The Ghost of Namamugi by Robert S.G. Fletcher

The Ghost of Namamugi. Charles Lenox Richardson and the Anglo-Satsuma War
by Robert S.G. Fletcher
Renaissance Books (2019)
ISBN-13: 978-1898823834

Review by Trevor Skingle

On 14th September 1862 a merchant recently arrived in Japan from Shanghai, Charles Lenox Richardson, set out from Yokohama on horseback on a sightseeing trip. He was accompanied by two other merchants, Woodthorpe Charles Clarke, an old friend from Shanghai who worked in an American owned shop in Yokohama, and William Marshall, the principle merchant of Yokohama traders Marshall and Hart Ltd.. Margaret Watson Borradaile, the wife of a British Merchant living in Hong Kong and Marshall’s sister-in-law, was also with them. They were travelling along the Tokaido road heading via Kanagawa towards the Kawasaki Daishi-ji temple.

Travelling in the opposite direction was Regent Shimazu Hisamitsu (aka Shimazu Saburo) representing his young son Lord Shimazu Tadayoshi, the twelfth and last Daimyo of Satsuma Domain in Kyushu. He was travelling to Kyoto after a stay in Edo (now Tokyo) where he had been helping to promote a political partnership between the Imperial Court, the Shogunate and the great south-western domains of Satsuma, Choshu, Hizen and Tosa. This had been undertaken as part of the Bunkyu Era Reforms of 1862 which were intended to relax the restrictions placed on Daimyo by former Tairo (Senior Minister) Ii Naosuke during the purges of the Ansei Era. He was accompanied by a large retinue which included two hundred Satsuma samurai.

Fictionalised at the start of James Clavell’s novel Gai-jin, the events which occurred when both parties converged at the then small village of Namamugi, some 9km out of Yokohama, would reverberate down the years in the minds of both Japanese and Western politicians, press, and academics.

The Ghost of Namamugi is the most recent English language publication to attempt to explain the wider context which led to this incident and its repercussions. This book is also an attempt to illustrate the background and character of the ill-fated protagonist Charles Lenox Richardson through, amongst other things, the inclusion of his family correspondence whilst in China and Japan, made available for public consumption for the first time.

The book is broken down into two parts. Part One consists of four chapters while Part Two includes the correspondence of Charles Lenox Richardson. The first chapter looks into Richardson’s family background as well as his development as a trainee in the merchant community in the foreign settlement in Shanghai. It also explores how these experiences may have affected his attitudes, deportment and reputation.

The second chapter covers the Anglo-Satsuma War and the exchange of fire between British gunboats and the on-shore Satsuma batteries at Kagoshima in southern Kyushu. This chapter introduces the Namamugi Incident and makes a preliminary investigation into the subsequent state of British mercantile attitudes in Japan as a consequence. It also delves into the attitude and responses of the merchant community towards the Chargé d’affaires in Japan, Colonel Edward St. John Neale, as a result of his perceived inaction after the attack (he was later vindicated by the British Government).

In the third chapter there is a more in depth investigation into, and analysis of, the general attitudes of the British Press and the merchant community to the responses of the British authorities to the Japanese. It examines the merchants’ perceived lack of trading freedom and their attempts to leverage British trade policy towards Japan in order to enhance their trading fortunes to the degree that they themselves felt was acceptable, in a way somewhat analogous to Eisenhower’s Military-Industrial complex.

The final fourth chapter of part one looks at the political turmoil and the repercussions arising from the destruction of the city of Kagoshima. It also analyses the rehabilitation-vindication of Colonel Neale and how his character and the narrative of Richardson’s death changed in the years after the incident. How Britain’s relationship with Japan was affected is also explored in this chapter.

Part One is very evocative of the similar state of thinking and attitudes within the mercantile communities at that time within both China and Japan, and what they felt could be achieved in Japan with the help of a combination of the British Government’s Trade and Military policies. How that had been achieved in China is underpinned in much more detail by many of the footnotes in Part Two.

Part Two contains Richardson’s correspondence from January 1853 up to June 1862. It covers his departure for China and residence in Shanghai, and a single last letter from Yokohama in Japan dated 3rd September 1862, eleven days before his death.

There is a good balance between the first part of the book and this second part which gives a really fascinating and intimate window onto Richardson’s character, the ebb and flow of his fortunes during his time in Shanghai and his relationships (both professional and personal). The book is also useful in understanding the relationships between the British Foreign Settlement and the Chinese, and the vicissitudes of Chinese politics and resultant internal strife at the time. The single last letter from Yokohama is a surprisingly upbeat missive given the somewhat dour picture painted of Richardson over the years as a result of the incident and his part in it. What does come across in his correspondence, apart from explaining an incident where he sustained an injury to his hand knocking down a Chinese man who had been insolent, is the lack of any detail about the British communities’ engagement and social interaction with the local Chinese community. This lack is something which also comes across in Part One in relation to social interactions between the British Community and the local Japanese. . The overall picture wasn’t quite as gloomy as it might seem in this book.

Though fundamentally academic the book is written in a way which makes it relatively accessible for non-academics and, though the account is non-sequential in parts, it is laid out in such a way as to make it comparatively easy to follow events and their consequences. Though there is a feel that the author is writing for those who may already be aware of the incident, there is also a good introduction which neatly summarises the issues as the author perceives them and explains the layout of the book.

However the omission of information from other reports has resulted in what I felt was a slightly skewed narrative, the addition of which might have made for a more balanced account illustrating the perspectives from both the British and the Japanese points of view whilst still allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions. For example; fuller testimonies from both sides of the incident itself up to the moment when Shimazu Hisamitsu apparently gave the order for todome (coup de grâce) or the admonitions given by Satsuma to the Shogunate prior to the date of Hisamitsu’s procession about the ‘intolerable’ behaviour of foreigners on the road might have proved interesting. Similarly, explaining the consequent warnings given by the Shogunate to Colonel Neale and the British for foreigners to stay away from the Tokaido Road during Hisamitsu’s journey and the Shogun’s communication to Hisamitsu requesting his restraint when dealing with any foreigners he might meet. Other perspectives that might have also proved interesting were  the comments made about the reasons for Charles’ departure for Shanghai made by his uncle and the opposing view of Charles from Admiral Kuper. Also other interesting evidence to consider could be the tomowari (an act of extreme disrespect under the Laws for the Military Houses) as a potential cause of the incident, Dr. Willis’s autopsy report which objectively illustrates the extent of Richardson’s injuries and the exchange of letters and a record of what was said during the visit by the Satsuma Envoy Ijichi Shoji to Admiral Kuper’s flagship H.M.S. Euryalis prior to the commencement of hostilities at Kagoshima. Finally, a chapter on the political turmoil that was engulfing Japan at that time, including the tensions between the opposing camps of kobu gattai (Union of Court and Camp) and sonno joi (Revere the Emperor and Expel the Barbarian – which was inspiring attacks against foreigners) and how this affected the relationships between the various Japanese factions, and between them and the Treaty Powers could also have been of interest.

Whilst there are plenty of illustrations to highlight some of the key issues relating to this pivotal collision of cultures, it might have also helped to include a couple of maps, firstly to help place the incident geographically by showing the locations in modern Namamugi where the initial confrontation took place and where the subsequent todome was given (both of which are today marked by monuments); and secondly to show the location of Richardson’s grave between the later graves of Clarke and Marshall (his male companions at Namamugi) in the 22nd section of the Foreigners Cemetery in Yokohama (normally not open to the public but that can be seen through the fence from the road on the Motomachi side of the cemetery). Unfortunately for those interested in further reading no bibliography has been provided though this omission is balanced out with plenty of references in the text alongside abundant footnotes.

Indicative of the great effect that it had, the incident continues to prompt the publication of articles and books such as this. All in all it’s a very interesting read for anyone curious about the bakumatsu period, the opening up of Japan at the end of sakoku (Japan’s enforced isolation), and the British expat community in Japan at the time. Unfortunately, as with many academic books, this in depth analysis is a tad on the expensive side.

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