Story of Japan - R. Van Bergen

English Attempts to Trade with Japan

The attempt of the English, in the reign of Charles II., to renew friendly relations with Japan, was not repeated. For more than a hundred years the Japanese were left undisturbed so far as England was concerned. At the end of the last century and the beginning of this, private merchants occasionally sent a ship to trade or barter, but, although these vessels were invariably supplied with whatever was needed, free of charge, communication with the shore was rendered impossible. The impressions left by such English vessels as succeeded in getting into Nagasaki harbor were not favorable to them.

In October, 1808, the British frigate Phaëton, Captain Pellew, had been commissioned to cruise off the coast of Japan, to capture the annual Dutch traders. For Holland had been annexed to France, and was therefore at war with England. For a month or more, Captain Pellew had been sailing over these seas without seeing a sign of any Dutch vessels. Thinking that they might be in the harbor of Nagasaki, he decided to look for himself. Flying Dutch colors, he approached that harbor, and as the usual Dutch vessel was expected at that time, she was permitted to anchor, and the general agent of the Dutch, suspecting nothing, sent two of his clerks to the frigate. They did not return, and this excited suspicion.

The Japanese governor decided at once to prepare for strong measures, but he found, to his dismay, that nearly all the soldiers of a strong fort in the harbor were absent without leave, and that the commandant was not to be found. A few hours later, the general agent received a brief note from one of the missing clerks, stating: "This ship has come from India. The captain's name is Pellew; he asks for water and provisions."

The general agent was afraid to comply without the consent of the governor. At midnight he was visited by the governor's chief secretary, who told him that he had orders to rescue the two Hollanders.

"How do you propose doing it?" asked the agent.

"Your countrymen have been seized by treachery," replied the secretary; "I shall therefore go alone, obtain admission on board by every demonstration of friendship, seek an interview with the captain, and on his refusal to deliver his prisoners, stab him first, and then myself."

It was with difficulty that this officer was persuaded to abandon his desperate plan, and it was finally decided to detain the frigate until all the boats, junks, and troops of the neighboring territories could be collected, and then to attack. The night was spent in warlike preparations, which, says the agent, who has written several works on Japan, "gave evidence that the country had been at peace for a very long time." The next afternoon, one of the missing Hollanders was put ashore. He brought a note stating: "I have ordered my own boat to set the bearer on shore, to procure me water and provisions; if he does not return with them before evening, I will sail in early to-morrow, and burn the Japanese and Chinese vessels in the harbor."

The Japanese official at first would not allow the clerk to return to the ship, but finally consented, upon the agent's reminding him that it was the only way to recover the other man. He, therefore, went on board with the provisions, and shortly afterwards the two clerks were set at liberty.

The governor now consulted with the agent concerning the execution of the law which obliged him to detain, till the decision of the head government was known, any foreign vessel which came too near, or committed any violent or illegal act on the coast. The agent told him plainly that he did not think the Japanese strong enough to detain the frigate; but he advised him to try to occupy the captain's attention until a number of native ships, loaded with stones, could be sunk in the narrow passage through which the frigate must proceed to sea. The Japanese harbor master thought that this could be done, and received orders to make the necessary preparations. Another supply of fresh water was promised to the frigate to detain her while a favorable wind was blowing.

The next morning the daimio of Omura arrived at the head of his samurai, and proposed to the governor to burn the frigate by attacking her with three hundred boats, filled with straw and reeds; he himself offered to lead the attack. But while they were consulting, the frigate weighed anchor, and sailed out of the harbor.



Were the governor and the officials of Nagasaki in any way responsible for this incident, or could they be blamed at all for the course they had taken? According to our ideas they were absolutely innocent, but the Japanese law said otherwise. The rules and laws of the government had been broken, and those who had not prevented or punished this, must die. Within half an hour after the frigate's departure, the governor had redeemed himself from a severer fate by committing hara-kiri. The officers of the fortress, who had been guilty of neglect of duty, followed his example. These men were of the clan of Hizen, and their daimio, who was actually residing in Yedo at the time, was punished with one hundred days' imprisonment for the negligence of his samurai. Such was the law, and sufferers as well as others consented and approved.

The next attempt by the English was made in 1813. Great Britain had seized the Dutch East Indies, and Sir Stamford Raffles had been appointed governor general of Java. He decided to capture the profitable Japanese trade for England, and did not expect any difficulties, because the Dutch at Nagasaki were ignorant of the changes that had occurred during the past years. The seas were controlled by English vessels, and several years had passed without the appearance of the usual Dutch trader, hence the general agent was very much pleased when two vessels, flying the Dutch flag, and showing the private signal, entered the harbor.

As soon as they had anchored, a letter was sent ashore, announcing the arrival of a former general agent, who had come to replace the agent in charge. The latter, without any suspicion, sent an officer and a clerk on board. The clerk returned and reported that he could not quite understand what was going on, but that he feared everything was not right. He had, to be sure, recognized the former general agent, and also the Dutch captain of the ship, but the crew spoke English, and the new general agent had refused to deliver his credentials, except to the agent in person. That gentleman thought naturally that the ship might be an American vessel engaged by the Dutch, as had been the case before, and decided upon going aboard.

There the former general agent handed him a letter, which, however, he declined to open until he was in his office. Both gentlemen thereupon went ashore to the office, and when the letter was opened, the bewildered agent, who for four years had heard nothing of the world beyond Nagasaki, read about the changes that had taken place. The letter informed him that the former general agent had been appointed his successor with the title of Commissary in Japan, and was signed "Raffles, Lieutenant Governor of Java, and its dependencies."

"Raffles! Who is Raffles?" asked the puzzled agent.

His former friend now explained that Java had been captured by the English; that Holland no longer existed as an independent nation, but had become a part of the French empire, and that he, the former general agent, and an Englishman, Dr. Ainslie, had been appointed by the British government as commissioners in Japan.

The Dutch agent did not hesitate as soon as he was in possession of these facts. He refused absolutely to obey the orders conveyed in the letter, stating that they came from a colony in possession of the enemy; that Japan was in no way a dependency of Java, nor was she at all affected by any capitulation into which the Dutch in Java might have entered with the English.

The attempt was foolish in the extreme. The ships were unarmed, and if the agent had informed the governor, or suffered the secret to leak out, short shrift would have been given to their English crews. For the affair of the Phaeton  was still fresh in the memory of the Japanese, and they were anxious to obtain revenge. The agent hated the English, who had caused such severe losses to his countrymen; but the old general agent was his friend and patron, and the Dutch agent agreed to keep his own counsel upon certain conditions benefiting his countrymen. These were agreed to. The cargoes of the two vessels were delivered in the usual manner; the vessels were loaded with copper, and the English sailed away without having aroused the suspicions of the Japanese.

The following year Lieutenant Governor Raffles made another attempt to wield influence over Japan, but it failed completely. In 1818, Captain Gordon of the British navy sailed up Yedo Bay and made a formal request to be allowed to return with a cargo, for the purpose of trading. This request was politely but firmly refused. The captain was treated with the greatest kindness and good will, provisions were offered him, and anything of which he might be in need; but he was given to understand that only two nations, the Dutch and the Chinese, were permitted to trade with Japan, and only at Nagasaki.

In the year 1831, a Japanese junk, blown off the coast into the Pacific Ocean, after drifting about for a long time, went ashore near the mouth of the Columbia River. The castaways were kindly treated, and in 1835 were taken to Macao, a Portuguese settlement in China, where they were cared for by the American and English residents. It was decided to seize this opportunity to open intercourse with Japan. An American merchantman, the Morrison, well equipped for the purpose, was engaged, and her arms and ammunition were left behind in token of her peaceable intentions.

Yedo Bay


It was thought by the promoters of this enterprise that the return of shipwrecked fellow-countrymen would be appreciated. They did not know of the cruel Japanese law: "All Japanese who return from abroad, shall be put to death." With a medical missionary on board, the Morrison left Macao, and arrived without accident in Yedo Bay. After she had anchored, she was visited by officers from the shore, who carefully examined into her strength. When they discovered that she was wholly unarmed, they showed the greatest insolence and contempt, and the following morning opened fire upon her. She was compelled to weigh anchor in a hurry, and, leaving this bay, sailed westward, anchoring off Kagoshima (kah-goh'-shee-mah), in the island of Kiushiu.

Here one of the passengers, Mr. C. W. King, a New York merchant, decided to open negotiations with the emperor (regent). He prepared a paper in which he said:—

"The American vessels sail faster than those of other nations. If permitted to have intercourse with Japan, they will always communicate the latest intelligence. . . . Our countrymen have not yet visited your honorable country, but only know that, in old times, the merchants of all nations were admitted to your harbors. Afterwards, having transgressed the law, they were restricted or expelled. Now we, coming for the first time, and not having done wrong, request permission to carry on a friendly intercourse on the ancient footing."

The natives of Kiushiu appeared well disposed and even friendly; but, after some time, striped canvas cloths were being stretched along the shore. The rescued Japanese told their American friends that this meant mischief; that cannon were being placed, and that firing would soon commence. The anchor was weighed, and when the vessel sailed, a battery opened upon her. The plan was therefore abandoned, and, the Morrison returned to Macao.

In 1845 Nagasaki was visited, first by the British frigate Samarang, Captain Sir Edward Belcher, and later by Admiral Cecille (say-seel)  in the French ship Cléopâtre  (clay-oh-pahtr). Both were politely received, but secured no advantage beyond a liberal supply of provisions and water. Indeed, they were given to understand that these visits were not welcome; that Japan asked no favors, and desired none. But when a Japanese, in his private capacity, expressed an opinion, a thing not to be thought of unless he was sure to be out of earshot of any of his countrymen, he would declare that the people were in favor of opening their country to foreigners. It was indeed the government that insisted upon maintaining the seclusion as begun by Iyeyasu, and strengthened and made more burdensome by his successors. The regents, or those who ruled in their names, were afraid that intercourse with foreigners would cause their downfall,—and they were right, as we shall soon see.