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The Story of the Indian Oak

By: David Knickerbocker

Date Posted: 2002-03-08

On Aug. 14, 1840 the Indian Oak, an English ship owned by the East India Company, was shipwrecked off the shore of Chatan in a typhoon. At the time, salvaging the remains of a shipwreck was common throughout Asia and Europe; however, about 90 Chatan villagers used some 15 canoes to rescue not only the cargo but also all 67 members of the crew. Once rescued, these unexpected visitors were treated with great hospitality. The Chatan villagers built them a house and brought pigs, cows, fresh water, eggs, vegetables and firewood -- a great sacrifice for a relatively poor community. However, the villagers’ generosity did not stop there. The inhabitants of Chatan decided to help their new friends return home by building them a brand-new ship. Using timbers from the wrecked ship as well as wood from the island’s forests, about 100 Okinawans set to work constructing a durable 73-foot, 180-ton Chinese-style vessel.

Keeping such an event a secret was impossible. News spread quickly, and two weeks into the construction of the new ship, some 300 samurai warriors from the Satsuma clan in Kyushu came to intimidate and extract tribute from the peaceful Okinawans. The English, whose empire was built on trade and maintained by strong naval firepower, were not known for shying away from the heat of battle, so this was a potentially explosive situation. However, the Ryukyuans calmed both sides, and no violence erupted. Seeing the hard work done by the locals and how, due to their industry and foresight, the British would soon be leaving the Satsuma warlord was calmed and left the islanders to their task. Twenty-seven days after the shipwreck the new boat was finished and ready to return the sailors to their base in India.

Two weeks later the British Navy tracked down the whereabouts of the Indian Oak, and two warships arrived to extract the crew from Okinawa. However, the new ship was finished, and being judged sturdy enough to withstand the open sea, the crew felt it would be a sin to not show appreciation for the kindness and great efforts of the locals by leaving it on Okinawa. After giving thanks to the kind and generous islanders the crew boarded their new ship and sailed away.

The kindness shown by the Chatan villagers was even more remarkable when, considering the close relationship the Ryukyu Islands had with China, a power to whose emperors the islands had paid tribute for centuries, the British were technically their enemies because they were at war with China at the time. They were essentially helping the enemy, but their feelings for fellow human beings in dire danger and immediate need overrode all other considerations.

In a letter from Lt. J. J. Bowman, one of the rescued crew members, to Lt. H.J. Clifford and Hon. Secretary Dingle of Ireland, Bowman states: “I have great pleasure in acknowledging the receipt of your favor of the 4th of March last, and its enclosures. My health and absence from Calcutta prevented me from receiving and acknowledging your interesting communication relative to these kind and good people of the great Loochoo [Ryukyu] islands. I can only assure you of the interest I must ever feel in the welfare of these excellent people; their great hospitality and kindness to myself and shipmates when thrown shipwrecked and naked on their coast. Those kindhearted men received us as friends; clothed, fed, and housed us; built us a ship of about one hundred and eighty tons. … I shall ever consider that a heavy debt of gratitude is due by me and all those who were, by the wreck of the Transport “Indian Oak”, thrown upon their bounty.”

In memory of its good and kindly ancestors, Chatan City has put up a monument -- a life-sized replica of the Indian Oak that sits in Araha Park. 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. The city has also coined the well-deserved phrase, “Chatan, Home of the Good Samaritan.”

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