- 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
The Sarah Boyd reached a point four miles from Ryukyu on January 2, according to the Japanese calendar, after almost seventy long days of sailing.
“That direction,” said Captain Whitmore, pointing toward the island in the distance, “may hide death in store for you, I am afraid, for your country strictly bars out anyone from abroad. Why don’t you give up the whole idea of going back to your country and instead go to China with us and return to Honolulu in this ship?”
“How can I do such a thing? If I don’t take this chance, I may never see my mother. Besides, I must return to my countrymen at once and tell them that they must open their eyes before it is too late. They cannot remain isolated from the rest of the world forever,” answered Manjiro, firmly determined to run any risk.
The captain ordered his men to stop the ship and had the Adventure lowered on the rough sea.
“Thank you, sir, for all you have done for us,” said John Mung. “But the time will come, Captain, sooner or later when your ship will freely enter Japanese ports.”
Captain Whitmore smiled and simply said, “Who knows?” The three men exchanged words of farewell with the sailors and thanked them for everything. Then they went into the boat and began to pull it over the tossing waves toward the island.
Denzo went ashore first to take in the general situation. As he had retained his Japanese language better than anyone else, he went to one of the houses and asked the name of the place, but the people in that house were scandalized at the sight of a man in foreign clothes, and their peaceful New Year family breakfast ended in bedlam.
Denzo went back to the boat and reported what had happened. “They don’t understand me,” said Denzo. “I’m afraid I’ve forgotten Japanese. I’ve been away so long.”
John Mung fastened the boat to the shore, and with a pistol in his pocket, he headed toward the straggling houses, Denzo and Goemon following. He met a native on the road, but his word being unintelligible, he imitated a man who drank water out of his hands until the native led them to a well.
The islanders treated them kindly, giving them drinking water, potatoes, and rice. A village official questioned the men as to their nationality, their names, the port of embarkation, the port of debarkation, and their possessions. The place where they landed was a village called Mabunimagiri in the southern extreme of Okinawa Island, Ryukyu.
John Mung and the others were taken to a village called Nakao where the Village Office was located, escorted by more than ten armed officials who never took their eyes off them. Denzo who had trouble with his eyes was allowed to ride in a litter. Although the three men were not treated harshly by any means, they were closely watched by the escorting officials who thought they might be foreigners after all.
On January 14, when the days of New Year jubilation were over, John Mung and the others were summoned to the Village Office, where a senior official and three lower officials from Satsuma carefully examined their personal effects and books. The books were examined page by page with special attention and curiosity. The topographical survey textbook must have struck them as suspicious, for the official’s eyes were riveted on the enigmatic symbols in it, while the three menial officials, whose eyes also pored over those illustrations, thought it no more than a book of nonsense. They whispered to themselves that those circles made with a pair of compasses were like playful pictures drawn on the ground by foreign children. Then the senior official from Satsuma said admonishingly, “No! These must be symbols used in some profound learning.”
For seven months the fishermen were detained at Nakao, well treated but constantly watched. In July they were taken by ship to Satsuma, where they were questioned again, and in October to Nagasaki for a third examination. This time their statements were minutely recorded in a book, The Narratives of the Castaways. The trials were held eighteen times, while they related their experiences abroad, the names of the countries they had visited, the customs and manners, food, industries, farm products, geography, flora, ceremonies, politics, and military conditions of those countries.
John Mung’s observations recorded in The Narratives of the Castaways, unlike those of other castaways, are generally correct and to the point.
In referring to the government of America he says something like this: