An excerpt from the draft of my novel The Shogun’s Gold-Solving a Historical Mysery:
“Gentlemen, I am Major Benjamin Butler, retired. I have come to your estimable country well recommended by Mr. John Manjiro.”
Just who was the man named Manjiro? He was a historical figure born in Japan in 1827. “Commoners” did not have family names. At the age of 14 and desperately poor, he set out with this uncle and friends to fish off the coast of Shikoku Island. A violent storm swept them away, and they ended up shipwrecked on the deserted island of Torishima, about 700 miles from their home.
They were stranded there for several months and were at the point of starvation when an American whaling ship stopped and rescued them. The kindly captain, William Whitfield, clothed and fed the ragged shipwrecked fishermen and took a shine to Manjiro, offering him the chance to return to the U.S. with him. To this, John Manjiro, as Whitfield re-named him, readily agreed. When he landed in Fairhaven, Massachusetts in 1843, Captain Whitfield saw to it that John learned English at the local public school.
Manjiro eventually entered the Bartlett School in Fairhaven where he learned navigation and advanced mathematics. He signed on to a whaling ship and was promoted to harpooner. After a lengthy voyage, he returned to Fairhaven… but not for long. With the $350 he had earned, he sailed to San Francisco and then travelled to the Sierras where he panned for gold and came back with $600, about $30,000 in today’s money.
Homesick, he made up his mind to return to Japan. Doing so was a dangerous proposition because the shogun’s government policy of national isolation made it a capital offense to have contact with foreigners. Nevertheless, John Manjiro booked passage on a ship that took him and several of his former shipwrecked mates to Okinawa where he was, for all intents and purposes, put under house arrest.
After months of interrogation, he was allowed to return to his home where he met his widowed mother after almost 12 years. In 1853, the Shogun’s government summoned him to Edo (modern day Tokyo) where he advised the government on matters concerning the treaty demands being made by Commodore Mathew Calbraith Perry who had arrived with a flotilla of warships. For his services, Manjiro was elevated to the rank of samurai. He chose Nakahama as his surname after the town where he had been born.
In the ensuing years Nakahama Manjiro helped establish the whaling industry in Japan, translated a book on navigation, and acted as an official interpreter when the first Japanese delegation visited the U.S. But, he never forgot the kindness of Captain William Whitfield and in 1870, when he landed in New York with a government delegation, he travelled to New Bedford, Massachusetts to visit his old friend and benefactor. A photograph of the two men was recently discovered at the New Bedford library and is pictured here with the library’s permission.
Returning to Japan, he became English professor at the institution which would eventually become Tokyo University. He died in 1898 after a long illness.
Several years ago, I made trips to Japan to conduct research for my novel “The Shogun’s Gold-Solving a Historical Mystery.” During one stay, I had the pleasure meeting and interviewing Dr. Issei Imanaga, a descendant of Manjiro. He and his wife Yuko provided me with much valuable information for my novel. Since then, we have become close friends.
In 2009, a Japanese philanthropist bought Captain Whitfield’s home in Fairhaven and turned it into a museum which is now operated by The Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society. Every other year in October, a festival honoring Whitfield and Manjiro is held in Fairhaven. The festivals are now on hold until the Covid pandemic runs its course. Check the following website from time to time to find out about the timing of the next festival: