Castaways On Forbidden Shores

A heavy gale had blown up suddenly over the fishing grounds northeast of Japan, and the captain of the whaler Lawrence, ten months out of Poughkeepsie, New York, was in a dilemma. Should he cut loose the whale alongside and sail out the storm, or try to save his valuable prize by letting the ship float with the current? Yankee frugality triumphed; the decision cost Captain Baker his ship and his life.

An hour or so before midnight on May 27, 1846, the drifting Lawrence grounded, rolled on her starboard side, and bilged. Baker quickly launched his whaleboat and, pulling away into the darkness with a handful of the crew, shouted back through the wind, “Each man for himself.” He was never seen again. Nor was the first mate, Mr. Myers, whose boat slipped its bow tackle, plunged into the sea, and was stove to pieces. Only the boat commanded by the second mate, George Howe, survived. Getting safely away from the ship proved to be the easiest part of the trip home.

Of the various hazards American whalemen faced in the mid-nineteenth century, perhaps the most frightening was to be cast up on the forbidding shores of feudal Japan. Since 1638, when that nation’s rulers became convinced that Christianity, disseminated by European missionaries, was a monstrous foreign plot to seize control of their islands, Japan was off limits to outsiders, upon pain of death. Threatening laws to the contrary, foreign shipping in Japanese waters gradually increased. During the first part of the nineteenth century, vessels flying the colors of an expansionist young nation, the United States, began to appear in growing numbers.

In 1842, the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled Japan in the name of the impotent emperors, became alarmed at the trouncing just administered to a Chinese fleet by the British in the so-called Opium War. Accordingly, the shoguns relaxed their decree of Nincn-naku, or “no second thought”: henceforth, instead of killing castaways, local officials were to give the intruders water and food so that they might quickly sail away.

Howe and his six crewmates were well aware of the danger that awaited them on land, but they had no choice. Their provisions were exhausted by the second day; their small boat was being buffeted constantly, and a driving snow aggravated the misery of the ill-clad seamen. On June 3, Howe steered the boat into a protected bay, where the men caught a seal and enjoyed their first meal in four days.

Afterward, Howe and five of his men hiked inland about a mile, but they found no one and returned to the beach at dusk. The man left at the boat reported a visit by two Orientals, who, upon learning through sign language the number of Lawrence survivors, had fled in terror. What happened next typified the ambivalent character of feudal Japan, which was unwilling to accommodate the outside world and yet unable to prevent its intrusion, undecided whether to kill its uninvited guests or to pamper them with exotic delicacies. Howe later wrote:

The next morning we got into the boat and steered for the mouth of u river on one side of the bay. As we approached it we saw what appeared to us to be a fort with spears glistening in the sun above the walls; but on coming nearer, we found it was a piece of cloth extended about three quarters of a mile, and painted so as to represent a fort with guns. Here, as we landed, about sixty men, armed with swords and spears, ran towards us and motioned us to go away. We however continued approaching them until we got very near, when we all fell on our knees before them. One of them came up to me, and would have struck me down with his sword, but his hand was held back by an old man. … I made signs to them that we were harmless people, and wanted food. After much talking among themselves they brought us some rice and fish, which we ate. They then again motioned us to be off.

The problem, as Howe tried to explain, was logistical. The whaleboat was too small for an extended sea voyage. East and West stared at each other in dismay: the Americans wanted to go but could not; the Japanese, forbidden to build seagoing vessels, could neither force nor assist their visitors to depart. What ensued was seventeen months of uneasy captivity, considered by the seamen as a period of horrendous cruelty, and by their hosts as an unwelcome test of informal diplomacy. Both viewpoints had some validity.


Japan was a closed society, but it was not without egress. At Nagasaki, the Dutch, in reward for their help in suppressing a revolt by Christian peasants in 1637, maintained a trading preserve on the tiny island of Deshima. Once a year a Dutch ship called there, and just as frequently the Dutch envoy or opperhoofd was granted an audience by the shoguns at Edo (modern Tokyo). Whatever business Japan conducted with the West was done through the Dutch at Deshima. Increasingly, this business involved the return of “waifs,” or shipwrecked sailors, who, if the Japanese decided that they were not missionaries, would be repatriated by the Dutch on their ship to Java.