The Loo-Choo Naval Mission, 1846–1861

From: American Missionaries, Christian Oyatoi, and Japan 1859–73, by Hamish Ion (UBC Press, 2009), pp. 9-11:

Although Britain was loath to open trade relations with Japan, British naval officers were instrumental in beginning what is now considered by many (especially Japanese Anglicans) to be the first Protestant mission to the Japanese, the Loo-Choo Naval Mission. Bernard Jean Bettelheim and his English wife were associated with the British Anglican Church Missionary Society and were the Loo-Choo Naval Mission’s resident medical missionary couple in Naha between 1846 and 1854. A miserable time Bettelheim had of it, for he was beaten and ostracized by the Ryūkyūans and held in contempt by commanders of Royal Navy gunboats that infrequently visited them. In early February 1852, Bettelheim wrote to Commander Charles Shadwell of HMS Phoenix complaining about his treatment at the hands of Japanese soldiers and arguing that British settlers would never be safe until gunboat diplomacy was used to teach the Japanese a lesson. Shadwell strongly disagreed about the need for gunboat diplomacy and thought Bettelheim exaggerated his complaints about the Ryūkyūan authorities. In his report on his visit to the Ryūkyūs, Shadwell wrote that Bettelheim’s enthusiastic zeal was undoubted but that he was narrow-minded in his view of the world and that his isolation in Naha had led to “an idiosyncratic turn of mind which renders him an unsafe guide in matters which might involve grave political consequences.” The charge that Bettelheim was narrow-minded was a common criticism of evangelistically minded missionaries, but there is no doubt that he had developed in Naha an idiosyncratic turn of mind.

Bettelheim fared little better when Commodore Perry first visited Naha in May 1853. He had a long conversation with Perry soon after his arrival, very likely giving him a full report of his frustrations with the Ryūkyūans and what he saw as their negative characteristics. McOmie has suggested that as a result of his meeting with Bettelheim/ Perry was prepared to match the chicanery and duplicity that Bettelheim saw in the Okinawan authorities with “a little Yankee diplomacy.” By the end of Perry’s visit to Naha, however. Perry’s relations with Bettelheim were not good, and the commodore rejected Bettelheim’s offer to join the expedition to Japan as an interpreter. This was much to the relief of Samuel Wells Williams, the expedition’s missionary interpreter, who had developed a real dislike for Bettelheim while Perry’s flagship was anchored off Naha. Part of the problem was Bettelheim’s acting as an agent for the American warships in the purchase of provisions during their extended visits in 1853 and 1854, leading to suspicions that he was lining his own pockets. Yet, the officers of USS Plymouth thought his services had been so valuable to them during the winter of 1853 that they presented him with a silver goblet worth $80. Attitudes toward Bettelheim among Americans with Perry’s squadron were mixed. Lieutenant George Henry Preble of the USS Macedonian was generally sympathetic, but he thought that despite Bettelheim’s sincerity and enthusiasm, he was the worst kind of person to be a missionary to the Ryūkyūans: his great contempt for them meant that he knew less about the Ryūkyūans after eight years than some knew after eight months. William Heine, the official artist with Perry, clearly liked Bettelheim. Heine was very impressed when he became, by chance one night in February 1854, an unseen onlooker at the Bettelheim family’s evening prayers. The German-speaking Heine was a young man and possibly a little homesick, which might account for why he found the prayers of a close-knit family so touching. His overall generosity of feeling toward Bettelheim might also be a reflection that the polylingual missionary’s German was better than his English. On 15 January 1854, Bettelheim preached aboard the Macedonian; Preble recorded that “it was an ingenious and animated discourse to which his foreign accentuation and broken English gave additional force. Reading the Hymns was rather a stumbling block to him but he showed he conceived their sense.” Since Bettelheim was unable to convert the Ryūkyūans to Christianity, Preble thought his chief contribution was the translation of the Scriptures into Ryūkyūan language and the construction of a Ryūkyūan dictionary. A linguist said to have mastered thirteen languages, Bettelheim managed to translate four chapters of the New Testament into the Ryūkyūan language. This work was probably the most positive and lasting legacy of his sojourn in Naha. Under pressure from the Ryūkyūan authorities. Perry agreed to evacuate the Bettelheims from Naha.

In March 1854, Perry’s supply ship Supply took Bettelheim’s family to Shanghai, and later in June Bettelheim himself left Naha for good aboard USS Powhatan. He left behind his replacement, C.H. Moreton, formerly of the London Missionary Society, and Moreton’s wife, who had arrived in Naha that February, to continue on the mission alone. Bettelheim made the first step toward establishing Protestant missions in metropolitan Japan, which the northward movement of American warships under Perry from the Ryūkyūs presaged. Unfortunately, in December 1855, his successor, Moreton, fell ill and left Naha to return home. There was difficulty finding another missionary, and in 1861 the Loo-Choo Naval Mission was formally ended. What monies were left over were given to the British Anglican Church Missionary Society for the development of its future Japan mission, which eventually began in 1869.

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Filed under Japan, language, religion, U.K., U.S.

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