Category Archives: Netherlands

Foreign Volunteers in the Boer War

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 433-435:

Stung by accusations that the war had been mismanaged, the British government ordered a change of command and appointed as commander-in-chief Field Marshal Frederick Roberts – ‘Lord Bobs’ – a diminutive, 67-year-old war hero, blind in one eye; but it was decided to leave Buller in charge of the Natal army. Two more divisions – the last readily available – were despatched from England. The government also realised that it had been trying to fight the wrong kind of war, relying too much on slow-moving infantry battalions to deal with mounted Boer riflemen using highly mobile tactics; British mobility needed to match Boer mobility. Britain called for civilian volunteers to join a new ‘Imperial Yeomanry’. Some 20,000 men from the ‘hunting and shooting’ fraternity signed up, including thirty-four members of parliament and peers. The City of London paid for one thousand volunteers. Further reinforcements came from other parts of the empire – from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. By January 1900, the total number of troops Britain had shipped to South Africa had reached 110,000. Additional support was provided by uitlander refugees and colonial volunteers formed into two mounted corps of their own – the Imperial Light Horse and the South African Light Horse – financed in part by Wernher, Beit & Co.

Even members of the Indian community in Natal – originally immigrants employed as indentured labourers to work on sugar plantations – volunteered to serve as stretcher-bearers. Their organiser was a 28-year-old lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, who had arrived from India in 1893, spending a year in Pretoria before settling in Durban. Gandhi expressed sympathy for the Boer cause but considered he was bound by loyalty to Britain. ‘I felt that, if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the British Empire.’ The Natal authorities at first turned down Gandhi’s offer. But after Black Week, their attitude changed. Gandhi’s ambulance corps of ‘free’ Indians and indentured labourers recruited 1,100 volunteers.

Just as the British won support from the empire, so Boer ranks were bolstered by foreign volunteers. Some 2,000 uitlanders – Germans, French, Dutch, Irish, Irish-Americans, Russians, Scandinavians, even some English – joined the Boer cause. Another 2,000 foreign volunteers arrived from abroad. A retired French army colonel, Count de Villebois-Mareuil, enlisted, hoping to capture Cecil Rhodes. ‘History will add a fresh flower to the glory of France,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘To take Kimberley and see the face of the Napoleon of the Cape.’ He rose to the rank of Vecht-generaal – combat general – but was killed in action in April 1900. In all, the Boer allies were able to raise armed forces totalling more than 70,000 men. In addition, about 10,000 Africans served as auxiliaries to Boer commandos – retainers, porters, gun-bearers and labourers – many of them conscripted under duress.

Yet early Boer advantages were soon frittered away by poor strategy. By committing such a large proportion of their forces to the siege of three towns, Boer generals lost the opportunity to drive deeper into Natal and the Cape Colony when both areas were highly vulnerable to mobile attack. As their forward thrusts began to ebb, they turned to a more defensive stance, preparing for a much tougher British assault. By December, the Boer offensive had reached its limits. Unlike 1881, there had been no crushing blow to induce the British to negotiate.

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Making Transvaal More Dutch, 1880s

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 170-172:

Of more concern to Kruger was how to protect the Boer character of the Transvaal from foreign influence. He proposed restrictions on immigration ‘in order to prevent the Boer nationality from being stifled’, but recognised that, with only a limited pool of trained manpower available amongst Transvaalers, foreign recruitment was unavoidable. His solution was to appeal for immigrants from Holland. ‘I apprehend the least danger from an invasion from Holland,’ he said. Addressing a huge crowd in Amsterdam during a European tour in 1884, he declared: ‘We have kept our own language, the language of the Netherlands people, who have fought eighty years for faith and freedom. Our people in the wilderness have kept their language and faith through every storm. Our whole struggle is bound up with this.’ Over the course of the next fifteen years, more than 5,000 Dutch immigrants arrived in the Transvaal, reinforcing the ranks of civil servants and teachers.

Kruger also used his immense authority to promote the Calvinist concept of national calling and destiny. To celebrate the return of the Transvaal’s independence in 1881, he organised a four-day ‘festival of thanksgiving’ at Paardekraal, where the year before burghers had vowed to defend the unity of the Volk and re-establish their republic. Speaking before a crowd of 12,000 Boers on the first day, 13 December, Kruger reminded them of the early struggle of the voortrekkers and of how each time God had guided them onward. The Great Trek, he said, was like the journey of the Israelites of the Old Testament leaving Egypt to escape the Pharaoh’s yoke, and he cited it as evidence that God had summoned the Boers on a similar mission to establish a promised land in southern Africa. They were thus a chosen people.

The last day of the festival, 16 December, was used for the same purpose. It marked the forty-third anniversary of the Boer victory at Blood River in 1838 when a commando of 468 trekkers, three Englishmen and sixty blacks faced some 10,000 Zulu warriors. In a battle lasting two hours, three trekkers were slightly wounded and none killed, but 3,000 Zulus lay dead. For Kruger, the victory at Blood River was a miracle demonstrating God’s support for the Boers and their special mission in Africa. Just as 16 December 1838 had been a turning point in the lives of the trekkers, said Kruger, so now 16 December 1881 was the beginning ‘of still greater salvation’.

The festival at Paardekraal became a five-yearly event, presided over by Kruger, with ever greater emphasis being placed on the significance of the Blood River victory – Dingaan’s Day, as it was called. The Transvaal government appointed a Dutch teacher to seek out survivors and record their memories. What became especially important was a pledge said to have been made by members of the commando a few days before the battle occurred that, if God granted them a victory, they would build a memorial church in his honour and commemorate the anniversary as a day of thanksgiving for ever more.

In his report of the battle, the commando leader, Andries Pretorius, did indeed refer to the covenant and, three years later, together with local people, he erected a church building at the Boer encampment at Pietermaritzburg in Natal. From 1861, however, the building was no longer used as a place of worship, but for commercial purposes. It became in turn a wagonmaker’s shop, a mineral water factory, a tea room, a blacksmith’s workshop, a school and, eventually, a woolshed. Nor, apparently, did most members of the commando take the covenant seriously. The covenant, in fact, fell rapidly into oblivion.

But facing the menace of British imperialism in the 1880s, Kruger and other prominent Afrikaners in the Transvaal sought to fortify morale by reviving public awareness of the covenant. Kruger argued that the setbacks the Boers had endured – from the British annexation of Natal in 1843 to the British annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 – were God’s chastisements for their failure to honour their vow. The Boer victory in 1881 was a sign of God’s continuing commitment.

Having regained independence, however, Kruger was allowed little respite from the attention of foreigners. In 1885, news arrived in Pretoria of a major gold discovery on the eastern border of the Transvaal.

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Rise of Boer Nationalism

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 81-82:

Meanwhile the wave of anger over Britain’s annexation of the Transvaal spread further afield to the Boer communities of the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony, stimulating old grievances. In the Free State there was lingering resentment over the way the British had intervened in 1868 to annex Basutoland in response to Moshoeshoe’s plea for help, just as it was about to be overrun by their own commandos; there had been further outrage when the British snatched the diamond fields of Griqualand from its grasp in 1871. The Free State now found itself surrounded by British-run territories, imperilling its own independence. Members of the Volksraad spoke up in favour of returning the Transvaal to Boer rule.

In the Cape, it gave a huge boost to a nascent cultural and political movement led by Boer intellectuals calling themselves Afrikaners. In Paarl, a small market town thirty-five miles from Cape Town, a Dutch Reformed Church minister, Stephanus du Toit, joined several associates in 1875 to found a society named Die Genootskap Van Regte Afrikaners – the Fellowship of True Afrikaners – dedicated to promoting the use of Afrikaans, a colloquial language commonly used in Boer farming communities throughout southern Africa. It had diverged from Dutch over the years, changing vowel sounds, adopting simplified syntax and incorporating loan words from languages that were spoken by slaves in the Cape in the seventeenth century – Malay, Portuguese creole and Khoikhoi. It was the language used between masters and servants and amongst the poorer sections of the Boer community. Upper and middle-class Boers, particularly those living in the western Cape, spoke ‘High Dutch’, the language of the church and the Bible, and regarded the Zuid-Afrikaansche taal with disdain, dismissing it as Hotnotstaal, a ‘Hottentot’ language, or a kombuistaal – a kitchen language. They also used English to a considerable extent, the only official language of the Colony and thus the language of commerce, law, administration and – increasingly – culture.

What Du Toit and his colleagues feared and resented most was the growing cultural domination of the British colonial regime, aided and abetted by Boers themselves. In a lecture given in 1876, the chief justice, Sir Henry de Villiers, described Afrikaans as being ‘poor in the number of its words, weak in its inflections, wanting in accuracy of meaning and incapable of expressing ideas connected with the higher spheres of thought’. The energy of colonists, he said, would be far better spent in appropriating English, ‘that rich and glorious language’, that ultimately would become ‘the language of South Africa’. Du Toit argued that a mother tongue was a person’s most precious possession: ‘The language of a nation expresses the character of that nation. Deprive a nation of the vehicle of its thoughts and you deprive it of the wisdom of its ancestors.’ He wanted to develop Afrikaans as a landstaal – a national language.

To spell out this message, in 1876 Du Toit launched Di Afrikaanse Patriot, the first newspaper to use an early form of Afrikaans. The following year he was the main author of a history entitled Die Geskiedenis van Ons Land in die Taal van Ons Volk – The History of Our Land in the Language of Our People. It was the first book to treat all Afrikaners, dispersed as they were among British colonies and independent republics, as a distinct people, occupying a distinct fatherland; and it linked them to a common destiny endowed by God: to rule over southern Africa and civilise its heathen inhabitants.

The book marked the beginning of a new historiography that would eventually take hold of Afrikanerdom, portraying Afrikaners as a valiant nation wrongfully oppressed by decades of British rule.

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Diamond Rush in South Africa, 1870s

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 13-14:

As diamond fever spread throughout southern Africa and beyond, the rush to the diamond fields of Griqualand turned into a frantic escapade that one Cape Town newspaper likened to ‘a dangerous madness’. In their thousands, shopkeepers, tradesmen, clerks and farmers, excited by the prospect of sudden riches, set out in ox-wagons and mule carts heading for the desolate patch of sun-baked scrubland in Griqualand where diamonds had been discovered. Some travelled on foot, walking from as far away as Cape Town, a journey of 700 miles across the great thirstland of the Karoo.

They were joined by a horde of foreign adventurers: seasoned diggers from the Australian goldfields; fortyniners from California; cockney traders from the backstreets of London; Irish dissidents; German speculators; army officers on furlough; ship’s deserters; bogus aristocrats, rogue lawyers, and quack doctors. ‘Each post-cart and bullock-wagon brought its load of sordid, impecunious humanity,’ one diamond dealer remarked in his memoirs.

The stories told of fabulous wealth were real enough. In the early days, diggers using picks and shovels found diamonds lying close to the surface. A day’s work for those in luck could provide them with as many as ten or twenty diamonds. Some made their fortunes before breakfast. A penniless Englishman uncovered a 175-carat stone valued at £33,000. Each big discovery reignited the enthusiasm of others for the hunt. Many having ‘made their pile’ decided to return home, celebrating their departure with gunfire and spreading word to the outside world of the bonanza they had won.

But the mining settlements of Griqualand soon came to be renowned as much for despair, disease and death as for the fortunes made there.

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Carnarvon’s Vision for South Africa: Another Canada

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 63-65:

While Kimberley’s magnates were manoeuvring for advantage, Britain’s imperial ambitions were also on the march. In 1874, a new Tory government led by Benjamin Disraeli had come to power with aims of extending the realms of the British empire and reversing the years of fiscal rectitude and frugality overseas pursued by the previous Gladstone administration. Disraeli proudly called himself ‘an Imperialist’ and appointed as colonial secretary a like-minded expansionist, the Earl of Carnarvon. Carnarvon’s main preoccupation was imperial defence. He regarded the Cape and its naval facilities at Simon’s Bay as being the most important link in the imperial network outside Britain itself, upon which the safety of the whole empire might one day depend. In the words of a Royal Commission on Colonial Defence chaired by Carnarvon, the Cape route was ‘essential to the retention by Great Britain of her possessions in India, Mauritius, Ceylon, Singapore, China and even Australasia’. It needed to be ‘maintained at all hazards and irrespective of cost’. Strategic considerations overrode financial concerns. Furthermore, the Cape provided a vital commercial link. Despite the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, one seventh of all British trade annually passed the Cape. In the event of a war affecting the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, the Cape route would become even more important.

What concerned Carnarvon was the chaotic character of the interior of southern Africa, which offered opportunities for other European powers to meddle and undermine British supremacy in the region. In sum, southern Africa consisted of three separate British colonies, two Boer republics and a troublesome assortment of African chiefdoms, notably the Xhosa, the Zulu, the Swazi, the Pedi, the Venda, the Tswana and the Sotho. It was an area of ill-defined borders where armed conflict appeared to be endemic. Carnarvon was alarmed in particular by the Transvaal’s determined efforts to expand eastwards and gain access to the sea at Delagoa Bay, which would enable it to escape from commercial dependence on colonial ports and break away from British domination. He was adamant that the security of the Cape could not be assured unless Britain controlled the interior.

To forestall the Transvaal’s moves, Britain claimed possession of Delagoa Bay for itself. But when the matter was put to arbitration, Britain lost to Portugal. The Transvaal meanwhile sought to involve other European powers. In 1875, President Thomas Burgers toured Europe in search of German and Dutch aid to build a railway joining Pretoria to Delagoa Bay. Carnarvon concluded that the sooner the Transvaal was incorporated into the British orbit the better.

As colonial secretary in a previous British administration, Carnarvon had gained the credit for launching Canada as a self-governing dominion by amalgamating seven independent provinces inhabited by French-speaking and English-speaking colonists with different traditions and mutual distrust; and he assumed that a similar feat could be accomplished in southern Africa. Carnarvon’s plan was to construct a confederation of its disparate peoples that would serve as a bastion of the British empire and protect both its strategic and commercial interests.

The advantages of confederation, Carnavon told the cabinet, were ‘very obvious’. It would encourage the flow of European immigration and capital; provide a more effective administration at less expense; and reduce the likelihood of demands for aid in the form of money or troops. Furthermore, it would assist the development of ‘a uniform, wise and strong policy’ towards ‘the native question’. In sum, confederation would ensure a great leap forward.

Carnarvon found few willing accomplices in the region, however. There were too many old grievances, too much distrust. For the Boer republics, cooperation with Britain meant only ‘die juk van Engeland’ – ‘the yoke of England’. Carnarvon managed to cobble together a conference in London in August 1876 attended by a variety of delegates from southern Africa, but made no headway.

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Britain and the Boers, 1850s

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 7-8:

Determined to check the drain of imperial revenues into southern Africa, Britain abandoned the idea of intervention; humanitarianism on the cheap seemed to lead only to recurrent wars and mounting expense; it was no longer considered a viable policy. At a convention at Sand River in 1852, British officials recognised the independence of ‘the Emigrant Farmers’ in territory north of the Vaal River – the Transvaal, or the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, as they called it. In exchange for a promise that there would be no slavery in the Transvaal, Britain disclaimed all alliances with ‘coloured nations’ there. At the Bloemfontein Convention in 1854, Britain similarly recognised the independence of the Orange Free State.

The two miniature republics were states in little more than name. The small trekker communities there claimed vast areas of land for themselves but were greatly outnumbered by the indigenous black population that occupied much of it. The administrations they set up were weak and disorganised and, unable to raise taxes, were constantly short of funds. The Transvaal, with a white population of 20,000, survived almost entirely on subsistence farming. Officials were often paid for their services in land grants instead of cash. The quest for more land continued relentlessly. African chiefs were often tricked into ceding territory, signing documents without realising the full implications, some believing they had merely entered into ‘alliances’. Tswana chiefdoms were subjected to years of raids and harassment. A Boer commando raiding Tswana country in 1852 attacked David Livingstone’s mission station at Kolobeng, destroying his store of Bibles and medicines. In the Orange Free State, Boer commandos fought a prolonged campaign to wrest the fertile Caledon River valley from the Basotho.

To satisfy the white demand for labour, commandos frequently abducted African children, describing them as ‘apprentices’ – inboekelings – to avoid accusation of overt slavery. The practice was sanctioned in the Transvaal by an Apprentice Act passed by the governing body, the Volksraad. In the 1860s missionaries considered inboekelings provided the main source of labour in the eastern Transvaal. A German missionary at Makapanspoort reported that wagonloads of children were regularly brought to the settlement. In the far north, in the Zoutpansberg district, the trade was known as ‘black ivory’, and soon outstripped the trade in white ivory once the elephant herds there had been decimated.

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The EIC Meets the Mughals, 1608

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 49-50:

On 28 August 1608, Captain William Hawkins, a bluff sea captain with the Third Voyage, anchored his ship, the Hector, off Surat, and so became the first commander of an EIC vessel to set foot on Indian soil.

India then had a population of 150 million – about a fifth of the world’s total – and was producing about a quarter of global manufacturing; indeed, in many ways it was the world’s industrial powerhouse and the world’s leader in manufactured textiles. Not for nothing are so many English words connected with weaving – chintz, calico, shawl, pyjamas, khaki, dungarees, cummerbund, taffetas – of Indian origin. It was certainly responsible for a much larger share of world trade than any comparable zone and the weight of its economic power even reached Mexico, whose textile manufacture suffered a crisis of ‘de-industrialisation’ due to Indian cloth imports. In comparison, England then had just 5 per cent of India’s population and was producing just under 3 per cent of the world’s manufactured goods. A good proportion of the profits on this found its way to the Mughal exchequer in Agra, making the Mughal Emperor, with an income of around £100 million [over £10,000 million today], by far the richest monarch in the world.

The Mughal capitals were the megacities of their day: ‘They are second to none either in Asia or in Europe,’ thought the Jesuit Fr Antonio Monserrate, ‘with regards either to size, population, or wealth. Their cities are crowded with merchants, who gather from all over Asia. There is no art or craft which is not practised there.’ Between 1586 and 1605, European silver flowed into the Mughal heartland at the astonishing rate of 18 metric tons a year, for as William Hawkins observed, ‘all nations bring coyne and carry away commodities for the same’. For their grubby contemporaries in the West, stumbling around in their codpieces, the silk-clad Mughals, dripping in jewels, were the living embodiment of wealth and power – a meaning that has remained impregnated in the word ‘mogul’ ever since.

By the early seventeenth century, Europeans had become used to easy military victories over the other peoples of the world. In the 1520s the Spanish had swept away the vast armies of the mighty Aztec Empire in a matter of months. In the Spice Islands of the Moluccas, the Dutch had recently begun to turn their cannons on the same rulers they had earlier traded with, slaughtering those islanders who rode out in canoes to greet them, burning down their cities and seizing their ports. On one island alone, Lontor, 800 inhabitants were enslaved and forcibly deported to work on new Dutch spice plantations in Java; forty-seven chiefs were tortured and executed.

But as Captain Hawkins soon realised, there was no question of any European nation attempting to do this with the Great Mughals, not least because the Mughals kept a staggering 4 million men under arms.

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African Slaves Save Macao, 1622

From African Samurai, by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley (Hanover Square, 2019), Kindle pp. 310-311:

Chinese pirate crews in the South China Seas, an area which no state power adequately controlled and where it was often in minor rulers’ interests to turn a blind eye for their own financial benefit, often employed Africans who had escaped from slavery or gone it alone. An example, though shortly after Yasuke’s time in the 1620s, was the Chinese pirate, smuggler and merchant, Zheng Zhilong.

Zheng had a large African bodyguard corps, more than three hundred men at its peak. The bodyguards were recruited from various places, but most entered his service via Macao, the Portuguese enclave in southern China, and many were escaped slaves. They could also have been men freed in reward for their part in the successful defense of Macao against the Dutch in 1622.

In this battle, an attempt by the Dutch to wrest control of the inter-Asian trade from the Portuguese, Macao found itself virtually defenseless as the Dutch attacked when most of the Portuguese merchant militia were away on trading missions in China. In a desperate bid to defend the outpost, all African slaves—a large group who did most of the manual labor in the colony—were granted their freedom, and as much alcohol as they could drink, in exchange for fighting in the city’s defense. These drunken, newly freed men and women were wildly successful in destroying the Dutch, and their mercenary Japanese and Thai troops, despite being heavily outnumbered. The Africans charged the Dutch musket fire fearlessly and gave no quarter; and as it was the feast of John the Baptist, allegedly celebrated by removing heretic Protestant heads from their bodies. The former slaves, having been released from their bondage, would have been searching for better employment (and quickly), and pirates such as Zheng Zhilong could provide this.

Zheng had lived much of his life in Japan, where he was safe from Chinese government authority and could take advantage of Japanese and European trade and smuggling opportunities. At the height of his power, his fleet was estimated at up to a thousand ships and controlled almost all interactions in the South China Sea.

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Capetown & St. Helena, 1842

From Twenty Years Before the Mast, by Charles Erskine (Fossil, 2016), Kindle pp. 159-160:

Cape of Good Hope is always hailed by the home-bound sailor with as much delight as Cape Horn is with fear. Here we found much shipping lying quietly at anchor. The view of Cape Town from the ship’s deck is indeed novel. On either side of Table Mountain are seen the crags of Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak. The broad, flat top of Table Mountain is always overhung by a great cloud, and when the cloud spreads out and covers the whole town with its broad shadows, it is then termed by Jack before the mast “the devil’s tablecloth.”

To the south, on the hill, stands the world-renowned observatory, where Sir John Herschell discovered the planet which once bore his name, but is now called Uranus.

Cape Town is an old Dutch settlement, and everything wore a Dutch look. Almost all the people we met were Dutch. Both men and women were short and stout, with full, rosy cheeks. They all dressed in the old Dutch fashion.

On the 17th we got under way, and took our departure from the Cape of Storms, shaping our course for the island of St. Helena.

On the morning of the 19th Joseph Sylva, a Portuguese boy, who had shipped at Oahu, died. In the afternoon his body, with two roundshot, was sewed up in his hammock, and committed to the deep. Brave little Joe is now sleeping beneath the blue waters with others of the ocean’s heroes.

After a run of thirteen days, we came to anchor in the roadstead of the Valley of Jamestown, island of St. Helena. Here we found six American and two English ships, one from Sweden, and a Dutch sloop-of-war, at anchor. The island of St. Helena is nothing but a large, barren rock, uprisen from the sea, and so steep that only a short distance from the shores soundings cannot be obtained with a deep-sea line. The only landing place was Jamestown. The population, at this time, including the garrison, … numbered about four thousand, and all lived in the Valley of Jamestown. Meats, vegetables, and fruits we found very scarce and extremely dear. Rum, however, was plenty, and quite cheap. It was not made here, but was sent out from New England, America!

St. Helena is celebrated only because of its being the place of Napoleon Bonaparte’s confinement and death.

 

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Early Japanese Interest in South Seas

From Nanshin: Japanese settlers in Papua and New Guinea, 1890–1949, by Hiromitsu Iwamoto (Journal of Pacific History, 1999), pp. 15-16:

Until the late 19th century the Japanese government had no policies for the South Seas. The government was preoccupied with domestic affairs, while Germany, the United States, Australia, France, Spain, Netherlands, and Britain were involved in the acquisition and exchange of tropical islands. The Japanese government’s primary concern was to centralise governance in order to build a strong empire which could not be colonised. External affairs were secondary concerns in which the government was mainly preoccupied with the removal of unequal treaties imposed by Western nations and the promotion of national prestige. Although Japan’s expansionism was shown in the 1870s in Saigō Takamori‘s claim to invade Korea, Ōkubo Toshimichi‘s decision to send a military expedition to Taiwan and the government’s declaration that the Ryūkyū Islands and Sakhalin were parts of Japan, the expansion was limited to the adjacent region. The government’s involvement in South Seas affairs was marginal and largely confined to matters of national prestige and the rights of citizens abroad.

Japan’s first involvement in the South Seas was an embarrassing episode involving emigrants to Guam. In 1868 about 40 Japanese emigrated as contract labourers to work on a plantation where a Spanish employer treated them harshly. The Japanese were treated no differently from locals and the employer did not pay their promised wages in full. Their complaint to a Spanish administrator was ignored. In 1871, after some had died due to harsh work conditions, three managed to return to Japan to report their plight. The government was astonished and the matter was discussed, but it is unknown whether it took any action to save these migrants or protested to the Spanish administration. In 1868, 153 contract labourers in Hawaii suffered a similar fate. These incidents embarrassed the Japanese government which was acutely sensitive about its national dignity but probably the government, which was just managing to survive by pacifying rebels, chose not to protest in order to avoid conflicts that it could not handle confidently. The government could only ban emigration by enforcing tight regulations to avoid further national disgrace.

However, the issue of sovereignty over the Ogasawara (also known as Bonin) Islands provided an opportunity to stimulate Japanese interest in the South Seas. Although the Tokugawa government hardly resisted when Commodore Perry demanded the opening of Japan and proclaimed US possession of the Ogasawara Islands in 1853, some vocal Meiji officials in 1875 ’emphasised the urgency of return of the islands that could connect Japanese interests to the South Seas’. The report of the Foreign Ministry to the Prime Minister explained that ‘the islands were a strategic point in the Pacific sea route, which was extremely important in Japan’s advancement in the South Sea’. Then negotiations began and the US compromised. The issue signalled the beginning of the government’s awareness of its interests in the South Seas. It was also significant in that the government promoted national dignity by recovering territory.

As the incidents in Guam and Hawaii showed, the government was aware of its weak internal position and tried not to provoke other Western nations in the South Seas until the 1880s.

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