Australians behaving badly in Japan (Tokugawa-era)
May 28, 2017 5:36 AM   Subscribe

Fresh translations of samurai accounts of the arrival of a “barbarian” ship near the Japanese town of Mugi have confirmed the legend of an Australian convict pirate ship visiting Japan in 1830.

The ship, the Cyprus, was hijacked by convicts on a journey from Hobart to Macquarie Harbour in 1829. The crew, led by one William Swallows, arrived in Japan in January 1830, driven there by a desperate need for water and supplies. A samurai, Hamaguchi Makita, was sent to investigate; he reported “an unbearable stench” around the ship, which was crewed by sailors with “long pointed noses” and balding heads whose speech sounded to him like “birds twittering”. The skipper wore a scarlet woollen coat with golden embroidery and silver buttons and possibly a bird-shaped emblem on a sleeve. Another sailor's chest bore a tattoo of “the upper body of a beautiful woman”, and there was a dog on the ship that “did not look like food. It looked like a pet”. Hamaguchi and another samurai, Hirota, also produced watercolours of the ship and its crew.

The ship was soon forced to leave after regional authorities, noticing the Union Jack in paintings of it, ordered samurai to open fire on it; Japan had an isolationist policy at the time. It was later captured and the crew were tried, with two being the last men hanged for piracy in Britain. The crew's claims to have visited Japan were dismissed as fantasy, though lived on in Australian folk tales and ballads.
posted by acb (20 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is fascinating - I love the Japanese watercolour of the sailor! I found one version of an Australian song about it:
For navigating smartly Bill Swallow was the man,
Who laid a course out neatly to take us to Japan.

posted by Azara at 6:18 AM on May 28, 2017 [3 favorites]


Great story! Those watercolors are fantastic.
posted by Nelson at 6:29 AM on May 28, 2017


This is really neat. I don't know enough to evaluate the likelihood that it's true, but it sure sounds compelling.

It also makes me curious. On a map, it's not at all clear why people leaving Tasmania with limited supplies would head for Japan. They stopped in Japan on their way to Hong Kong? Is there some wind or current pattern that makes that choice seem less crazy than an ordinary map would suggest? Also, they continued to fly the British flag? Perhaps that's the only flag they had, they weren't able to fabricate an alternative, and sailing with no flag would be even more of a problem. Still, it seems a particularly weird choice when hiding the fact that you're convict mutineers visiting Japan at the time.
posted by eotvos at 7:09 AM on May 28, 2017 [5 favorites]


Wow, that's fascinating!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:12 AM on May 28, 2017


They stopped in Japan on their way to Hong Kong?

This article says they went to "New Zealand, then north past Tahiti to Keppel’s Island, or Niuatoputapu, in the Tonga island chain" for a long break, and then "sailed on to Japan and then southern China."
posted by effbot at 7:22 AM on May 28, 2017 [4 favorites]


I love that so many cross cultural encounters with Europeans include the observation that they smell godawful.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:08 AM on May 28, 2017 [37 favorites]


This is my new favorite story.
posted by thivaia at 9:07 AM on May 28, 2017


Seemed more like Japanese behaving badly in Japan -firing on an unarmed sailing ship when all they've asked for is the most basic provisions and a couple days to sleep and make repairs? When there's no wind to allow them to leave?..and there's a cute, skinny little dog on board?
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:09 AM on May 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


So according to the notes here, Swallows was first deported to Tasmania (then called Van Diemen's Land) for having stolen a quilt, and when he finally made it back to England his wife reported him to the authorities to get rid of him. I can sort of see why he decided to go fuck all and go on a holiday trip in the pacific...
posted by effbot at 9:22 AM on May 28, 2017 [2 favorites]


Seemed more like Japanese behaving badly in Japan

I know; they didn't do anything worse than being fish out of water in a xenophobic environment. The title was for comedic value, framing Bill Swallow and his crew as the spiritual forebears of the ubiquitous Australian bogan backpacker.
posted by acb at 9:57 AM on May 28, 2017 [6 favorites]


So according to the notes here, Swallows was first deported to Tasmania (then called Van Diemen's Land) for having stolen a quilt, and when he finally made it back to England his wife reported him to the authorities to get rid of him.

I found the chronology in those notes confusing, but found a more detailed account here. If I'm reading it correctly, he was sent to Australia in 1821 for stealing a quilt, got in more trouble while there (including getting 150 lashes for stealing a ship), and then returned illegally to England. His wife eventually turned him in because her new man wanted her back, and Swallow was sent back to the colonies in 1828 for sheep-stealing (after being imprisoned locally for "tier-ranging" and "plundering ships at night in the river"). This is when the mutiny/piracy took place, and they stayed free until they were captured in China. Swallow's story was that he was forced by the mutineers to steer the ship against his wishes, and evidently the court bought it because he wasn't executed.

Honestly, it sounds more like a Cormac McCarthy story than real life, but the main events seem to be completely verified, including now the stop in Japan. The watercolors are interesting, especially the portrait of Swallow -- I wonder if there are any other contemporary images of him?
posted by Dip Flash at 10:25 AM on May 28, 2017 [5 favorites]


Firing up the search engine,,,
A “tier-ranger” in the 19th century was a thief who specialized in stealing from moored ships, especially those berthed in the “tiers,” the long ranks of ships being loaded and unloaded, in the Thames river in London. These thieves “ranged” in the sense that they went from ship to ship, usually at night, and took what they could, whether it was tools or more expensive loot such as sextants, which they then fenced.
The Word Detective
posted by Mister Bijou at 10:32 AM on May 28, 2017 [7 favorites]


Seemed more like Japanese behaving badly in Japan -firing on an unarmed sailing ship when all they've asked for is the most basic provisions and a couple days to sleep and make repairs?

No, they were under strict orders to do that. By the 1700s and 1800s the sakoku policy was getting under more and more stress because of the increased traffic and commerce in East Asia (and also the drive to colonize Hokkaido before the Russians did) so it was enforced harder until Perry did his gunboat diplomacy thing.
posted by sukeban at 11:54 AM on May 28, 2017 [4 favorites]


And, given what happened after Perry did his gunboat diplomacy thing, not to mention what happened in China in the 1800s, can you really say that the sakoku policy was a bad idea?
posted by tobascodagama at 12:17 PM on May 28, 2017 [11 favorites]


Well it definitely helped the shogunate to maintain social and economic control and have the first three centuries of uninterrupted peace the country had enjoyed since the times of Richard Lionheart so in that sense it wasn't a total disaster.
posted by sukeban at 12:25 PM on May 28, 2017 [1 favorite]


If this is authentic, it's a tremendously interesting and important discovery. But there are reasons to be doubtful. The late David Sissons, a leading scholar of Australian-Japanese relations, published an article in the Journal of Pacific History in 2008, The Voyage of the Cyprus Mutineers: Did They Ever Enter Japanese Waters? in which he argued that the whole story was a fabrication. Japanese scholars had searched the archives and failed to find any record of the ship's arrival:
Specialists like Tabohashi and Sakamaki, working through relevant collections of the bakufu's archives such as Tsukō Ichiran (1853), Tsukō Ichiran Zokushū (1856) and Zoku Tsūshin Zenran Ruishū and contemporary memoirs such as Matsuura Seizan's Kasshi Yawa (1821–41) have found a number of very detailed descriptions of foreign vessels entering harbours or appearing off the coast. For example Tsukō Ichiran contains 19 pages of official reports relating to the visit of the British whaler Saracen which sought and received water, food and firewood at Uraga in 1822. Similarly, the mere appearance of two vessels three miles off Rikuchū Nakano (40°21′N) in 1825 received a paragraph in Kasshi Yawa. Admittedly, not every incident involving a foreign vessel is recorded in these Japanese sources. For example, they contain references neither to the seizure of grain by foreign sailors mentioned in the bakufu's instructions to the fiefs of 1825 nor to the Lady Rowena's molesting Japanese junks near Kinka-san in 1830. These cases, however, did not involve action by shore batteries.
Now, it's possible that the manuscript was simply overlooked by these earlier scholars, and has come to light since then. But several things in this report don't seem to ring true:

1. The images look as though they might have been copied from existing Yokohama and Nagasaki prints depicting European ships and sailors.
2. The text doesn't exactly read like a translation from the Japanese ("an eerie screeching noise as the old deeply pitted ball flew between the two masts of the barbarian ship").
3. The details match William Swallow's account so closely as to suggest one is based on the other.

I really, really hope I'm wrong, because I would love this to be true. But I'd like to see some independent confirmation. (Nick Russell says he found the images on 'the website of the Tokushima prefectural archive': can anyone find them on that website? My Google searches are coming up with nothing.)
The ship anchored on 16 January 1830 off the town of Mugi, on Shikoku island, where Makita Hamaguchi, a samurai sent disguised as a fisherman to check the ship for weapons, noted an “unbearable stench in the vicinity of the ship”.
It's not the only thing about this story that has an ancient and fish-like smell.
posted by verstegan at 1:26 PM on May 28, 2017 [9 favorites]


(Nick Russell says he found the images on 'the website of the Tokushima prefectural archive': can anyone find them on that website? My Google searches are coming up with nothing.)

http://www.archiv.tokushima-ec.ed.jp/new_article/00000000156.html
posted by effbot at 1:30 PM on May 28, 2017 [4 favorites]


A number of experts, including Japanese ones, think this is a plausible story. I trust them.
posted by My Dad at 4:03 PM on May 28, 2017


I would read a whole book about this sailing adventure. Someone get Nathanial Philbrick on the line.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:07 PM on May 29, 2017 [1 favorite]


But what about the dog? Did the cute dog wind up OK?
posted by feral_goldfish at 5:16 PM on May 29, 2017


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