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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
to which he added, “But no chase me.”
He read books when he was free from the work in the field or at the cowshed, so that Captain Whitfield was more and more impressed by the boy’s strong desire to learn. Mr. Louis Bartlett, a mathematician, who managed school at 42 Spring Street, was also impressed by the diligence and love of learning of this boy and said that he would teach John Mung mathematics and surveying, if he had any desire to learn. The young man became one of the pupils of Mr. Bartlett and studied mathematics, surveying, reading, and writing in his spare hours and proved to be the brightest student in the class. In June of that year, Captain Whitfield went whaling again from the port of New Bedford on board the William Eliza without John Mung, because not only was his service needed around the farm but the Captain thought that the boy’s education should not be interrupted.
The work in the field was finished for the winter, and John Mung could have lived a fairly easy life doing nothing in particular at Captain Whitfield’s if he wanted to do so. But thinking of his future, he wanted to use this time to learn some trade while he could, so he became, in February, 1845, an apprentice to a cooper named Mr. Huzzy, a manufacturer of whale oil barrels.
He was then a lad of nineteen, feeling a nostalgia for the sea. He wanted, moreover, to put into practice on a ship the knowledge of navigation and surveying he had acquired from Mr. Bartlett. It happened that a whaler from New York named Ira Davis, who was once the harpooner on the John Howland, came to Fairhaven in order to organize a crew for the Franklin, which was bound for the Pacific under his captainship. He went to see John Mung and asked him to join his crew; he had already been told by Isachar Akin, whom he also asked to sail on the Franklin, about the courage and skill which John Mung had demonstrated on the John Howland.
Upon learning that his former shipmate, Isachar Akin, had consented to the proposal and that he would be appointed first officer, John Mung accepted the offer at once, since it seemed to be the very thing for which he had been waiting all this while. He thought it might be a good chance to return to Japan. He went to see Mrs. Whitfield immediately and told her that he had decided to go whaling on the Franklin, and asked her approval. But he did not breathe a word about any possibility of his returning to Japan. She gave him her blessing.
“Thank you, Mrs. Whitfield. I like it here very much. I like the people here. You have been kind to me; and the captain … Oh, how can I thank him enough? I’ll miss you, and Fairhaven, and Sconticut Neck, but I want to go to sea.”
The Franklin was a ship of 273 tons. She was about 100 feet long and carried a crew of 24. John Mung soon found to his great joy that ten of them were from the New Bedford area, some of whom he already knew; he found also that twelve of them were teenagers, the youngest only fifteen.
The Franklin went out whaling in the Atlantic One day when the ship was sailing near British Guiana, a sailor who was watching from the topmost shrouds suddenly shouted, “A giant turtle!” He pointed to the trough of the sea about fifteen fathoms away from the starboard. “There it is!” cried the men on the deck. Whiz! went a harpoon from one of them, but it fell short of the mark. Another one flew and this time it lodged deep in the body of the ten-foot monster turtle, which struggled so wildly and fiercely that it was impossible to pull the rope. Manjiro at once took off his clothes, jumped into the sea, and swam over to the struggling turtle. Sitting astride it he plunged a dagger into its neck. This brave action on his part won the great admiration of the entire crew.
John Mung had ample opportunity to use the nautical instruments on the Franklin, such as the compasses, sextants, chronometers, and so on, and successfully to employ the art of navigation which he had learned from Mr. Bartlett. He quickly grasped how to steer a big ship, how to find out the ship’s position and many other things which a navigator should know. He often gave time surveying the coast lines or the sea for the sake of practice. He was admired by all the sailors of the Franklin for the skill which he ably demonstrated. After a time, they went to the Pacific, catching whales in the waters of Sumatra and Java, visiting the Solomons and Guam.