Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

The Captivity of Captain Golownin

Japan was persistent in its policy of isolation. To its people their group of islands was the world, and they know little of and cared less for what was going on in all the continents outside. The Dutch vessel that visited their shores once a year served as an annual newspaper, and satisfied their curiosity as to the doings of mankind. The goods it brought were little cared for, Japan being sufficient unto itself, so that it served merely as a window to the world. Once a year a delegation from the Dutch settlement visited the capital, but the visitors travelled almost like prisoners, and were forced to crawl in to the mikado on their hands and knees and to back out again in the same crab-like fashion. Some of these envoys wrote accounts of what they had seen, and that was all that was known of Japan for two centuries.

This state of affairs could not continue. With the opening of the nineteenth century the ships of Europe began to make their way in large numbers to the North Pacific, and efforts were made to force open the locked gates of Japan. Some sought for food and water. These could be had at Nagasaki, but nowhere else, and were given with a warning to move on. In some cases shipwrecked Japanese were brought back in foreign vessels, but according to law such persons were looked upon as no longer Japanese, and no welcome was given to those who brought them. In other cases wrecked whalers and other mariners sought safety on Japanese soil, but they were held strict prisoners, and rescued only with great difficulty. The law was that foreigners landing anywhere on the coast, except at Nagasaki, should be seized and condemned to perpetual imprisonment, and that those landing at Nagasaki must strictly abstain from Christian worship.

Meanwhile the Russians had become, through their Siberian ports, near neighbors of Japan, and sought to open trade with that country. In 1793 Lieutenant Laxman landed at Hakodate and travelled overland to Matsumai, bringing with him some shipwrecked Japanese and seeking for commercial relations with Japan. He was treated with courtesy, but dismissed without an answer to his demand, and told that he could take his Japanese back with him or leave them as he pleased.

In 1804 the Russians came again, this time to Nagasaki. This vessel also brought back some shipwrecked Japanese, and had on board a Russian count, sent as ambassador from the czar. But the shogun refused to receive the ambassador or to accept his presents, and sent him word that Japan had little need of foreign productions, and got all it wanted from the Dutch and Chinese. All this was said with great politeness, but the ambassador thought that he had been shabbily treated, and went away angry, reproaching the Dutch for his failure. His anger against the Japanese was shown in a hostile fashion. In 1805 he sent out two small vessels, whose crews landed on the island of Saghalien, plundered a Japanese settlement there, carried off some prisoners, and left behind a written statement that this had been done to revenge the slights put upon the Russian ambassador.

This violence was amply repaid by the Japanese. How they did so we have now to tell. In 1811 Captain Golownin, an intelligent and educated officer of the Russian navy, was sent in command of the sloop-of-war Diana  to explore the Kurile Islands. These belonged to Japan, and were partly settled. At the south end of Kunashir, one of these islands, was a Japanese settlement, with a garrison. Here Golownin, having landed with two officers, four men, and an interpreter, was invited into the fort. He entered unsuspectingly, but suddenly found himself detained as a prisoner, and held as such despite all the efforts of the Diana to obtain his release.

The prisoners were at once bound with small cords in a most painful way, their elbows being drawn behind their backs until they almost touched, and their hands firmly tied together, the cords being also brought in loops around their breasts and necks. A long cord proceeded from these fastenings and was held by a Japanese, who, if an attempt were made to escape, had only to pull it to bring the elbows together with great pain and to tighten the loop around the neck so as nearly to strangle the prisoner. Their ankles and knees were also firmly bound.

In this condition they were conveyed to Hakodate, in the island of Yeso, a distance of six or seven hundred miles, being carried, on the land part of the route, in a sort of palanquin made of planks, unless they preferred to walk, in which case the cords were loosened about their legs. At night they were trussed up more closely still, and the ends of their ropes tied to iron hooks in the wall. The cords were drawn so tight as in time to cut into the flesh, yet for six or seven days their guards refused to loosen them, despite their piteous appeals, being fearful that their prisoners might commit suicide, this being the favorite Japanese method in extremity.

The escort consisted of nearly two hundred men. Two Japanese guides, changed at each new district, led the way, carrying handsomely carved staves. Three soldiers followed. Then came Captain Golownin, with a soldier on one side, and on the other an attendant with a twig to drive off the gnats, from whose troublesome attacks he was unable to defend himself. Next came an officer holding the end of the rope that bound him, followed by a party carrying his litter or palanquin. Each of the prisoners was escorted in the same manner. In the rear came three soldiers, and a number of servants carrying provisions and baggage.

Aside from their bonds, the captives were well treated, being supplied with three meals a day, consisting of rice gruel, soup made of radishes or other roots, a kind of macaroni, and a piece of fish. Mushrooms or hard-boiled eggs were sometimes supplied.

Golownin's bitter complaints at length had the affect of a loosening of their bonds, which enabled them to get along more comfortably. Their guards took great care of their health, making frequent halts to rest, and carrying them across all the streams, so that they should not wet their feet. In case of rain they furnished them with Japanese quilted gowns for protection. In all the villages the inhabitants viewed them with great curiosity, and at Hakodate the street was crowded with spectators, some with silk dresses and mounted on richly caparisoned horses. None of the people showed any sign of malice or any disposition to insult the prisoners, while in their journey they were cheered by many displays of sympathy and piety.

At Hakodate they were imprisoned in. a long, barn-like building, divided into apartments hardly six feet square, each formed of thick spars and resembling a cage. Outside were a high fence and an earthen wall. Here their food was much worse than that on the journey. While here they were several times examined, being conducted through the streets to a castle-like building, where they were brought into the presence of the governor and several other officials, who put to them a great variety of questions, some of them of the most trivial character. A letter was also brought them, which had been sent on shore from the Diana  along with their baggage, and which said that the ship would return to Siberia for reinforcements, and then would never leave Japan till the prisoners were released.

Some time afterwards the captives were removed to Matsumai, being supplied with horses on the journey, but still to some extent fettered with ropes. Here they were received by a greater crowd than before, Matsumai being a more important town than Hakodate. Their prison was similar to the preceding one, but their food was much better, and after a time they were released from their cage-like cells and permitted to dwell together in a large room. They were, as before, frequently examined, their captors being so inquisitive and asking such trifling and absurd questions that at times they grew so annoyed as to refuse to answer. But no display of passion affected the politeness of the Japanese, whose coolness and courtesy seemed unlimited.

Thus the first winter of their captivity was passed. In the spring they were given more liberty, being allowed to take walks in the vicinity of the town. Soon after they were removed from their prison to a dwelling of three apartments, though they were still closely watched.

This strict confinement, of which they could see no end, at length became so irksome that the prisoners determined to escape. Their walks had made them familiar with the character of the surrounding country, and enabled them also to gain possession of a few tools, with which they managed to make a tunnel to the outer air. Leaving their cells at night, they succeeded in reaching the mountains back of the town, whence they hoped to find some means of escaping by sea.

But in the flight Golownin had hurt his leg severely, the pain being so great that he was scarcely able to walk. This prevented the fugitives from getting far from the town, while their wanderings through the mountains were attended with many difficulties and dangers. After a week thus spent, they were forced to seek the coast, where they were seen and recaptured.

The captives were now confined in the common jail of the town, though they were not treated any more harshly than before, and no ill will was shown them by the officials. Even the soldier who was most blamed for their escape treated them with his former kindness. They were soon sent back to their old prison, where they passed a second winter, receiving while there visits from a Japanese astronomer and others in search of information. One old officer, who was very civil to them, at one time brought them portraits of three richly dressed Japanese ladies, telling them to keep them, as they might enjoy looking at them when time hung heavy on their bands.

Meanwhile their countrymen were making earnest efforts to obtain their release. Some months after their capture the Diana, now under Captain Rikord, returned to Kunashir, bringing one of the Japanese who had been taken prisoner in the descent on Saghalien. The other had died. Six other Japanese, who had been lately shipwrecked, were brought, in the hope of exchanging these seven for the seven prisoners. Efforts were made to communicate with the Japanese, but they refused to receive the Russian message, and sent back word that the prisoners were all dead. Two of the Japanese sent ashore failed to return.

Rikord, weary of the delay and discourtesy shown, now resolved to take more vigorous action, and seized upon a large Japanese ship that entered the bay, taking prisoner the captain, who seemed to be a person of distinction, and who told them that six of the Russians were in the town of Matsumai. Not fully crediting this, Rikord resolved to carry his captive to Kamchatka, hoping to obtain from him some useful information concerning the purposes of the Japanese government. At Rikord's request the merchant wrote a letter to the commander of the fort at Kunashir, telling him what was proposed. No answer was returned, and when the boats tried to land for water they were fired upon. The guns were also turned upon the Diana  whenever she approached the shore, but with such wretched aim that the Russians only laughed at it.

In the following summer the Diana  returned to Kunashir, bringing Kachi, the merchant, who had been seriously ill from homesickness, and two of his attendants, the others having died. The two attendants were sent on shore, Kachi bidding them to tell that be had been very well treated, and that the ship had made an early return on account of his health. On the next day Rikord unconditionally set free his captive, trusting to his honor for his doing all he could to procure the release of the prisoners.

Kachi kept his word, and soon was able to obtain a letter in the handwriting of Golownin, stating that he and his companions were all alive and well at Matsumai. Afterwards one of the Russian sailors was brought to Kunashir and sent on board the Diana, with the understanding that he would return to the fort every night. Despite the watchfulness of the Japanese, he succeeded in bringing a letter from Golownin, which he had sewed into his jacket. This advised Rikord to be prudent, civil, and patient, and not to send him any letters or papers which would cause him to be tormented with questions or translations. In truth, he had been fairly tortured by the refinements of Japanese curiosity. Finally an ultimatum was obtained from the Japanese, who refused to deliver up their prisoners until they received from the authorities at Okhotsk a formal written statement that they had not ordered the hostile proceedings at Saghalien. The Diana  returned for this, and in October made her appearance at Hakodate, bearing the letter required and another from the governor of Irkutsk.

The ship had no sooner entered the harbor than it was surrounded by a multitude of boats, of all kinds and sizes, filled with the curious of both sexes, many of whom had never before set eyes on a European vessel. They were in such numbers that the watch-boats, filled with soldiers, had great ado to keep them back.

Kachi came on board the next morning, and was given the letter from the governor of Okhotsk. The other Rikord would not deliver except in person, and after much delay an interview with the governor was arranged, at which Rikord was received with much state and ceremony. The letter of the governor of Irkutsk was now formally delivered, in a box covered with purple cloth, its reception being followed by an entertainment composed of tea and sweetmeats.

Meanwhile Golownin and his companions, from the time the Diana  set out for Okhotsk, had been treated rather as guests than as prisoners. They were now brought to Hakodate and delivered to Rikord, after an imprisonment of more than two years. With them was sent a paper reiterating the Japanese policy of isolation, and declaring that any ships that should thereafter present themselves would be received with cannon-balls instead of compliments.

In all this business Kachi had worked with tireless energy. At first he was received with reserve as having come from a foreign country. He was placed under guard, and for a long time was not permitted to see Golownin, but by dint of persistence had done much in favor of the release of the prisoners.

His abduction had thrown his family into the greatest distress, and his wife had made a pilgrimage through all Japan, as a sort of penitential offering to the favoring gods. During his absence his business had prospered, and before the departure of the Diana  he presented the crew with dresses of silk and cotton wadding, the best to his favorites, the cook being especially remembered. He then begged permission to treat the crew.

"Sailors are all alike," he said, whether Russian or Japanese. "They are all fond of a glass; and there is no danger in the harbor of Hakodate."

So that night the crew of the Diana  enjoyed a genuine sailors' holiday, with a plentiful supply of saki and Japanese tobacco.