(Friday Night History) The Phaeton Incident

Pictured: Phaeton as depicted by a Japanese artist. (source PD)

Of all the European people in 19th century Japanese history, one of the ones with the curious distinction of longest name had to have been Admiral Sir Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew. That’s spelled P-e-l-l-e-w. Pellew was Cornish, and came from a family with a naval tradition– indeed, he grew up on and around ships commanded by his father, Admiral Edward Pellew. In July 1808, at the young age of 19, the younger Pellew already had a navy career over a decade long, when he was given command of the 38-gun HMS Phaeton and thus immediately a frontline commander in an intercontinental war against the French Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. Part of that empire– first as a client state from 1806 to 1810, then as a direct possession until 1813– was the Netherlands. As you might already know, the Netherlands was the only European power allowed to trade with Tokugawa Japan since Portugal and Spain were banned on religious grounds and the English lost interest, in the mid 17th century. And one of the Netherlands’ most far-flung outposts, under the control of the Dutch East India Company, was the trading station of Dejima, a little fan-shaped island in Nagasaki harbor.

Pellew’s mandate in 1808 to prosecute the war against the French Empire included Dutch targets that were under the nominal control of the Napoleonic puppet government, and the colonies and trading posts in that part of the world were run by the Dutch East India Company. With British sea control being so supreme at the time, the Dutch were chartering vessels from the US, which was neutral in this war, to handle resupply for the Dutch Pacific imperial posessions. So the British had the clear strategic advantage on the eve of this incident.

Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew. Image PD 

Nagasaki, of course, was the only place in Japan through which legal international trade was allowed during the Edo period. China, Korea, and Holland were the three countries with permission to send people through Nagasaki, and the city was a direct possession of the Tokugawa Shogunate, though at the territorial extreme of places under direct Shogunal control. Indeed, primarily responsible for the defense of Nagasaki Harbor were two nearby feudal clans, the Kuroda of Fukuoka domain and Nabeshima of Saga domain. These two domains rotated duty with a force of about a thousand at any given time. At the time of Phaeton’s arrival, Saga was on duty, but most of that force was absent, having left their posts under the assumption that nothing of note was going to happen that required their attention. This left a skeleton force of several dozen.

On the hunt for Dutch shipping, Phaeton arrived from Macao in the afternoon of the 4th, under Dutch colors, which drew the attention of the East India Company employees on Dejima. Their leader at the time was Hendrik Doeff, who’d held the post for several years amidst the Napoleonic wars and the attendant instability of regular shipping to and from Nagasaki. 

At about 5:30 PM on the 4th, Dirk Gozeman and Gerrit Schimmel. two Dutch officials. rowed out to Phaeton, accompanied by Japanese interpreters Nakayama Sakusaburo and Yokoyama Katsunojo and several others. It wasn’t until Phaeton lowered a boat and took the Japanese vessel in tow that it became obvious that it was a British and not Dutch vessel. While some Japanese crew leapt overboard and swam away, others including the interpreters didn’t. Pellew’s men let the remaining Japanese return to Nagasaki, keeping the two Dutch men as hostages. By 6, Phaeton moved to anchor off the small island of Takaboko-jima. 

Sitting just outside the bay and unsure of what waited in the bay, and whether a Dutch warship lay in wait, Pellew sent out small scouting craft to make observations. After 7:00, the scouts reported back. Apart from a few Chinese vessels, there was no sign of a Dutch man of war, and thus no military reason to do much of anything in the bay. But this is only the beginning of our story.

On the Japanese side, though, there was a rightful measure of fear and consternation. The ship was visibly heavily armed, and as noted, the forts guarded by Saga troops were severely understaffed. Interestingly, Takaboko-jima was the site of one of those forts. According to Noell Wilson, Takaboko had some artillery, seven pieces in total, the largest piece being a 12 pound cannon. Compare that to Phaeton’s “thirty-eight 18-pound cannon, eight 32-pound carronades, and two carronades of an unspecified caliber, so harbor officials were roughly accurate in counting fifty cannon on board.” City magistrate Matsudaira Yasuhide wrote to his superiors in Edo the following morning, and sounded the alarm for reinforcements from neighboring domains, who were, after all, responsible for the city’s defense.

Meanwhile, having understood that there was no Dutch shipping to be raided, Pellew wrote a letter, carried by Gozeman as messenger. This message indicated that since there were no Dutch ships, they’d depart, but would first need to resupply. Bear in mind, though, that the British and Japanese sides did not have a language in common, and so the message had to be translated through the Dutch East India Company people on Dejima first, who– according to some recent historians– quite likely mistranslated the message in order to make Pellew sound more threatening than he actually was. And given that there was no independent way for the city magistrate or any other Japanese official to cross-check, there was no choice but to follow the Dutch translation. There was indeed initial provision of supplies to the British crew, and consequently, at about 9 PM, Pellew released Gozeman and Schimmel.

Hendrik Doeff, Dutch official then in charge of Dejima. Image PD.

Despite this, into the night of the 5th, there was spirited discussion involving both Japanese and Dutch officials– Matsudaira Yasuhide, the city magistrate, even consulted Doeff about potentially blocking the passage out of Nagasaki Bay to prevent Phaeton’s escape. This spitballing of ideas to block Phaeton’s departure continued to the following morning. However, simultaneously, the magistrate wrote a friendly letter to Pellew, and dispatched it along with a 2nd round of resupply. There were reinforcements arriving from nearby domains– Omura Sumiyoshi of Omura domain arrived with troops on the morning of the 6th, as well. But it was soon a moot point: by noon, Pellew had Phaeton under sail and leaving the harbor.

This was the only direct intrusion of the Napoleonic Wars in Tokugawa Japan, but the fallout only began there.

Having slipped up in his duty of protecting Nagasaki Harbor, the city magistrate Matsudaira Yasuhide took his own life on the night of the 6th, his body discovered by a physician, a Dr. Tanabe, the following morning. In the note he left behind, the magistrate particularly castigated Saga domain for having abandoned its posts and thus its duty of protecting Nagasaki harbor. And indeed, the fallout from this incident impacted Saga domain and its priorities. First, it lost its incumbency of coast guard duty in the Nagasaki area. Second, the Saga daimyo, Nabeshima Narinao, was placed under house arrest for 100 days. The aftermath of his domain’s powerlessness had a formative influence on Narinao and the priorities of he and his heirs: Nabeshima Naomasa, the visionary Saga lord who as we’ve seen in preceding weeks invested so heavily in everything from military modernization to robotics to vaccination, was Narinao’s son. 

Nabeshima Naomasa, the visionary Saga daimyo influenced by events during his father’s reign. Image PD.

The Phaeton incident also kickstarted serious Japanese study of English. Realizing that it had no translators or interpreters with any appreciable level of the language, the Shogunate established the Office for Translation of Barbarian Books (Bansho Wage Goyō) and ordered the compilation of English dictionaries and the general improvement of its interpreters’ ability in English. Shogunate retainer and Dutch interpreter Motoki Shōzaemon– who we met briefly in the episode about Ranald MacDonald– compiled A Japanese Interpretation of the English Language (Anguria Kokugo Wage 諳厄利亜国語和解) in 1811, soon followed by A Collection of English Words (Anguria Gorin Taisei 諳厄利亜語林大成) in 1814. You can check out a fully digitized copy of Anguria Kokugo Wage here: http://base1.nijl.ac.jp/iview/Frame.jsp?DB_ID=G0003917KTM&C_CODE=0091-027402

It wouldn’t be until Ranald MacDonald’s visit in 1848 that English language instruction by a native speaker first came to Japan, but this was the beginning. Foreign language knowledge is well known as a strategic asset– and the language of a potentially hostile external power, all the more so. A common saying in Armenian is Քու թշնամիիդ լեզուն քու լեզուէդ աւելի լա՛ւ գիտցիր– Know your enemy’s language better than your own. So I think this bears some consideration in our understanding of Japan in the Edo period, that even if its interactions with the rest of the world were significantly curtailed by choice, it was not ignorant of other countries, their political developments, and their languages.

But in this case, it took having no language in common with a potentially hostile British vessel, before serious attention was paid to English as a language of interest for the Shogunate. So, to find out what happened in the wake of this policy change, we’ll pick up with Motoki’s creation of Anguria Kokugo Wage next week.

And what happened to Pellew? Well, he was knighted in 1836 and made an admiral in 1858, but as Timon Screech observes, he was one of few commanders to provoke no fewer than 3, count them, 3 mutinies– so, a lot of his later career was deskbound. Pellew died in 1861, when Dutch and some American instructors were helping Japanese instructors teach the first cadres of the Shogunate Navy officers at the Shogunate Naval Academy in Nagasaki Harbor.

It seems the Dutch had the last laugh.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory

Now– questions?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s