anchorage at the north end of the harbor. This was the first piece of territory in the Far East to come under American control; Perry intended it to be used as a coaling station for American ships. In one day at the Bonins he had accomplished more than he had in two weeks at Okinawa. The reason was simple: here there was no government with which he had to negotiate; Savory was selling part of his private property, and Perry spoke to him as one Ne.w Englander to another.

Savory had now been on the beach for twenty-three years, but he still carried his American seaman’s papers. Perry attached him to the squadron as a temporary crew member, appointed him resident U.S. agent at Port Lloyd, and left a seaman to help look after the purchase at Ten Fathom Hole. As some of his predecessors had done, Perry tried his hand at making a constitution for Port Lloyd. With his encouragement a document entitled “Articles of Agreement of the Settlers of Peel Island” was drawn up, and Savory was elected chief magistrate.

Perry stayed only four days at the Bonins, but this was long enough to convince him that his interest was well founded. Later in 1853 one of his ships claimed the uninhabited southern cluster for the United States, and just before he left on his voyage home, Perry sent the settlers at Peel Island an American flag. “It is to be hoped,” he wrote to Savory, “that steps may ere long be taken to give greater importance to Port Lloyd.”

While he was in the Far East, Perry exchanged some sharp letters with J. G. Bonham, British superintendent for trade at Hong Kong, over the sovereignty of the Bonins. The correspondence ended on a note of compromise, with Perry saying that he would be quite happy to see a free port at Peel Island if the two home governments would agree to such a solution.

But they did nothing. When next a sovereign nation took an interest in the Bonins it was Japan. In 1859 the islands were scouted for the Japanese whaling industry by that remarkable man Nakahama Manjiro, who knew more at first hand about the English-speaking world than any other Japanese (see “The Man Who Discovered America” in the December, 1956, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Nakahama had already been of great service to his country during Perry’s visit, and in 1860-61 he was a member of the first Japanese embassy to the United States. He and the other envoys carried home with them several copies of the published reports of Perry’s expedition, and the Commodore’s ambitious plans for the Bonins were immediately noted. It was enough to convince the Japanese government that action was needed.