Story of Japan - R. Van Bergen

A Russian Captive

Golownin, instead of going where directed, continued his survey, and when he really did need water and other necessaries, he proceeded to one of the more southern islands of the same group, and communicated with the Japanese commandant. This officer pretended to be satisfied until Golownin deemed himself safe; when, having landed without escort, he, his officers, and boat's crew were overpowered and taken prisoners.

First the Russians were tightly bound with small cords; they were rendered so helpless that they had to be fed like infants, since they could not use their hands; the cords by which their legs were fastened had only enough play to enable the men to walk. A soldier held the end of each man's cord, and in this manner they were driven overland, or piled together in boats when transportation by water was necessary.

They were well taken care of, so far as food and drink were concerned, and when they were too tired to walk, their guards willingly carried them. So too, when the people of the villages through which they passed offered refreshments, the prisoners were always allowed to partake, and it seemed to afford their guards pleasure, if they appeared to enjoy these gifts. At the same time the guards would not loosen the prisoners' cords, even though they cut into the flesh and caused intense suffering; but at night the wounds were carefully dressed. At last the Russians received an explanation of the odd mixture of cruelty and kindness with which they were treated. It appeared that the guards had been charged to convey the prisoners alive to Hakodate, and were afraid that one of them might commit suicide from despair at being a prisoner. If this had happened, or if one of the Russians had effected his escape, there would have been no inquiry: the guard in charge would simply have been found guilty, condemned to death, and executed. The kindness shown to the prisoners was, therefore, genuine good nature, while the apparently unnecessary severity was a precaution for the protection of the guards themselves.



After a month, Hakodate was reached. The arrival of the Russians must have been expected, for both sides of the road were crowded with men, women, and children. All behaved in a well-bred manner. "I paid special attention," says Golownin, "to their expressions, and failed to observe an angry look, or a sign of hatred toward us, and there was not the least attempt to insult us by laughing or mockery."

The Russians were taken to a long wooden building surrounded by bamboo palisades. There was a hallway with wooden cages or cells on each side, about six feet square and provided with two small windows with iron gratings, admitting light and air; the floor was covered with mats, and a wooden bench was all the furniture. Each prisoner was put into one of these cells. Through the night, watchmen made the rounds, rattling now and then to announce that they were on guard. In the morning the Russians received water with which to wash themselves, and a Japanese physician came to inquire into the condition of their health.

On the third day they were conducted, under a strong guard, to the house of the governor. Here tea and tobacco were offered them, and they were asked a number of questions, the answers being taken down in writing.

"Has Russia changed her religion?" was one of the unexpected questions.

"Certainly not."

"Why do you wear your hair cut short and without powder, when Laxman, who was here a few years ago, wore a long pigtail and thick hair covered with flour?"

"Fashions change, but they have nothing to do with religion."

This answer the Japanese could not understand, but the interrogation continued.

"Why did you carry off wood and rice, when you landed, without the consent of the owners?"

"We left in exchange other articles, fully equal in value."

"Does Russian law allow you to take anything without the owner's consent, if you leave other articles of equal value?"

"It does not. But if a man takes what is absolutely necessary for his existence, and substitutes full value, he cannot be considered guilty."

"Ah, our laws are different. A man must sooner die of hunger than touch, without the consent of the owner, a single grain of rice which does not belong to him."

When the Russians had been fifty days in Hakodate, they were taken to Matsumai (mah-tsoo-mi), where the governor of the island resided. Here they were again examined, but more minutely. There was a great improvement in their treatment, although they were still confined as before. The weather being extremely cold, they were well provided with warm clothing, and a physician visited them twice a day. If any one was ill, a second doctor would come to attend him.

At last the Russians were removed from their prison to a residence surrounded with strong palisades, and were permitted to walk through the town, accompanied by a guard. They now resolved to escape. After having burrowed under the palisades, one night in April, they crept out, one by one, and, favored by darkness, struck across the country toward the sea, directing their course to the north, and ascending hills covered with snow. Hiding by day, they, for eight nights, wandered through thickets or scrambled among rocks and precipices, at great risk to their necks or limbs.

At length they reached a village on the shore and found two boats, but these were hauled up on the beach, and, weak and famishing as the Russians were, they could not launch them. A little farther on they saw a boat afloat, and near it a tent. One of the famishing sailors thrust his hand into the tent, but instead of finding something eatable, he grasped the head of a Japanese who was sleeping within. The fellow roared out, and the Russians, fearing that the noise would alarm the villagers, hastened back to the hills.

On the next morning, when they were helpless from exhaustion, they found themselves surrounded by soldiers, who came upon them very quietly, bound their arms behind their backs, and led them to a house, where they refreshed them with sake, boiled rice, radishes, and tea. The Russians had been regularly tracked, day by day. Golownin suspected that the old fear about suicide had prevented the Japanese from seizing them sooner. They were marched back to Matsumai, and safely lodged in the castle. The governor showed no anger at this escapade: he merely told Golownin that his plan was ill contrived, and that if he had succeeded the governor himself and other Japanese would have answered for the escape with their lives.

The Russians were soon sent from the castle to a new prison, and put into separate cages. But, at last, when the second year of their captivity was well advanced, they were restored to liberty, and sent off to their own country.

At the time of his capture, the officers of Golownin's ship, the Diana, had attempted to get near enough in shore to be able to use the small cannon with which the ship was armed, but they were prevented by the shallow water. For three days they cruised near the place of the capture, and finally landed near a village, where they left some linen and other articles of which the captives might be in need. Then they returned as fast as possible to the seat of the Russian government on the Pacific coast.

One of the captains of the Russian navy left at once for St. Petersburg to lay the case before the emperor. But at that time Russia was engaged in war with France, and it was some time before Emperor Alexander ordered the Diana  to return to Japan. Captain Rikord was appointed to take command. When he sailed, he carried with him seven Japanese who had been shipwrecked on the coast, thinking that he might effect an exchange. But when he reached Japan, he found that he could not enter into communication with the shore, since the Japanese declined to take notice of him. At one place, indeed, they fired upon his vessel.

Under these circumstances, Captain Rikord decided to capture a Japanese vessel, but when he did so, the crew jumped overboard and escaped, and he gained nothing. Soon after this, he captured a large native junk, and although some of the men threw themselves overboard, the captain, a lady passenger, and several of the crew were captured. Most of the sailors were set free, and allowed to proceed with their vessel; but as the season was too far advanced for further efforts, the Diana  returned to Kamchatka with her prisoners. There they were well treated, and the captain passed most of his time in studying the Russian language.

The Diana  returned to the Japanese coast in the spring, but it was June before she reached the island of Hokkaido. No one would communicate with her; indeed, it seemed as if the coast had been deserted. Captain Rikord now called the Japanese captain and explained to him what he wished him to do. The Japanese stoutly declined to follow his instructions, adding that, if Rikord persisted, he would first kill the Russian and then himself.

By his own desire, the Japanese captain was then put ashore, and made his way to the house of the governor. He took with him a statement signed by the Russian governor of Kamchatka, that the outrage committed in the Kurile Islands had been severely condemned by the government. This document he handed to the governor, stating that, from his own experience, the Russians had nothing but good feelings toward Japan. The Diana  was thereupon allowed to come to the port of Hakodate, where Golownin and his men were permitted to rejoin her.