- 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 strategy developed by the shogunale was Perry’s own, reflected in a mirror of Japanese design. The instrument of annexation must be an imposing naval expedition backed by armed force. The infant Japanese Navy had nothing to match Perry’s black ships, but eventually the Kanrin Maru , built to Japanese orders by the Dutch in 1856 and fresh from an overhaul after taking the embassy to America in 1860, was readied for die task. The Kanrin Maru anchored at Port Lloyd on January 17, 1862; a shore party planted the Japanese flag on a thousand-foot hill behind the harbor and named the peak Asahi Yama, “Mountain of the Rising Sun.”
The first government official to land asked the settlers, “Have you people come here by command of some sovereign?” The answer of course was No, and this was the cue for the senior negotiator to make his appearance. Mizuno Chikugo no Kami Tadanori came ashore, arrayed in ceremonial robes of office and wearing the double swords of the samurai. Mizuno’s translator was Nakahama Manjiro.
Mizuno did Savory the courtesy of interviewing him in a purple tent, the color of high rank, and addressing him as a person of samurai status, but he was politely contemptuous of all Western claims to the islands, saying that a famous Japanese of the sixteenth century, Ogasawara Sadayori, had discovered and explored the chain, and that consequently priority rights belonged to Japan. The story of Ogasawara was a complete fiction, but it had enjoyed a long and sturdy life in Japan, and Mizuno and his fellow officials knew from its inclusion in Perry’s reports that it was given some credence in the West.
With a minimum of disturbance, Mizuno persuaded Savory and the other islanders to acknowledge Japan’s control. The names given to the islands in 1675 were resurrected; Peel Island became Chichi Jima once more, and Port Lloyd was given the name of Futami-Ko. New harbor regulations were drawn up, the settlers’ lands were surveyed and their titles confirmed, the island’s currency was stabilized (in Mexican dollars, which were common in the Pacific), and hunting and wood cutting in the hills were controlled. On Mizuno’s return to Tokyo, his government, overriding all foreign diplomatic objections, announced that the Bonins were indisputably Japanese.
The first shipload of Japanese colonists, recruited in the Izus, arrived at Futami-Ko in September, 1862. For them, good land was hard to find. Savory and the others had long since staked out the best plots, and the newcomers under Governor Obana Sakunosuke had to work hard to set their village, which was named Omura, on the way to self-sufficiency. The white settlers, their Hawaiian wives, and their mixed offspring lived mostly around Ten Fathom Hole. The two groups did not see much of each other; whenever business had to be transacted, Savory and Obana acted as go-betweens.
Before the Japanese colonists were fairly on their feet they were hit by a political upheaval in Japan that reversed the national policy of expansion, bringing back the introversion of earlier days. In June, 1863, a Japanese ship appeared carrying orders for Obana: the colony was to be dismantled and the colonists sent home. In less than a week they were gone. Obana left Savory in charge of the property that remained, with the express warning that this abrupt departure did not mean that Japan was surrendering her sovereignty.
By the end of the eighteen sixties Savory was seventy-five years old, but he was still not old enough to sit quietly and watch an aggressive interloper take over the Bonins. The Japanese government was one thing; Captain Benjamin Pease was quite another. Pease, in the words of an indignant man who knew him well, was a “villian of the first water.” He claimed to be an American and was a trafficker in the dubious labor trade of the Pacific, picking up and delivering shiploads of willing or unwilling Kanakas to plantation owners. He took up residence at Port Lloyd in 1871 and went into business as a planter and trader.
Soon he was calling himself “Governor” Pease. In 1873 he visited the United States minister at Tokyo to ask what protection Americans in business at the Bonins might expect from their home government. Given sufficient inducement, Pease explained, he might be persuaded to remain at the islands and accept a United States consulship. The minister made inquiries and received a less than enthusiastic letter from Washington on the general subject of Americans in far places, and the matter of “Consul” Pease ended there. But his fame spread across the Pacific to San Francisco, where it was reported that he had taken full possession of Peel Island, was flying the Stars and Stripes, and was ready to sell to the United States.
At Port Lloyd, Pease crossed swords with Nathaniel Savory and his grown sons. They argued about the ownership of a consignment of whale oil and about the death of some sheep, and then they argued about their arguments. It had all the makings of a feud, with Pease announcing at last that Savory had issued an “open Chalange which I readily accept and let the bitter end come as soon as it likes.” One of Savory’s friends heard Pease say “that if you [Savory] did not let him alone and quit talking about him he was going to the cove and hang you to your door post.”