Beillevaire on Gutzlaff

16patrick Beillevaire: The Western Discovery of Ryûkyû: from the first contacts to the eve of Perry’s expedition. In: Beillevaire, Vol. I, p. 17-18.

But there was another kind of danger lurking in the contacts with Westerners that was threatening the established order: the Christian religion. On several occasions Christian books had been presented to Ryûkyûan officials who flatly discarded them, the same anti-Christian laws applying in their country as in Japan. So far, however, no missionary had set foot in Okinawa. This was to happen with the already mentioned Lord Amherst.

Aboard was the missionary physician Dr. Karl Friedrich Gutzlaff. His zealous objectives and his knowledge of Chinese made him a much more critical observer than any visitor before him. His hosts remain the “humane Loo-chooans” [=Ryukyuans=Okinawans] who obligingly transformed a local monastery into a hospital to help sick seamen of the Lyra and of the Alceste. He praises their politeness and kindness: “they are the most hospitable people” which he has met during his voyage in the China sea, finding them “excessive in their professions of friendship”.

Sapposhi visiting, with a Ryukyuan welcome escort on the shore.

Sapposhi visiting, with a Ryukyuan welcome escort on the shore.

But despite these appreciable qualities, he makes it clear that “they are by no means those simple and innocent beings” described by the early British travelers: like Beechey, he no longer doubts that they possess Chinese money as well as arms, although they are averse to using them, and that they resort to corporal punishments against criminals. With respect to religion, they appear to him not “greatly addicted to idolatry, for they are too rational for this”. Buddhism itself appears to exert no strong ascendancy on the people.

Taking advantage of the medical assistance he was authorised to provide to Ryûkyûan patients, and even to ill Japanese seamen who happaned to call at Naha, Gutzlaff distributed quite a few Christian books in Chinese, paying no attention to the overt dissatisfaction of the officials around. His secret hope was that some of these books would eventually reach Japan. Gutzlaff is the first to ascertain the regular trade relations between Ryûkyû and Satsuma, though local officials persisted in attributing the presence of Japanese junks in Naha harbour to the bad weather. Moreover, his observation that Ryûkyûans and Japanese, of which he carried a dictionary with him, were very close languages led him to suggest that Ryûkyû may have originally been a Japanese colony. In those years the Ryûkyû Kingdom still passed for a faithful tributary state of China.

Gutzlaff visited Okinawa briefly again in 1837 with the Raleigh. This time he joined two other missionary physicians, Drs. Samuel Well Williams and Peter Parker, who both also knew Chinese, who had been carried to Naha on a different ship, the Morrison (Williams 1837, Parker 1838). Together they introduced the vaccination against smallpox, an initiative that was not unfavorably received by the authorities and local physicians.

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