The Ordeal Of The Kanrin Maru

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Some seven years ago, in the December, 1956 issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE, there appeared the remarkable saga of Manjiro, the shipwrecked Japanese waif who was rescued and brought to the United States by a Yankee whaling captain. Since this account was published, however, significant evidence relating to what is perhaps the most dramatic incident in Manjiro’s later career has turned up. In the following article, Miss Emily V. Warinner, author of a biography of Manjiro, Voyager to Destiny (Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), describes this new information. Though the story of the storm-racked voyage of the Kanrin Maru is, in her words, “a footnote to history,” it is not without importance: a man who had hitherto seemed merely a picturesque character is now revealed as a figure who played a major role in ending Japan’s long era of self-enforced isolation. —The Editors

In January, 1841, a sudden storm off the coast of Japan drove five fishermen out to sea and washed them up on a barren, uninhabited island. For five months they were stranded with little food, almost no water, and, apparently, less hope of rescue. Then, in June, the American whaler John Howland sighted the castaways and took them on board. The Howland ’s captain, William H. Whitfield, took the five men to his next port of call, Honolulu in the Sandwich Islands. Four of them remained there. The fifth and youngest, fifteen-year-old Maniiro, sailed for America.

Captain Whitfield had become so fond of Manjiro (whom he called John Mung) that he treated him as a son; when he at last returned to his home in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, he enrolled the boy in a local academy. Manjiro graduated, learned the trade of cooper, cruised the world in whaling ships, and dug for gold in California. Finally, however, he decided to go back to Japan, even at the risk of his life, for the Exclusion Edict of 1638 decreed that “He shall be executed who went to a foreign country and later returned home.”

When Manjiro returned in 1851, he was almost immediately thrown into prison. For months, suspicious officials questioned him about his adventures. Manjiro’s testimony fascinated them, particularly his description of ships that moved swiftly over the sea without the assistance of wind or sail. In the end, he was released.

When Commodore Perry arrived in 1853 with the first steamships the Japanese had ever seen, the truth of Manjiro’s testimony was no longer questioned; he was called to the seat of the government at Yedo—today’s Tokyo—for consultation. Never allowed to see Perry or to enter the treaty house, Manjiro was detained behind the scenes by the authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate, who questioned him at great length about the meaning of the American demands. Later, he acted as special adviser to Egawa Tarozaemon, a progressive leader of the shogunate, who trusted Manjiro and took advantage of many of his advanced ideas.

In 1860, as an act of friendship, the United States provided the steam frigate Powhatan for the transportation of the first Japanese mission to Washington, which went to ratify the commercial treaty recently signed by the American Minister, Townsend Harris, and the Japanese government. As a reciprocal courtesy (and also to display their newly acquired nautical knowledge), the Japanese decided that their own warship, the Kanrin Maru, recently purchased from the Netherlands, should accompany the embassy as far as San Francisco.

Because of the limited naval training of the officers and crew of the Kanrin Maru , the Japanese requested that an American naval officer be assigned to the ship. Commodore Josiah Tattnall, commander of the United States East India Squadron, selected Lieutenant John Mercer Brooke, an astronomer and hydrographer of long experience. Originally, Brooke had been commissioned by the United States Navy to determine the best steamship route between San Francisco and Hong Kong. Finishing this assignment, he had stopped off in Japan. There, he had contemplated a survey of the newly opened treaty ports when his ship, the Fenimore Cooper , was wrecked by a typhoon.

His plans thus thwarted, Lieutenant Brooke was glad to accept the proffered passage to the United States, and was assisting in final arrangements when he met Manjiro, the earlier victim of shipwreck. Manjiro had been assigned to the Kanrin Maru as official interpreter, and the two had many long talks, the substance of which Lieutenant Brooke set down in his day-to-day journals.

Never intended for publication, these journals have been preserved by Brooke’s grandson, Dr. George M. Brooke, Jr., professor of history at Virginia Military Institute; in 1960 they were offered to the Association for the Japan-U.S. Amity and Trade Centennial and published in Japan as Volume V of the Collected Documents of the Japanese Mission to America, 1860 .

In the middle of February, 1860, the Kanrin Maru and the Powhatan set out from the Bay of Yedo for America. It was not long before Lieutenant Brooke’s journal entries began to complain not only of the inadequate training but of the indifference of the officers and crew of the Kanrin Maru; only Manjiro continued to command the American’s respect. And yet, for all his misgivings, Brooke had faith that the native ability of the Japanese would somehow see them safely through.