- 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
In October, 1849, John Mung and a friend of his called Tilley started the long trip by working their passage on a lumber ship from New Bedford to California via Cape Horn.
He and Tilley arrived in San Francisco toward the end of May of the following year. They stayed there for three days and were amazed at this booming town during the Gold Rush. Then they went to Sacramento in a paddle steamer. John Mung had never sailed in a steamer before, although he had had an ample opportunity to observe steamers while in Fairhaven. Experienced seaman that he was, he was impressed by its speed and its ability to go in any direction irrespective of the wind and current. From Sacramento they headed further inland for the gold fields. Manjiro and Tilley bought mining tools and started their gold digging in the river bed. They stayed at an inn which cost them as much as two dollars a day each, in spite of the fact that they ate nothing but pork and onions. They went to the river every day to find gold.
One day, just before sunset, Manjiro discovered a gold nugget almost as large as an egg. He did not know what to do, because it was too dangerous to take it with him to the inn where so many ruffians were waiting to take advantage of anyone who possessed plenty of gold. “Oh, yes, I have a good idea,” whispered Manjiro to himself. “I’ll bury it in the ground where I’ve found it and I’ll stay right here until tomorrow morning.” He did not breathe a word about the gold nugget even to Tilley. He simply said, “I’m not going back to the inn tonight.” As soon as Tilley went away, he buried the gold nugget in the ground where he had found it, placed a large stone over the spot and sat on it all night. He went straightway to the office the first thing in the morning and exchanged it for money.
At the end of about two months Manjiro had saved 600 pieces of silver. He then decided to use the money for passage home. So he gave all his mining tools to Tilley, bade him farewell, and returned to San Francisco alone early in August.
In October, 1850, he embarked on a ship bound from San Francisco to Honolulu, intending to return to Japan with his other fellow countrymen from there. Upon his arrival in Honolulu, he went to see Toraemon and sent for Denzo and his brother, who were farming at Maeha.
While John Mung and his companions were discussing the plan to return home, word reached them by chance that a ship was soon to sail for Japan. But John Mung found that he was unable to put up with the captain of the ship. A few days before the ship was scheduled to sail, John Mung was mending a barrel on the deck since he had nothing to do then. Seeing John Mung at work, the captain came up to him and ordered that he mend all the broken barrels in the ship. “Aye, aye, sir,” said John Mung and fell to work at once. When he had mended all the barrels, the captain brought all sorts of broken pieces of furniture and piled them high on the deck, saying, “You mend all these things. That’s my order. Do you hear?” John Mung had some skill as a cooper, but as to furniture making and repairing he knew little.
“I’m sorry, sir,” John Mung answered, “I can’t repair all those things.” The captain, without saying a word, slapped him on the cheek. The act enraged him.
“I am not your slave,” declared John Mung. “You are putting on airs with that clay pipe sticking out of your mouth. Don’t you know how to behave like an honorable seaman?”
Greatly annoyed, the captain tried to frighten him into obedience, but he looked the captain in the face and held his own. “I’m not sailing with you in this ship,” said Manjiro defiantly. He decided to put off going back until another opportunity presented itself, and he and Goemon and Denzo, much disappointed, left the ship.
One day, he heard the news that an American merchant ship, the Sarah Boyd, was sailing for China to pick up a cargo of China tea. John Mung brought this good news to Denzo and his brother, and at once they all went to see Captain Whitmore of the Sarah Boyd. [Toraemon had decided to stay in Honolulu.]
Captain Whitmore was touched by their passionate desire to go home. So he spread a chart before them and explained.
“You see, this is the China Sea. This is Satsuma of Japan. The ship sometimes passes through the waters of Satsuma in a fair wind. If that’s the case, landing on one of those islands near Satsuma might be possible. It all depends upon a favorable wind.”
John Mung, Denzo, and Goemon put their heads together to discuss how they should enter their native country whose doors were so tightly closed. At last John Mung hit upon a happy plan when all the others failed. According to his plan, he would buy a small boat to be carried on the Sarah Boyd, and when she entered the waters of Japan, the boat would be lowered to reach the land. Captain Whitmore said, “How clever you are, John Mung!” And he nodded approvingly.
John Mung heard that a certain Englishman was willing to part with a secondhand boat which was apparently in good condition. So he went and bought it with complete equipment for $125. John Mung christened this boat the Adventure and took it on board the Sarah Boyd.