- 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
Savory died in April, 1874—a natural death. Pease was murdered about six months later. His wife (a part-white girl named Susan Robinson, survivor of an earlier mass murder on Haha Jima, in the southern cluster) had caught the eye of a Negro named Spenser, who worked for Pease. One day in October, 1874, Pease took a canoe round the coast, and soon afterward it was found bottom up and stove in on the shore. There was no sign of Pease. Spenser lived just long enough for Susan Pease to bear him a child. Then he too went out in a canoe and never came back. The canoe was found, and in it was Spenser’s coat, torn by a turtle hook and soaked in blood.
The United States minister at Tokyo interested himself for a short time in these disappearances, but they were never fully explained. The minister did find that Pease’s citizenship, like everything else about him, was dubious. He might have been an American, but then again he might not. In any case he was gone. Since 1830 eleven people (counting Pease and Spenser) had been murdered at the Bonins, quite a high figure for a settlement that never numbered more than a few score adults. There was no law at Port Lloyd, no religion, only a pretense at marriage between white men and native women, and no education for the children. One or two men like Nathaniel Savory and Thomas Webb had tried to keep self-respect alive, but a good many others who found their way to the islands were not much better than animals. After four and a half decades of occupation by Europeans, the Bonins fitted all too well Perry’s disdainful description of a primitive Pacific island—unproductive, mismanaged by savages, doomed to be swallowed up by a more efficient race.
In 1875 the Japanese returned. The shogunate had been overthrown and the imperial government restored in 1868, and a climate favorable to expansion had again developed. By the mid-1870’s the government was ready to act. Foreign Minister Terashima Munenori stated his country’s new policy on the Bonins: they were of historic interest, they had been colonized in the eighteen sixties, and besides, in the “golden words of an ancient sage,” to “abandon islands in neighboring waters is bad for a country.”
The official party that came to Port Lloyd aboard the Meiji Maru in November, 1875, found the Stars and Stripes flying there. It had been Nathaniel Savory’s dying wish that the American flag should be shown whenever a ship came into the harbor, and his widow faithfully carried out his request. His son, Horace Perry Savory, whose middle name was a reminder of the Great Commodore’s visit, led the settlers in signing away their independence, this time permanently. In 1876 the Bonins, renamed Ogasawara Gunto after the legendary discoverer, became the responsibility of the Japanese Ministry of Home Affairs.
Japan was on the brink of several decades of expansion in the Pacific. She took the Kuriles as well as the Bonins in 1875, the Ryukyus in 1879, Formosa and the Pescadores in 1895, southern Sakhalin in 1905, and was given mandates over the Marianas, the Carolines, and the Marshalls after World War I. In the Western Pacific, Perry’s “more efficient race” was clearly the Japanese.
New colonists, most of them from the Izus, came to the Bonins in increasing numbers, to settle on Chichi Jima and Haha Jima. The seat of government at Futami-Ko, the old Port Lloyd, acquired a police station, a courthouse, a school, a post office, a Shinto shrine, and a monument to Ogasawara, whose mythical exploits were remembered by an annual holiday.
For a time it appeared as if the little group of Bonin islanders living around Ten Fathom Hole (in a village with the new name of Okumura) would simply be swallowed up. In 1876 only one of them was literate—the Englishman, Webb—and they had few institutions to hold them together. One by one they swore allegiance to Japan, and by 1882 all were naturalized citizens.
In Nathaniel Savory’s time the settlers had never farmed more than a hundred and fifty acres around Port Lloyd. The Japanese attacked the land enthusiastically, clearing hundreds of acres more. They experimented with many crops, including coffee and rubber, and finally determined that the sugar cane, vegetables, and tropical fruits raised there could be sold profitably in the home islands of Japan.
The Japanese whaling and fishing fleets used Futami-Ko in season. Late in the nineteenth century they were joined by American sealers, who pursued the migrating herds along the Japan Current and slaughtered seals by thousands with shotguns.
Aboard a typical sealer named the Sophie Sutherland an untypical seventeen-year-old named Jack London came to Futami-Ko in 1893. He was just discovering in himself an ambition to be a writer, and when he went back to San Francisco after a season among the seal herds, he put his experiences on paper. All day long at Futami-Ko, he recalled, the crack-shot seal hunters stalked boars and steers in the hills; then they gathered at the harbor to drink the night away. London was not yet an accomplished drinker. He was tipsy enough early one evening to engage a Japanese orchestra at a “house of entertainment”; later he fell asleep in the doorway of the port pilot’s home, waking up to find his watch, money, coat, belt, and shoes gone. The stronger heads drank on.