An Early Ambassador

After hearing the story of three Japanese fisherman who washed up on the shores of Northwest Washington, their subsequent round-the-world adventure–via England and China–in the hopes of returning to their homeland, Ranald MacDonald decided to partake in an adventure of his own. Part Chinook and part Scottish, the young man set out from New York on a whaling ship, eventually ending up–by his own design–adrift near Japan’s northern island Hokkaido, determined to visit the isolationist nation on his own.

He was 24 years old.

“The other crew members were reluctant to let him go, and some even wept as he took off. Like most sailors at the time, they were well aware that unauthorized foreigners who set foot on Japanese soil— even shipwrecked sailors— risked execution. To them, it must have seemed as though MacDonald was sailing into the jaws of death. In fact, when a rudder from his boat was later found floating in the area by a different ship, and reported in North America, he was believed by many— including his own father— to have died.” (source)

Fredrick L. Schodt discovered this story while doing research in other areas. A translator and historian, Schodt became so interested in MacDonald’s adventure that he eventually wrote  Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of JapanLess interesting than Ranald’s story is the way in which I discovered Schodt’s book. I have been interested in Japanese literature, extending into Japanese history for a deeper understanding of texts, when I came across Schodt’s web site. It was particularly fortuitous that these two subjects intersected in such a unique way. When Japan was closed off to most of the world–and where curious intruders could well face execution–MacDonald was able to befriend his Japanese captors/hosts, even acting as an English translator. Unfortunately, before Schodt, MacDonald’s story remained ensconced in the local history in Eastern Washington. Many have been actively involved in trying to get MacDonald’s story out to the public, and, as Schodt writes, a “Friends of MacDonald” society was formed in the late 1980s.

While the focus of our course is Contemporary Indigenous Rhetoric, I believe it is still important to revisit out historical record and to include narratives that have been silenced for too long. Until our collective American conscious fully realizes Native Americans as a contemporary people, we can, in some ways, fill in the missing part of the past where their words and deeds were suppressed, in an attempt to erase the contributions of thinkers, adventurers and ambassadors like Ranald MacDonald.

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Writer, teacher, PhD student, former web developer, jerk

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