Friday Night History: Ranald MacDonald, the First ALT (Parts 1 and 2)

Bas-relief memorial of Ranald MacDonald in Nagasaki. (Image in PD)

Okay, so. Our story begins with Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894), who it must be said from the beginning of our story, was not in the hamburger business. He was born in British North America at Fort Astoria, in what’s now Oregon; his father Archibald was a Hudson’s Bay Company trader, and his mother Koale’xoa was a daughter of Comcomly, a leader of the Lower Chinook people. And after an early working career that included a stint as a clerk in a bank, MacDonald decided in his early 20s that he would visit Japan.

Yes, Japan was still in the midst of its policy of carefully controlled international contact. Yes, it wasn’t easy to even get to Japan legally. But Ranald MacDonald didn’t care: he wanted very much to go to Japan, to learn about it and to teach Japanese people about the western world. So, signing on with the American whaling ship Plymouth in 1845, he made his way westward, until in 1848, the ship was off the coast of western Ezochi (now northwestern Hokkaido).

You have to understand. European and American whalers in the early to mid 19th century were only increasing in number.  No less than Herman Melville himself, in his famous novel Moby-Dick, said the following:

If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold. 

 It wasn’t just Americans, either– British, Russians, French, and many others, appeared in Japanese waters with increasing frequency, and regardless of Japanese laws surrounding national seclusion, they couldn’t legislate away the fact that these foreign ships were coming in increasing numbers, a trend that was only to increase with the increase of steamship traffic in the area as well. And there was a distinct school of thought in some circles of Japanese political leadership that there should be some sort of adaptation of the seclusion laws, at the very least in the interest of improving Japan’s capability to defend itself against potential foreign aggression. The house of Date, of Sendai domain was a prominent advocate of this. Being tasked with coast defense duty in Ezochi, its troops regularly encountered Russian warships.

So, this was a problem for Tokugawa Japan, and it wasn’t going away.

Fast forward to the summer of 1848. MacDonald talked the Plymouth’s captain into letting him disembark. So, with all his belongings and clothes and supplies in a little boat, he was dropped off, and headed in the vague direction of Hokkaido, hoping for the best.

Eventually, while practically freezing to death and falling out of his own boat along the way, MacDonald washed ashore in Rishiri, a little island off the coast of Ezochi. And of course, the first people to find him was the local Ainu community, who turned him over to the authorities of Matsumae domain, the sole domain in Ezochi. At the time, the island was not part of Japan (that came in 1869), but was actively being colonized. So, after passing through Hakodate, MacDonald was sent south to Nagasaki– he was a foreigner, after all, and the one legal place for foreigners to enter Japan (or wait to get picked up to be sent out of Japan) was there.

He wasn’t the only person who went to Nagasaki  by way of Hakodate.

15 men from the (now famous) New Bedford whaler Lagoda— mutineers– also washed ashore in Ezochi, not far from Hakodate. They, too, were sent to Nagasaki, and held in confinement under the supervision of the Nagasaki Magistrate, the city’s governor who oversaw Nagasaki as a direct possession of the Tokugawa Shogunate. They tried to escape, failed, were placed under stricter observation and interrogated with increasing severity. The Dutch factor of Dejima, Joseph Henrij Levijssohn, was aware of their situation and secretly sent for aid to the Dutch diplomatic delegation at the port of Canton, in China, who passed the news on to the local American diplomats for help with repatriating the Lagoda mutineers. The US East India Squadron took on the task of recovering the shipwrecked mutineers, along with MacDonald.

At the time, the Shogunate’s interpreters and other linguists in the feudal clans in Japan by and large spoke Dutch, and only had a basic, mostly secondhand knowledge of English. So, while MacDonald waited in Nagasaki for the next ship to come get him, ironically, he got his wish to have cultural exchange and language instruction. The Shogunate, taking advantage of a native speaker while they had one, sent 14 interpreters to study English with MacDonald. So if you’re a former JET or other ALT who works/worked in Japan, Ranald MacDonald was the first one to do what you’re doing!

But the US government’s agents in East Asia were on the move.

Portrait of USS Preble. Image in PD 

Enter Captain James Glynn, commanding USS Preble, a sloop of the US Navy’s East India Squadron. There had been prior American attempts, again driven by whalers, to force diplomatic relations on the Tokugawa Shogunate, but they had never panned out. But Glynn had a mission to pick up castaways, and received orders that he was not to back down in pursuing negotiations with the Shogunate if at all possible.

So while MacDonald kept busy teaching English in Nagasaki, the Preble set sail for Japan.

* * *

Having received word from Joseph Henrij Levijssohn, Dutch factor of Dejima, that the whaler Lagoda’s 15 mutineers needed urgent repatriation due to harsh conditions of confinement by the Shogunate authorities, the USS Preble under the command of Captain James Glynn (1800-1871) sailed to Nagasaki from Canton, China, with the mission of recovering the mutineers, who were then being held in confinement by the Nagasaki Magistrate. Preble, named for early US naval officer Commodore Edward Preble (1761-1807) and the 2nd ship to bear the name, was a 16-gun sloop of war, built in 1839 and commissioned in 1840 at Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine. First serving with the US Navy’s African Squadron, she transferred to the Pacific Squadron in 1846, where she took part in the Mexican-American War, before continuing on to the East India Squadron, which was the squadron to which she belonged in 1848. 1848 found her under the command of James Glynn, and the squadron under the command of Commodore David Geisinger (1790-1860).

In his later deposition to Captain Glynn, Ranald MacDonald related that he had arrived in Nagasaki on 15 October 1848. After trampling on an image of the Virgin Mary (the type of image called in Japanese a fumi-e, a “stepping image,” meant to prove that a person wasn’t Catholic), he was interrogated by “the governor.” While there was no set method for translation of Japanese titles into English at the time, we can reasonably assume given the fumi-e and the status of Nagasaki as a city under direct Shogunate control, that this was the Nagasaki magistrate, who as best as I can work out given sources on hand, was either Inaba Masanobu or Hiraga Katsusada, both of them Tokugawa vassals. After figuring out that he wasn’t a Catholic, the magistrate had a range of questions for MacDonald– where was he from? What ship did he arrive on? Who was its captain? Why had it sailed into Japanese waters? 

Relaying these questions was an interpreter named Moriyama Einosuke (1820-1872). He was already well versed in Dutch, but was one of the few people in Japan at the time who had any command of English at all. Per MacDonald’s testimony, Moriyama was one of the Japanese officials who was most regularly with him. As we’ll see later, he left quite an impression on Moriyama.


Portrait of Moriyama Einosuke (left). Image in Public Domain

“The common people appeared to be amiable and friendly, but the government agents were the reverse,” MacDonald noted in his testimony to Glynn. And he discovered that the interpreters assigned to him, most notably Moriyama, were interested in improving their grasp of English. Fourteen men studied with MacDonald in this way: Nishi Yoichiro, Uemura Sakushichiro, Nishi Keitaro, Ogawa Keijuro, Shioya Tanesaburo, Nakayama Hyoma, Inomata Dennosuke, Shizuki Tatsuichiro, Iwase Yashiro, Hori Ichiro, Shige Takanosuke, Namura Tsunenosuke, Motoki Shozaemon, and of course, Moriyama Einosuke himself. Almost daily these men studied with him.  They would read to him, he would correct their pronounciation and explain meanings as needed. As opposed to earlier English instruction which happened piecemeal and through Dutch speakers whose own grasp of English was non-native, this was the first proper English instruction to take place in Japan.

MacDonald was kept in the custody of the Nagasaki magistrate until the 24th of April, when he was handed over to the Dutch factor Levijssohn, while negotiations were underway with Captain Glynn. 

Per its logbook, Preble arrived off Nagasaki on the 18th of April (though MacDonald says he heard guns firing to announce Preble’s approach on the 17th); its entry into the harbor was initially blocked by coast patrol boats of the Shogunate, but Glynn forced his way through their picket line, anchoring inside the harbor and refusing to move until his demands, chief of which was repatriation of the Lagoda mutineers. With a bit of help from the Dutch factor at Dejima, negotiation did happen, and was concluded successfully, as MacDonald noted:

“On the morning of the twenty-sixth of April, the interpreter came to my prison, and exhibited a letter, translated into English, purporting to be a communication to the commanding officer of the Preble, requiring him to leave the harbor of [Nagasaki], on the reception of the fifteen men.”

Per Preble’s log, the ship left Nagasaki on April 27th; MacDonald’s deposition to Captain Glynn was given 3 days later, en route to Woosung (modern Wusong, in northern Shanghai). Ranald MacDonald’s time in Japan was over.

On reaching Hong Kong on May 21, MacDonald disembarked from Preble and took the long way home, by way of Australia and Europe. He returned home to Canada in 1853. Despite several more business ventures and travels, he was unable to escape financial hardship at the end of his life. He died in 1894 in Washington State, where he’s buried in Ferry County.

* * *

Our story doesn’t end here.

Captain Glynn’s report was influential in shaping US policy toward Japan in the near term, and sure enough, a mere 4 years later, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry’s fleet anchored off Uraga Bay to deliver President Millard Fillmore’s letter to the shogun urging (backed up by Perry’s naval guns) the opening of Japan, and achieved by sheer firepower what Glynn could not achieve with a single ship. Initial discussions with the local Shogunate officials happened via Dutch- and Chinese-speaking Japanese interpreters–Perry, in turn, had brought along Samuel Wells Williams (1812-1884) as an interpreter. Williams was a missionary and linguist who worked in Canton (modern Guangzhou) for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Years earlier, he had been on the Morrison mission, an abortive, private attempt to open diplomatic negotiations with the Japanese government under the pretext of returning Japanese castaways; he was fluent in Chinese and had some knowledge of Dutch and Japanese as well.

Samuel Wells Willams, sketched by Hibata Osuke. Image in PD

Williams was one of the handful of people allowed to keep a private journal of the Perry mission. In his entry for Friday, March 3, 1854, he noted the arrival of a “new and superior interpreter” from Nagasaki, who came up in a hurry to aid in the negotiations, then in their second phase. Williams said that the man “speaks English well enough to render any other interpreter unnecessary,” and that:

“He inquired for the captain and officers of the ” Preble,” and asked if Ronald McDonald was well, or if we knew him.”

The interpreter was Moriyama Einosuke.

Works Cited

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