1850 British View of ‘Lewchew and the Lewchewans’

Last updated 10/12/14, 11/29/18

Two and a half years before Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived, George Smith, the Anglican bishop of Hong Kong, dropped anchor at Naha, Okinawa. The date was 3 October 1850, and Perry wouldn’t arrive until 26 May 1853. Smith’s mission in Naha was to look into the welfare of Bernard Jean Bettelheim, a British subject, a medical doctor, and the contentious Protestant missionary who occupied the Gokoku-ji temple in Naha and remained on the island against the wishes of the Okinawan authorities.

Smith was unimpressed with the natives. “In both sexes,” he says, “there was a remarkable absence of everything associated in a European mind with the idea of beauty.” He describes a caste system in which the lowest are treated as slaves. Throughout, he claims that the Okinawans are essentially Japanese. He says, “Their features, partaking of a strong Mongolian cast and figure, are very different from the Chinese, and their great resemblance to the Japanese proves that the blood of the latter race predominates in their veins.”

Before Smith left, he received an “urgent petition” from “Ma-Leang-tsae (and others), the vice-governor-general of Lewchew, entreating his excellency to look down in compassion, and take away Bettelheim and his family to his home, that our little country may be at rest.”

The gist of the petition is strikingly familiar today, 160 years later. Bettelheim back then was the equivalent of American military bases today. The Okinawans want them out. They want to be free of forced relations.

Much of what was true then is true today. Okinawa is poor and hardly deserves being called a kingdom. Its primary occupation is subsistence, and it has little to offer other countries. Attempts to trade and interact with Okinawa place a tremendous burden on the kingdom’s limited resources.

The petition ends with a plea: “Look down in pity upon us; cease to send people to remain here; and desist from the attempt to trade with us and to teach us Christianity. Thus the whole country, government officers and people, will be thankful for ever.”

In 1854, the Okinawans were finally free of Bettelheim when Perry took him aboard his ship. In 2014, the Americans are entrenched even deeper in Okinawan soil, and the people are again urgently pleading for them to leave.
ResidenceThe excerpts below are from Smith’s account of his voyage, Lewchew and the Lewchewans; Being a Narrative of a Visit to Lewchew, or Loo Choo, in October, 1850 (London: T. Hatchard, 187, Piccadilly 1853).

Bishop George Smith

Bishop George Smith

St. Paul’s College, Victoria, Hong Kong,
July, 1852.

At the present time Lewchew is the only avenue to Japan, the nearest part of which is only three hundred miles to the north-east. A mission to the former is in effect a mission prospectively to the latter country also. Present appearances indicate a probability that an unwonted effort will be made ere long by the United States to open Japan to foreign commerce. In such an event, a mission establishment at Lewchew would at once supply a body of linguists, already prepared and ready to enter upon this last remaining of the countries of the East at present debarred from intercourse with Christendom.

On Monday, September 23rd, 1850, I embarked at Hong Kong, in H.M. steam-sloop, the Reynard, which had been placed under orders by the naval commander-in-chief on the station, to convey me, on my first episcopal visitation, to the consular cities in the northern ports of China.

The wind changing to a fresh N.W. breeze, enabled us to run on in a direct course, and on October 3rd, we came in sight of the great Lewchew Island. A long chain of low coral islands stretches about twenty miles outside, and guards the approach from the south-west. We pursued our intricate course under steam, through the numerous islets and coral reefs, and came to anchor in the outer harbour of Napa, situated on the south-west extremity of the island. 

[October 4] The people in the streets wore a simple robe much resembling in shape that of a Budhist priest in China, being a mere loose flowing gown, with large sleeves, and a fold or collar extending from the neck down either side of the breast. The men have this dress confined by a cotton girdle, and are thus distinguished from the women, who leave their robe unconfined.

The latter have never adopted from China the absurd and cruel custom of crippling their feet. The dress of both sexes is formed of a coarse kind of gray cloth. The common people, when engaged in their labour, approach the nearest to a state of perfect nudity of any nation I ever saw. The common dress of the Malays is many steps of civilization in advance of the Lewchewan labourer. Even a loincloth would be a great improvement on the scanty covering which can be only regarded as an apology for clothing, consisting merely of a rag a few inches square.

They were generally without shoes, and their feet seemed to have attained the hardness of a horse’s hoof, if we might judge from the rapidity and ease with which they ran over the hard coral stones of which the roads are formed. Except the magistrates and agents of the government, none of the inhabitants wear any head-dress.

The chief peculiarity in their personal appearance is the mode in which the men bind their hair into a topknot. The crown of the head, to the extent of two or three inches, is shorn and shaven; and into the vacant space the surrounding locks are drawn and plaited into the form of a circular comb.

By means of oil and lampblack mixed together, the hair is well greased till it has acquired the necessary lustre and consistency. Two hair-pins of large size are then passed through, one above the other, extending forward and behind a couple of inches each way, and the fore-end of the lower pin is ornamented with a kind of star.

The rank of a Lewchewan is ascertained by the metal of his hair-pins; the literati and dominant caste wearing ornaments made of silver, or, if unable to afford them of so valuable a material, of lead or pewter. The lower classes have their hair-pins made uniformly of brass, and in this simple difference consists the external distinctions of rank.

The habits of the people are dirty, even dirtier than the lower classes of Chinese. Their features, partaking of a strong Mongolian cast and figure, are very different from the Chinese, and their great resemblance to the Japanese proves that the blood of the latter race predominates in their veins. The women were frequently observed bearing burdens, and not altogether shut out from the view of the other sex. In both sexes there was a remarkable absence of everything associated in a European mind with the idea of beauty.

The duties of interpreter consequently devolved on myself, or more properly speaking on my Chinese secretary, Chung-chun-seen-sang….

The poo-ching was a poor imbecile-looking old man, who seemed to be under the influence of the te-fang-quan and of another Lewchewan subordinate, whom we judged, from what we saw on this and other occasions, to unite in his person the offices of interpreter, counsellor, spy, and police-inspector; for which functions his astute countenance and plausible bearing seemed abundantly to qualify him. This man seemed to possess ubiquity and an aptitude for work of every kind, as we had frequent opportunities of witnessing during our stay at Lewchew.

Wherever we went, this man’s form and features met us in every direction.

He called himself by the Chinese family surname of Chan.

I then spoke the purport of them, partly in Latin and partly in Chinese, to Chung-chun, who, in his turn, reported them in the Peking dialect to Chang. The latter functionary then communicated with the Lewchewan mandarins in their own tongue. All replies came back also by the same circuitous route, so that a great deal of time was expended in effecting a very little amount of inter-communication.

They hereupon, in terms less softened and courteous than those usually employed, inveighed against Dr. Bettelheim as being a liar, if he ever stated to us that he had received any wrong from them.

Finding that our captain did not deem their denial satisfactory, they suddenly adopted a course of proceeding, as distasteful to us as it was degrading to them. The two officials with all their attendants, left their seats, and kneeling down before us, proceeded to make the kotow, or knocking of heads on the ground. It was deemed right to intimate that our captain was only a bearer of instruction, but that he wished to draw attention to a letter of complaints against the Lewchewan rulers, written by Dr. Bettelheim, previously to submitting them to the British government at Hong Kong.

The subjects of complaint were given to them in Chinese writing, as follows:–A bodily assault, and summary removal of the missionary, by six police agents, from a Lewchewan dwelling, in which he was amicably conversing with the proprietor, in prosecution of his missionary work; his exclusion from purchasing provisions from the people; the forcible interruption of him in the midst of a surgical operation for cataract; his being prevented from hiring any natives to help in destroying the snakes which infested his house and court; insults offered by the police to his wife when walking abroad; his stinted dietary and bad provisions; the intimidation practised to prevent his engaging workmen or servants; his exclusion from the public ferry, and inability to hire a conveyance; and, lastly, the system of employing spies to besiege his dwelling, and to track his footsteps whenever he left his house.

Before we separated two petitions, in Chinese, were presented to the captain, one of which referred exclusively to Dr. Bettelheim, and the other was a more general statement of the resources of the island, and its relations to Japan. The latter document appears to be a more explicit and detailed exposition of their political connexion with the latter country, than any which they ever before communicated to a foreign ship visiting the island.

The following is a literal translation of the two petitions. The commencement of the second document appears to refer to myself, as I had then taken up my temporary abode with Dr. Bettelheim, in the temple; and the authorities seemed to be afraid lest I should be left behind as a permanent resident in the island.

The dutiful petition of Ma-Leang-tsae (and others), the vice-governor-general of Lewchew, entreating his excellency to look down in compassion, and take away Bettelheim and his family to his home, that our little country may be at rest. We lie hid in a corner of the sea; the soil is barren; and the people are destitute. During the period of Bettelheim’s residence here, both officers and people have been employed in procuring his supplies, to the neglect of their avocations, and the prejudice of public business.

The upper classes are liable to expenses on account of sacrificial offerings and public granaries; and the common people are at the expense of providing for themselves their daily support, which things greatly impoverish us. If Bettelheim do not soon return to his home, our distress must increase still further, and the country will not be able to stand erect.

On a previous occasion, in the eleventh month of last year (December, 1849), when the English government sent an envoy hither, we transmitted a special despatch, requesting that Bettelheim might be removed. [Reference is here made to the visit of H.M. brig-of-war, the Pilot.] As yet no answer has come. But as your honourable ship has just arrived, while we are in expectation of the reply, we beg your excellency to receive Bettelheim and his family on board your honourable ship, and take them to their home. Thus not only will your humble servant ever be thankful, but also the whole country, both officers and people, will be everlastingly obliged by your high favour.

An urgent petition.

In Taou-kwang’s reign, the 30th year, the first day of the ninth month.” (Corresponding to October 5th, 1850.) [It is interesting to observe the adoption of the Chinese mode of dates. Taou-kwang, literally “Reason’s Glory,” is the name of the Chinese Emperor, who died in 1850.]

The dutiful petition of Ma Leang-tsae, (and others), of Lewchew, setting forth the real truth.

We learn from rumour that certain persons of your honourable ship being sick, and requiring Bettelheim’s medical aid, have slept in the quan-kwo-she temple (Dr. B.’s residence.) Now if this should lead to their permanently remaining here it would cause us much uneasiness. Our humble country is poor, and the few sorts of grain which we grow are scanty. During the period of Bettelheim’s residence here, all of us, from the highest down to the lowest classes, have been constantly occupied in business concerning him, so as to be unable to attend to our avocations, which exposes us to severe want. If still more persons remain here, our troubles will be greatly increased, so that the nation will assuredly be unable to subsist.

Our country is destitute of commerce; we are but a little nation; and the islands belonging to us are very small. Possessing neither gold, silver, copper, nor pearls–no raw, nor wrought silks, and having only a few kinds of grain and vegetables, we scarcely deserve the name of a kingdom.

Ever since the time when the Ping-han (the title of the former government of Lewchew), was raised to the rank of an hereditary kingdom under the Ming (the last native Chinese) dynasty, and became tributary to China, whenever we carry tribute thither, we buy thence silk official caps and dresses, with medicines and other articles.

Our supplies from China are, however, insufficient to meet our wants. But as the Tuchara1 islands (probably Latzuma) belonging to Japan, trade with all neighbouring countries, we procure thence not only articles necessary for the tribute and various Chinese goods for carrying on our inland trade, but also rice, grains, timber, iron, copper, tea, and other articles, in small and insufficient quantities. Grain being scarce in our poor country, our daily food consists merely of sweet potatoes, of which we have not one pound too many.

When visited by the calamity of a typhoon or drought, even though we derive a moderate subsistence from the wild sago tree, we should be unable to appease our hunger, and we should be compelled to borrow rice from those islands, which we consider as our special security against starvation. Alas such is the melancholy statement respecting our country.

When, therefore, in the 16th year of Kea-king (1812?), and in the 17th and 18th years of Taou-kwang (1837, 1838), ships came from England, America, and France, for the purpose of trading with us, we declined on the grounds before mentioned. In the 11th year of Taoukwang (1831), an English merchant-vessel arrived, wishing to trade. We again refused on the same grounds. In the 11th month of last year (December, 1849), an envoy from the English government arrived to deliver a despatch on the subject of commerce, but we again declined as before.

Now, according to the above statement, it will be seen, that being but a poor people, and destitute of wealth, we cannot carry on an extensive trade with other countries. Tuchara is not better circumstanced than our own island. Our coarse sugar, grass-cloth, &c., are bartered for the rice and other grain of that island, and for other articles, both for the due payment of our tribute and for home consumption. Such a petty trade, therefore, is very different from the extensive commercial methods of other countries for gaining wealth and obtaining riches.

We hear that the laws of Japan severely prohibit promiscuous trading with other countries. It is only at the port of Chang-ki (Nagasaki?) where officers are stationed to keep a strict watch, that a fixed and limited number of ships with merchandise are admitted; which port Chinese and Dutch merchants visit annually for trade.

The people of Tuchara, although belonging to Japanese territory, yet being situated nearer to us, are permitted to trade with this place. But on their returning home, if they were to import prohibited articles, by smuggling, in the event of detection by the public officers they would be severely punished.

If we were to trade with you, it will follow that the people of Tuchara will, in accordance with Japanese laws, be strictly prohibited from any intercourse with us. Even in the present year we are not only deficient in articles required for the tribute, but also exposed to severe want in respect to articles for home consumption. If this should happen to be a year of famine, we have no means of remedying such an emergency, and must perish with hunger.

Further, we have no medium of currency. On account of the scarcity of articles sold in the market, foreign ships on their arrival are unable to purchase a supply of provisions, and we therefore appoint special official purveyors to procure, if possible, the needful supplies from the villages.

Further, during the course of several years past, both yours (English) and American ships have from time to time arrived, requiring large supplies, which gives employment to many of the officers and people, who are thus deprived of leisure for attending to their own avocations. This is a source of great inconvenience.

Now as to the religion of the Lord of Heaven (the popular term by which Christianity, or rather the Roman Catholic form of Christianity, has been known), we have from ancient times attended to the doctrines of Confucius, and found therein principles wherewith to cultivate personal morality, and to regulate our families, each according to our circumstances and condition in life. We endeavour also to carry out the government of the country according to the rules and maxims which have been handed down to us by the sages, and are calculated to secure lasting peace and tranquillity.

Besides, our gentry, as well as the common people, are without natural capacity; and, although they have attended exclusively to Confucianism, they have as yet been unable to arrive at perfection in it. If they should now also have to study, in addition, the religion of the Lord of Heaven, such an attempt would surpass our ability, and the heart does not incline to it. The people of Tuchara also are attached to the Confucian religion and classics, and bestow great study upon them. Should they hear that we are studying a new religion, viz., that of the Lord of Heaven, they would most certainly desist from all intercourse with us.

This our regular and clear petition, with knocking of heads, we submit to the penetrating investigation of your excellency. Look down in pity upon us; cease to send people to remain here; and desist from the attempt to trade with us and to teach us Christianity. Thus the whole country, government officers and people, will be thankful for ever.

An urgent petition.

Taou-kwang, the 30th year, the 1st day of the 9th month.

We were for some time seated unconsciously on the little bench which served as a Romish altar, and a stage for the image of the Virgin Mary. There was no other seat in the room, and the Lewchewans were squatted on the ground around us–chairs or stools being a degree of civilization to which this people have not yet attained, except in the houses of their rulers.

The lowest order consists of the Oo-bang, or public slaves, who possess no civil rights nor personal freedom, and are absolutely dependent on the commands, or even the mere beckoning summons of the literati. The intermediate class above public slaves is called Ha-koo-sho, who are the peasants, or field labourers. These farm the country at an exorbitant amount of rent, and pay to the government, as the feudal lords of the soil, one-half of the produce in lieu of taxation.

A modified slavery exists in the custom of the rich purchasing the services of a poor man for life, or more generally for a term of years. A common slave varies in price from two to ten dollars.

Amid much of simplicity in their modes and habits of life, the missionary so long resident among them states, however, that there is very little perceptible in the people calculated to inspire romance, or anything removed from the poor realities of common existence.

The national mind appears prostrated under the combined influences of oppressive government and natural indolence. The sweet potato in sufficient abundance to satisfy the cravings of hunger, and a hovel large enough to afford them space for sleeping away many hours of the day, as well as the night, seem to bound the highest desires of their ambition.

The studies of the native scholars are limited to the Confucian classics of China; and these consist more in an apparently mechanical repetition of sounds than in any mental recreation from the sentiments contained in those literary monuments of a venerable antiquity. The people, though enjoying a reputation for quickness and shrewdness, are generally of an indolent cast of mind, their natural powers being spoilt by sensual habits and a perverted education.

The spoken language is polysyllabic, and has a rich vocabulary. The latter quality is increased by the great number of Chinese terms which have been grafted upon the original native tongue. Chinese terms occur especially in the conversation of the literary class, and occupy the same relative place towards pure Lewchewan words, as Greek and Latin derivatives towards the old Saxon English.

1“The Tokara Islands (吐噶喇列島 Tokara-rettō) is an archipelago in the Nansei Islands, and are part of the Satsunan Islands, which is in turn part of the Ryukyu Archipelago. The 150 kilometres (81 nmi) chain consists of twelve small islands located between Yakushima and Amami-Oshima. The islands have a total area of 101.35 square kilometres (39.13 sq mi). Administratively, the whole group belongs to Toshima Village, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan” (Wikipedia).

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5 Responses to 1850 British View of ‘Lewchew and the Lewchewans’

  1. モレノ・アリー says:

    This article has served to satisfy my uncomfortable, itching curiosity about a dimension of Ryukyuan history that, as far as I can tell, remains relatively obscured. To disclose the source of my interest in this history, I must confess to once being one of the ‘entrenched’. Now long since departed, questions remain and a haunting irritation remains. For this reason, I read with interest and with gratitude for the author’s scholarship.

    It was not till long after I left that I learned about Bernard Jean Bettelheim. The historical narrative I was able to piece together with my limited research skills struck me as incomplete. Does anyone besides myself find it incongruous that someone so notorious in Okinawa, and so obscure elsewhere, should be memorialized near the grounds of the (now destroyed) dwelling where he basically ‘squatted’ for so many unwelcome years? Further, am I the only one who is suspicious of his easy ingratiation with Commodore Perry later on?

    My opinion is that the answers to these questions are not trivial, but may well offer the insights that can decisively open a way to resolving the contemporary conflict and dilemma that currently burden so many, not only in Okinawa, but beyond as well.

    • Jim Shimabukuro says:

      Moreno Alie, thank you for your thought-provoking comment. I agree. The Bishop George Smith account and the Lewchew Vice Governor General’s petitions provide insights into some of the circumstances that have determined Okinawa’s (and other similar nations’) historical course. Poor, small nations or states are at the mercy of more powerful nations and have very little bargaining power. Relying on the goodwill of the rich and powerful countries (Japan and the U.S., in this case) can only go so far, and this is abundantly clear in Okinawa’s ongoing attempts to free itself from the overwhelming burden of U.S. military bases. I hope you won’t mind my publishing your comment as an article, “Moreno Alie: Historical Bettelheim Issue May Offer Insights into Okinawa’s Current Plight” (11/29/18). -Jim

      • モレノ・アリー says:

        Dear Jim,

        You are welcome for the comment, but it was the least I could do in light of the commendable act of writing about and publishing regarding such an inexplicably obscure, yet important, episode in East Asian history.

        I am surprised and delighted that you honored me by transforming my insignificant comment into an article on this site; it’s too great an acknowledgement, I reckon.

        “Poor, small nations or states are at the mercy of more powerful nations …”. While I would agree that the people of the Ryukyus find themselves in an unenviable position, I am not sure that I completely agree that they truly lack power, either for bargaining or otherwise. I’d like to give a fuller rendering of what I mean, but I elect to write to you privately about this, which I will do via email.

        Again, thank you for your appreciation, and thank you more for expressing views on “Lewchew” that the world needs to consider.


  2. Pingback: Moreno Alie: Historical Bettelheim Issue May Offer Insights into Okinawa’s Current Plight | liuchiuan

  3. Travis says:

    Thank you as always for continually posting such interesting stuff.

    I am struck by the use of the name Ma Leang Tsae, or in modern pinyin Ma Liangcai. Can we perhaps take this as an indication that Ryukyuan officials actually pronounced their Chinese-style names in a Chinese style, and that this figure might never have called himself Ba Ryōsai (as he is called in Japanese today)? Or, do we have to take this as merely a result of the fact that they were speaking through Chinese interpreters?

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