- Historic Sites
A Yankee Barbarian At The Shogun’s Court
Spies and assassins stalked our first consul to Japan, his hosts bluntly told him to leave, and his own government neglected him
June 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 4
For several years, trading in an easygoing manner, Harris wandered about the East—the Philippines, the Malay Peninsula, India, Hong Kong, and such China ports as were open to foreigners, making many friends among Western merchants and diplomats as he went. But Eastern trade too was subject to depressions, especially at this time, when the Chinese were resisting the attempts of the Western barbarians to penetrate the country in order to buy and sell. After a few years of doing well enough, Harris found himself hard up. In 1853, casting about for a change, he sent his name to Washington as candidate for an American consular post either at Hong Kong or Canton: both places, as he knew, happened to be vacant. Letters took months to arrive, however, and Harris was still waiting for a reply when he heard about Perry’s expedition and unsuccessfully tried to join it. In spite of the rejection, Perry may have retained a good impression of Harris. There is an unsubstantiated story that the Commodore later put in a good word for him in Washington, when the selection of a man for Shimoda was being made.
In the meantime Harris was again disappointed, however, for when the reply to his consular application arrived from Washington, he found he had been given Ningpo instead of Canton or Hong Kong. Ningpo was a small post with a wretched salary. Before turning it down, Harris was able to read the newly published Treaty of Kanagawa made with Japan by Perry. Since a consulate general was to be established in Shimoda, he reflected, why shouldn’t he be the consul there? He asked around among his local friends, and got in touch with old acquaintances in America. They all promised to support him, so he hurried home to press the application in person.
One of his New York friends, John J. Cisco, wrote to Secretary of State William L. Marcy, and to President Pierce, saying that Townsend Harris was a “sound, reliable and influential Democrat.” Pierce and Marcy hesitated. Perhaps they had been told, by men supporting other candidates, of Harris’ temporary lapse from grace and sobriety back in 1849, but *n tne end it all worked out well. Harris was interviewed by both officials, got the appointment, and in October, 1855, set out for Shimoda with orders to negotiate a full-fledged commercial treaty. On the way, however, he made a side trip to Siam, for he had been directed to renegotiate an existing commercial treaty with King Mongkut.
Harris was at first amicably disposed toward the native officials in Siam. Yet before he left Bangkok his sympathy with the Siamese evaporated. He found the ministers, in his own words, tricky, venal, and untruthful. Harris had to be patient yet stubborn, feeling his way, guessing when it was time to show righteous anger and when it was better to take it all in silence. He had a talent for this sort of thing, an instinctive understanding of psychology, and a genuine interest in the customs and philosophies of unfamiliar cultures. But his health was not strong, and before he had completed the Siamese mission he was very irritable. When the treaty had at last been hammered out he wrote, “I hope this is the end of my troubles with this false, base and cowardly people. To lie is here the rule from the Kings downward. Truth is never used when they can avoid it. A nation of slaves … I never met a people like them. … The proper way to negotiate with the Siamese is to send two or three men-of-war. …”
On June 1, 1856, having accomplished his assignment in Siam, Harris left for Japan. He took along Henry C. J. Heusken, a Dutch-American whom he had hired in New York, for he expected that Heusken’s command of Japanese and Dutch—which language the Japanese used for all diplomatic exchanges with Westerners—would prove indispensable to his success. The San Jacinto , Commodore Armstrong aboard, which had already taken Harris on his errand to Siam, carried them, and after a troublesome voyage of nine days they anchored outside Shimoda Harbor on August 21, 1856. “My future brought vividly to mind,” Harris wrote at his first sight of Japanese territory. “Mental and social isolation on the one hand, and on the other are important public duties. … A people almost unknown to the world is to be examined and reported on in its social, moral and political state; the productions of the country … to be ascertained; the products of the industry of the country found out, and its capacity for commercial intercourse. … A new and difficult language to be learned.” On the next day: “I shall be the first recognized agent from a civilized power to reside in Japan … I hope I may so conduct myself that I may have honorable mention in the histories which will be written on Japan and its future destiny.”