- Historic Sites
The Man Who Discovered America
The story of Manjiro, the shipwrecked waif; of the kindly captain from Fairhaven; and of how Japan, hidden away from the world, learned strange news of other lands
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
While the John Howland carrying Manjiro kept steadily south, Captain Whitfield grew to like the boy, who was good-natured and a willing and hard worker, and before long treated him like his own son. The Captain decided to call him John Mung as his name Manjiro was too much for the sailors. Having lost his father when a mere child, Manjiro, hungering for fatherly love, became firmly attached to this stern but kind captain. He was brighter than the others; he had picked up English and spoke it with considerable ease. He studied hard in his spare moments and soon he was able to write some simple English words.
He certainly missed the fellow countrymen with whom he had parted at Honolulu, but as the Captain was kind and there were on the ship three teen-age sailors—La Fayette Wilcox, for instance, was only sixteen—with whom he could be friendly, he was not lonely except when he thought of his home. Moreover, the life on the whaling ship was so exciting that he had little time to think of his home.
At last, in the spring of 1843, the John Howland rounded Cape Horn and sailed north. On May 7, 1843, completing its long, long voyage of three years and seven months, the ship entered the port of New Bedford.
The sailors, who had been up before daybreak while the John Howland, weather-beaten, heavy with whale oil, was steadily plowing through the calm sea of Buzzards Bay, were all excited at this long-awaited homecoming, but perhaps no one was so excited as the sixteen-year-old Japanese boy, who was determined to see the New World with his own eyes. Soon Captain Whitfield appeared on the deck, where Manjiro had kept leaning over the bulwarks to watch the harbor and the town, where about thirty ships of all types lay at anchor and where a town of big, painted, strange-looking houses and church steeples was in full view on this bright May morning.
“We’ve at last come home, John Mung!” said the Captain, coming beside him.
“I can’t believe my eyes, Captain!” said Manjiro.
“This is New Bedford.”
“It’s like a dream!” said Manjiro excitedly. “What are those big houses, Captain?”
“That’s the customhouse and that’s a church, if you know what they are.”
“Your house, Captain, can you see it?”
“Nay, not from here; it’s in Fairhaven on the other side of this river.”
“Is that a river? Looks like the sea.”
“Aye, that is the Acushnet River, John Mung.”
On the wharf, a crowd of friends, relatives, and families welcomed them, but Captain Whitfield felt lonely because he was a widower. He at once took John around the town. The boy from the lonely fishing village in Tosa had never seen such a bustling town in his life, not even in his dreams; and simply dumfounded, he stared at everything openmouthed. The wharves, warehouses, churches, offices, stores, houses, streets, and parks, which he saw for the first time in his life, took his breath away and made his feet difficult to move. He was amazed by the women walking along the streets in bonnets, muslin ruffs, and hoop skirts, balancing their pink, white, blue, and green parasols.
Captain Whitfield, John Mung, and some of the seamen went to the Seamen’s Bethel and offered prayers of thanks for their safe return “through the peril of the deep.” John Mung did not understand very well the meaning of the prayers, but he was impressed by the singing of hymns and the sound of the organ. While they were praying, he was thinking of his widowed mother saying the sutra in the village temple far away.
Then John Mung, still dazed and breathless, accompanied by Captain Whitfield, crossed a mile-long bridge spanning the Acushnet River and reached Fairhaven where the Captain lived. Fairhaven, which was on New Bedford Harbor, was also a prosperous town full of fine houses, though it was not so big and thriving with the whaling industry as New Bedford. As Captain Whitfield was a widower, his house had been left vacant and unlivable during his absence and, although he loved John like a son, he could not have the boy live with him in his own house. Therefore, he asked one of the townsmen by the name of Eben Akin, who had been a third officer of a whaling ship under Captain Whitfield, to let John stay with his family. One day Mr. Eben Akin asked John Mung whether he would like to go to school. John answered that he wanted to do so by all means. As it was unlikely that he would be able to return to Japan in the near future, he thought he should get some education in America.
John Mung went to school for the first time in his life. In a large paneled room, about thirty feet square, stood rows of desks and chairs. About thirty pupils sat at those desks having a lesson in reading. The teacher stood on the platform, writing on the blackboard with a piece of chalk. The pupils at first kept the strange freshman at a respectful distance, but before long, friendship prevailed and they began to play with him and to treat him kindly as one of their number. John Mung stayed on with Mr. Akin and went to school every morning, returning home late in the afternoon.