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British Prime Minister Invited to View Historic Chatan Ship Replica

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2000-06-10

In Araha Park, just back from the Hamby Town beach, is a life size replica of a wooden sailing ship. A popular place for kids to play, it has ramps to clamber over, netting for scaling one side and a tube to slide down from the deck to the ground. It is being given a facelift for the G8 Summit and Chatan City is hoping to cash in on the fascinating real life story that lies behind the model.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been invited to the site, for the ship was modeled on one in his country’s 19th Century Royal Navy vessels. It was wrecked on the Chatan beach in August 1840. At the time the English were involved in one of their innumerable wars, this time with China. It had started the previous year and was to continue for two more years.

At issue was the British desire to ship one very profitable commodity from its colony in India to a bunch of barren rocks off Canton, called Hong Kong. The empty ships would then load up with another equally profitable cargo, sail across the ocean and sell it in England. Just another well thought out trading venture, you might suppose, adding another dot of red to the empire that covered a quarter of the globe.

In this case however, one of the commodities was more controversial than the other. The British East India Company, the driving force behind the commerce of the Empire, had opium plantations in India. The stuff could be shipped in bulk to China, where opium was the drug of choice among certain sections of society.

Following the logic of other commercial enterprises, the East India Company wanted to enlarge the market in China by lowering prices, creating more smoking customers and reaping vast rewards. (Much like Marlboro, Philip Morris and British-American Tobacco today, in fact). Then boatloads of tea could be taken from China to England, boosting profits even more.

One of the trading ships involved in the Opium War was called the Indian Oak. It was in the East China Sea, heading south in the general direction of Macau, to attack Chinese forces in the Shuzan Islands, but it got lost in a storm. In those days there was often a problem fixing the longitudinal positions of ships. This was apparently why the ship, which had many Indian crew aboard, found itself running aground in Okinawa on the morning of August 14, 1840.

In those days foreign ships wrecked in Japan could not expect a warm welcome. Mariners shipwrecked on Japanese shores were subject to punishment for Violation of the National Islolation Policy laws. Fortunately for the crew of the Indian Oak, a gentler culture prevailed in the Ryuku Islands, which had not yet been colonized by Japan.

The storm that blew the Indian Oak onto Chatan Beach must have been a severe one. It is recorded that at 11 a.m. when the stricken ship’s crew were trying to struggle ashore, it was so dark that many Chatan people went to the beach holding torches. From noon to midnight, they managed to extricate the crew from the smashing waves and boiling waters. All 67 crew members were successfully rescued.

Hey were given dry food, clothing and solace by the villagers. Communication was helped considerably by a Ryukuan called Masatsugu Aniya, who spoke English. He had learnt it from an Englishman who had stayed on the islands in 1816, Basil Hall. Aniya had acted as translator when the British ship Blossom had arrived in 1827 and again ten years later with the arrival of the American ship Morrison.

The day after the Indian Oak crew had been saved, their rescuers paddled canoes out to the stricken ship and started unloading the very valuable cargo. There was gold, silver, valuable instruments made in England that the villagers had never seen before. The ship was a very advanced piece of technology for its day, belonging to the richest and most powerful country in the world.

In a different place the temptation to steal its treasure or its technological hardware might have proved irresistible, but not in the Ryuku Islands. It took a week to completely unload the ship. Around 90 villagers used about 15 canoes (sabanis) to complete the task.

Crews of such boats (as today) contained very varied samples of humanity. Mid 19th Century armed East India Company vessels were a microcosm of the Empire. The Indian Oak probably had some seasoned officers aboard from the upper ranks of society, though some of these would have been from humble backgrounds too, who had risen through the ranks on merit.

There would, in addition, have been a substantial section of battle hardened roughnecks and as the records tell us, there were many Indians. The records also tell us the crew were very impressed that not one item was stolen during the villagers’ Herculean efforts to save the contents of the ship, before the forces of nature broke it apart.

The hospitable islanders also built a house for their unexpected guests, next to the village assembly hall. The house had a kitchen, storage room and washroom. The villagers brought pigs and cows for the foreign crew, which must have been a sacrifice for a relatively poor community. They also carried fresh water, eggs, vegetables and firewood to the house.

The astonishing generosity did not stop here. The last century’s inhabitants of Chatan decided to help their new friends home by building them a new ship. Using timbers from the wrecked British ship, augmented by wood from the island’s forests, about 100 Okinawans set to work constructing a large Chinese-style vessel. They set to work with a will each day.

Keeping an event like this shipwreck secret was of course impossible. News of the castaways spread and two weeks into the construction, on August 30 1840, some regional muscle arrived, in the shape of 300 samurai warriors from the Satsuma clan in Kyushu. The English, whose empire was built on trade and kept together by formidable naval firepower, were not known for shying away from a fight.

The Satsuma warlord, having been outmanouevered by more powerful warrior clans in Kyushu, was bent on intimidating and exacting tribute from unwarlike Okinawans (who had been banned from carrying weapons centuries before by one of their kings, so had devoted their energies instead to poetry and music) Any incursions by outsiders into territory the samurai lord was determined to dominate, was not likely to please him.

It was a potentially explosive situation. The Ryukuns calmed both sides down and no violence erupted. The Satsuma warlord was no doubt mollified by the fact that, due to the Okinawans’ industry and foresight, the British would soon be leaving on the ship being built for them. Work on it continued at a furious pace and 27 days after the shipwreck, a 73 foot, 180 tonner was ready to take the sailors back to their base in India.

Two weeks later Her Majesty’s Navy had tracked down the whereabouts of the Company ship and two British warships arrived to take the crew off the island. However the new Ryukuan built vessel was ready. It was judged sturdy enough and it was felt it would be wrong not to show appreciation for the great efforts of the islanders by leaving it in Okinawa. The British sailed away with profuse thanks for the life-saving kindness they had received during their 43 days stay on the island.

This compassion was all the more remarkable, considering the long and close relationship the Ryukyu Islands had with China, a suzerain power to whose emperors the islands had paid tribute for centuries. The islanders knew about Great Britain’s war with China and so, technically, the British were their enemies.

However, it seems that their feelings for fellow humans in dire danger and need, over-rode all other considerations.

It was also not the first time such an incident had happened in the locality. Forty three years before, in 1797, another English vessel, the Providence, was shipwrecked in Miyako. Its crew were similarly helped and taken care of by the islanders.

Both incidents are described in the diary of the Captain of the Indian Oak, J.J. Bowman. He published a book, “Loss of the Indian Oak” which spread the word in Europe about the legendary hospitality of Okinawan islanders.

As a footnote to the story, about 15 years ago some copper plates from the Indian Oak were found at the spot in Chatan where the ship was wrecked. They are thought to have been sealants against damage done to the ship’s timbers by barnacles and other parasitic sea creatures.

Chatan City has put up a monument in memory of its good and kindly ancestors and has invented the moniker “Chatan, Home of the Good Samaritan” which it hopes will get noticed at the G8 Summit. Chatan City wants to say: “Tony Blair, consider yourself invited ! Bring the children too!”

Directions: Coming from Kadena southward along Rte 58 take a right at Camp Foster Gate and in a short distance away, take a left down the road parallel to the ocean that runs through Hamby Town. Araha Park is on the right where the ceramic ‘Rolling Stone Fountain’ (not yet working) is, beside this road. The model of the Indian Oak is a short distance away. It is being renovated at the moment but will be ready for children to play on again July 1. There will be slides, tubes and rigging to play in. The area has a many restaurants and an ice cream vendor nearby. The beach itself is of fine, white, powdery, coral strewn sand.

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