- Historic Sites
Castaways On Forbidden Shores
The fearless sailors who manned America’s whaling fleet in the nineteenth century were no strangers to danger, but even the bravest trembled at the unknown prospects of becoming castaways on forbidden shores
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
The Lawrence survivors had not come to preach. They did not, in fact, know where they were, and it was only later they learned they had landed on Etorofu, an island in the Kurile chain. Nevertheless, for the next eleven months, Howe and his men were interrogated daily—about their country, their religion, and the circumstances of their arrival. A government artist, Ryu/aemon Yoshida, was brought in to record every detail of their physical appearance—tattoos, moles, pockmarks, and hair and eye coloring. (His water colors—now in the possession of Carl H. Boehringer, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan and a long-time resident there—are reproduced on these pages.) Howe and his mates were alternately cajoled by minor officials and maltreated by xenophobic guards, “who frequently struck us, and insulted us.” Howe remembered one occasion when they were plied with “sukee,” then questioned again by their jailers, “thinking perhaps that under the influence of the liquor we would give them whatever information we had before endeavored to suppress.”
The transcripts of the interminable interviews were forwarded with the water colors to the district governor, who, after conferring with his superiors, ordered the waifs shipped to Nagasaki. Howe reported:
They put us on board of a junk and stowed us all in the hold, a dark, filthy place, and during the time we were in her, some three or four months, not a single moment were we allowed to step on deck to breath the fresh air or sec the light. One day we were made to wash ourselves, and clean clothes were given us, and we were conducted into the cabin, which was beautifully fitted up with silk and gold ornaments; they then gave us each a carpet to sit upon, and made us understand that [the emperor’s son] was coming on board to sec us. By-and-by we heard a great stir outside, and all the people fell on their faces to the ground, and we were made to do the same.
The prince questioned them for an hour through a Japanese linguist who spoke a little Dutch, and that evening the prisoners received a royal gift of a box of sweetmeats. Then Howe and his men were thrust back into the hold, where again they were at the mercy of their guards.
At Nagasaki, the seamen were carried through the streets in wooden cages to the town hall, where the questioning was resumed. First they were required—at sword’s point—to trample and spit upon a print of the crucifixion; then they were shown epaulettes from the British and American navies and asked to point to the kind worn in their own country. One afternoon, they were surprised to see a European sitting among the Japanese judges; they were more amazed when this gentleman, confident that only they would understand, said simply: “If there are any John Bulls among you, you had better not say anything about it.” The speaker was the Dutch opperhoofd , Joseph Henrij Levyssohn, whom the Nagasaki officials frequently pressed into service as an interpreter.
A few days after this crucial interview, one of the men, ignoring the warnings of his shipmates, tried to escape and was, according to Howe, “inhumanly murdered by the Japanese.” The Japanese insisted that the sailor died of dysentery, a version corroborated by Levyssohn; but under the circumstances, Howe’s account carries more authority.
Shortly after this unfortunate incident, the six remaining survivors of the Lawrence’s twenty-three-man crew were paroled in the custody of Levyssohn, who ten days later put them aboard lhe Dutch ship Hertogenbosch, bound for Batavia. There the U.S. consul “extended his protection towards us,” I (owe wrote, “and furnished us with the few articles of clothing we were so much in need of.”
Howe’s description of his experiences from shipwreck to repatriation first appeared in a letter to the Singapore Free Press on January O, 1848. A copy of the article was promptly dispatched to Secretary of State (and future President) James Buchanan by Dr. Peter Parker, secretary to the American legation in Canton, China. Parker noted that the Lawrence survivors were being held incommunicado at the very time when Commodore James Biddlc, with two American warships, was in Tokyo Bay trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a treaty with the shoguns. Parker added prophetically:
The fate of the “Lawrence” mid her men is probably but one of many similar catastrophies, with this différence, that none of the others were so fortunate as to return to narrate their sufferings at the hands of the cruel inhabitants of the “land of the rising sun,” and doubtless it will be considered by the government of the United States as a new argument and a fair pretext for repeating an embassy to Japan as soon as convenient and practicable.