A Camel for the Shogun: W. R. Stewart and the Deshima Connection, 1797-1803
Walter E. Gourlay
Emeritus Professor, Department of History, Michigan State Un
Last modified: June 11, 2008
A CAMEL FOR THE SHOGUN
On August 24, 1803, a half century before the visit of Matthew Perry, a ship flying the Stars and Stripes sailed boldly into the forbidden harbor of Nagasaki, fired several salutes, and splashed anchor. Her skipper, William Robert Stewart, had brought gifts for the shogun, – a camel, a water buffalo, and a donkey. He had come, he said, to get a trade agreement with Japan for American commerce.
Stewart’s identity has long mystified historians. Contemporary American and Japanese accounts say nothing about his background. Stamford Raffles and some Dutch sources allege that he was an Englishman masquerading as an American. This paper will reveal Stewart’s identity and explore his relations with the Dutch East India Company.
Records at various locations in New York confirm that he was indeed an American. Surprisingly, they also reveal that he had been aboard the sloop “Experiment” on its historic voyage to Canton in 1785. Since then he had been active in the China trade.
In 1797, during the Napoleonic Wars, the DEI in Batavia had chartered Stewart’s brig to make the annual voyage to Deshima, since their own vessels were subject to seizure by the British. As the U.S. was neutral, he would fly the American flag until reaching Nagasaki, and then raise the Dutch colors to enter the harbor.
For details of Stewart’s several voyages we have consulted, among other sources, The Deshima Dagregister, records maintained by the Dutch in their outpost at Nagasaki.
When Stewart arrived, Deshima was rife with corruption. Hemmij, the Opperhoofd (Chief), had secretly agreed to supply the Daimyo of Satsuma with an, illegal cargo and involved Stewart in the plot. The story is murky and bizarre. Hemmij died under mysterious circumstances and Deshima was razed by fire. Subsequently Stewart lost the Company’s cargoes in several questionable shipwrecks. He was arrested and interned on Java, and somehow he managed to escape, possibly on an American vessel.
By 1803, when Stewart reappeared at Deshima to seek an opening for American trade, the DEI’s monopoly of trade was already under challenge in Amsterdam, while some voices at Yedo were advocating more openness to the West.
On another level, the Japanese distrusted the Russians in Siberia and the British in India. Since the Americans had defeated the British in war, would the Shogun consider them a useful counterweight to the British?
The panicked officials on Deshima hastened to the Governor of Nagasaki with claims that Stewart was an English agent.
The Bugyo readily accepted the Dutch accusations. Possibly he himself had had a part in the Hemmij scheme and wanted it swept under the rug. Deciding not to involve the Shogun, he ordered the American to leave Deshima and never return. At this point Stewart disappears from published history.
Documents in New York reveal that he ultimately married into a socially prominent and politically powerful New York family. In 1818 he died of yellow fever in New Orleans, while pursuing a private law suit. Opposing counsel was Thomas Jefferson.