Skip to main content

Castaways On Forbidden Shores

July 2024
7min read

The fearless sailors who manned America’s whaling fleet in the nineteenth century were no strangers to danger, but even the bravest trembled at the unknown prospects of becoming castaways on forbidden shores

A heavy gale had blown up suddenly over the fishing grounds northeast of Japan, and the captain of the whaler Lawrence, ten months out of Poughkeepsie, New York, was in a dilemma. Should he cut loose the whale alongside and sail out the storm, or try to save his valuable prize by letting the ship float with the current? Yankee frugality triumphed; the decision cost Captain Baker his ship and his life.

An hour or so before midnight on May 27, 1846, the drifting Lawrence grounded, rolled on her starboard side, and bilged. Baker quickly launched his whaleboat and, pulling away into the darkness with a handful of the crew, shouted back through the wind, “Each man for himself.” He was never seen again. Nor was the first mate, Mr. Myers, whose boat slipped its bow tackle, plunged into the sea, and was stove to pieces. Only the boat commanded by the second mate, George Howe, survived. Getting safely away from the ship proved to be the easiest part of the trip home.

Of the various hazards American whalemen faced in the mid-nineteenth century, perhaps the most frightening was to be cast up on the forbidding shores of feudal Japan. Since 1638, when that nation’s rulers became convinced that Christianity, disseminated by European missionaries, was a monstrous foreign plot to seize control of their islands, Japan was off limits to outsiders, upon pain of death. Threatening laws to the contrary, foreign shipping in Japanese waters gradually increased. During the first part of the nineteenth century, vessels flying the colors of an expansionist young nation, the United States, began to appear in growing numbers.

In 1842, the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled Japan in the name of the impotent emperors, became alarmed at the trouncing just administered to a Chinese fleet by the British in the so-called Opium War. Accordingly, the shoguns relaxed their decree of Nincn-naku, or “no second thought”: henceforth, instead of killing castaways, local officials were to give the intruders water and food so that they might quickly sail away.

Howe and his six crewmates were well aware of the danger that awaited them on land, but they had no choice. Their provisions were exhausted by the second day; their small boat was being buffeted constantly, and a driving snow aggravated the misery of the ill-clad seamen. On June 3, Howe steered the boat into a protected bay, where the men caught a seal and enjoyed their first meal in four days.

Afterward, Howe and five of his men hiked inland about a mile, but they found no one and returned to the beach at dusk. The man left at the boat reported a visit by two Orientals, who, upon learning through sign language the number of Lawrence survivors, had fled in terror. What happened next typified the ambivalent character of feudal Japan, which was unwilling to accommodate the outside world and yet unable to prevent its intrusion, undecided whether to kill its uninvited guests or to pamper them with exotic delicacies. Howe later wrote:

The next morning we got into the boat and steered for the mouth of u river on one side of the bay. As we approached it we saw what appeared to us to be a fort with spears glistening in the sun above the walls; but on coming nearer, we found it was a piece of cloth extended about three quarters of a mile, and painted so as to represent a fort with guns. Here, as we landed, about sixty men, armed with swords and spears, ran towards us and motioned us to go away. We however continued approaching them until we got very near, when we all fell on our knees before them. One of them came up to me, and would have struck me down with his sword, but his hand was held back by an old man. … I made signs to them that we were harmless people, and wanted food. After much talking among themselves they brought us some rice and fish, which we ate. They then again motioned us to be off.

The problem, as Howe tried to explain, was logistical. The whaleboat was too small for an extended sea voyage. East and West stared at each other in dismay: the Americans wanted to go but could not; the Japanese, forbidden to build seagoing vessels, could neither force nor assist their visitors to depart. What ensued was seventeen months of uneasy captivity, considered by the seamen as a period of horrendous cruelty, and by their hosts as an unwelcome test of informal diplomacy. Both viewpoints had some validity.


Japan was a closed society, but it was not without egress. At Nagasaki, the Dutch, in reward for their help in suppressing a revolt by Christian peasants in 1637, maintained a trading preserve on the tiny island of Deshima. Once a year a Dutch ship called there, and just as frequently the Dutch envoy or opperhoofd was granted an audience by the shoguns at Edo (modern Tokyo). Whatever business Japan conducted with the West was done through the Dutch at Deshima. Increasingly, this business involved the return of “waifs,” or shipwrecked sailors, who, if the Japanese decided that they were not missionaries, would be repatriated by the Dutch on their ship to Java.

The Lawrence survivors had not come to preach. They did not, in fact, know where they were, and it was only later they learned they had landed on Etorofu, an island in the Kurile chain. Nevertheless, for the next eleven months, Howe and his men were interrogated daily—about their country, their religion, and the circumstances of their arrival. A government artist, Ryu/aemon Yoshida, was brought in to record every detail of their physical appearance—tattoos, moles, pockmarks, and hair and eye coloring. (His water colors—now in the possession of Carl H. Boehringer, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan and a long-time resident there—are reproduced on these pages.) Howe and his mates were alternately cajoled by minor officials and maltreated by xenophobic guards, “who frequently struck us, and insulted us.” Howe remembered one occasion when they were plied with “sukee,” then questioned again by their jailers, “thinking perhaps that under the influence of the liquor we would give them whatever information we had before endeavored to suppress.”


The transcripts of the interminable interviews were forwarded with the water colors to the district governor, who, after conferring with his superiors, ordered the waifs shipped to Nagasaki. Howe reported:

They put us on board of a junk and stowed us all in the hold, a dark, filthy place, and during the time we were in her, some three or four months, not a single moment were we allowed to step on deck to breath the fresh air or sec the light. One day we were made to wash ourselves, and clean clothes were given us, and we were conducted into the cabin, which was beautifully fitted up with silk and gold ornaments; they then gave us each a carpet to sit upon, and made us understand that [the emperor’s son] was coming on board to sec us. By-and-by we heard a great stir outside, and all the people fell on their faces to the ground, and we were made to do the same.

The prince questioned them for an hour through a Japanese linguist who spoke a little Dutch, and that evening the prisoners received a royal gift of a box of sweetmeats. Then Howe and his men were thrust back into the hold, where again they were at the mercy of their guards.

At Nagasaki, the seamen were carried through the streets in wooden cages to the town hall, where the questioning was resumed. First they were required—at sword’s point—to trample and spit upon a print of the crucifixion; then they were shown epaulettes from the British and American navies and asked to point to the kind worn in their own country. One afternoon, they were surprised to see a European sitting among the Japanese judges; they were more amazed when this gentleman, confident that only they would understand, said simply: “If there are any John Bulls among you, you had better not say anything about it.” The speaker was the Dutch opperhoofd , Joseph Henrij Levyssohn, whom the Nagasaki officials frequently pressed into service as an interpreter.

A few days after this crucial interview, one of the men, ignoring the warnings of his shipmates, tried to escape and was, according to Howe, “inhumanly murdered by the Japanese.” The Japanese insisted that the sailor died of dysentery, a version corroborated by Levyssohn; but under the circumstances, Howe’s account carries more authority.

Shortly after this unfortunate incident, the six remaining survivors of the Lawrence’s twenty-three-man crew were paroled in the custody of Levyssohn, who ten days later put them aboard lhe Dutch ship Hertogenbosch, bound for Batavia. There the U.S. consul “extended his protection towards us,” I (owe wrote, “and furnished us with the few articles of clothing we were so much in need of.”

Howe’s description of his experiences from shipwreck to repatriation first appeared in a letter to the Singapore Free Press on January O, 1848. A copy of the article was promptly dispatched to Secretary of State (and future President) James Buchanan by Dr. Peter Parker, secretary to the American legation in Canton, China. Parker noted that the Lawrence survivors were being held incommunicado at the very time when Commodore James Biddlc, with two American warships, was in Tokyo Bay trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a treaty with the shoguns. Parker added prophetically:

The fate of the “Lawrence” mid her men is probably but one of many similar catastrophies, with this différence, that none of the others were so fortunate as to return to narrate their sufferings at the hands of the cruel inhabitants of the “land of the rising sun,” and doubtless it will be considered by the government of the United States as a new argument and a fair pretext for repeating an embassy to Japan as soon as convenient and practicable.

It was. When Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed his black-hulled fleet on its famous mission to Japan in 1853, he carried with him elaborate instructions from the Secretary of the Navy that specifically cited the wreck of the Lawrence and the “great barbarity” her crew had suffered. Perry was sent to conclude a treaty with Japan that would insure, in President Millard Fillmore’s phrase, “friendship, amity, and intercourse” between the two nations—meaning coaling stations for U.S. ships and trade agreements for U.S. merchants. But the first stated aim of the proposed treaty was to provide humane treatment for shipwrecked Americans. And should persuasion fail, the State Department told Perry, he was to inform the Japanese “that if any acts of cruelty should hereafter be practised upon citixcns of this country, whether by the government or by the inhabitants of Japan, they will be severely chastised.” Perry found that the intimation of force was enough; forts painted on silk curtains were no match for Yankee armament. The treaty he concluded in 1854 assured decent treatment for shipwrecked sailors; the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate were designated for provisioning American ships; and, within a few years, Japan was at last opened for commercial exploitation.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.