Mr. Portman to Mr. Seward.
Sir: On Sunday the 19th instant a cannonade in the direction of Yedo was distinctly heard at this place. It attracted but little attention, though it was unusually heavy.
At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon the several gates of Yokohama were closed, the guards were re-enforced, and all preparations made to repel an attack, which it was supposed might be made at an early moment by Ronins on this town.
In former years such Ronins were disbanded Daimios retainers. This [Page 629] part of Japan was said to swarm with these people, whose avowed object was hostility to foreigners, and when a foreigner was murdered it was invariably found that robbery had not been the incentive to the deed. For some few weeks, however, Ronins of a different type caused great uneasiness in Yedo; robberies were very frequent and of the boldest description, and when these Ronins met with resistance life was freely taken by them. A few days ago quite a number of these armed ruffians attacked a Daimio’s residence at a distance of about twenty-five miles from this port for the sake of plunder and killed all the inmates, who defended themselves to the last. First came a rumor that, emboldened by impunity, they had declared their intention to march on Yokohama, and the governor of this port then issued a notice, copy of which I herewith have the honor to transmit, inclosure No. 1.
The government appeared to be unable to suppress these serious disturbances; troops were dispatched in every direction, but no sooner were those Ronins dispersed at one place, when intelligence was received of their rising at another.
I was informed that it was difficult to account for this Ronin movement; the crops last year had been quite good, and there was very little suffering among the people. It was evident that there existed some sort of organization among those men, and it was suspected that they received their inspiration from Yedo. I should add that a few days previous all retainers of Daimios, even of those who are known to be friendly to the Tycoon’s government, had been required to leave Yokohama.
Towards three o’clock, thus one hour later, mounted government messengers came in rapid succession from Yedo, and it soon became known that a fight was raging in the streets of that capital, that artillery was used, and that the three yaskis of the Prince of Satsuma were being destroyed.
A yaski is a large Daiinio’s place, covering many acres of ground, generally with plain and substantial buildings fronting the street, which are used as barracks, a residence for the chief or prince in the center, and the remainder beautifully laid out as a park, in which often are found shrines for family worship, archery grounds, &c. The Prince of Satsuma in his three yaskis had barrack accommodation for twenty thousand men; but those buildings had remained unoccupied for many years, except by very few of his retainers, and no more than were required to keep them in habitable condition, the chief one among those men acting also in the capacity of the commercial representative of the prince.
The intelligence of the fight in Yedo was scarcely received when a small steamer was perceived rapidly approaching from that direction with a larger one evidently in chase, as occasionally shots were interchanged. When off this port, and at a distance of about eight miles, the small steamer, which was being rapidly overhauled, stopped and allowed her enemy to approach, when a regular engagement at close quarters ensued. Soon another steamer with a bark in tow also approached. The engagement had meanwhile terminated by the chasing steamer hauling off; the small steamer fired one parting shot, which was not returned. It could distinctly be seen in this town from the street fronting the bay that the small steamer had her bulwarks shot away, and also her foreyard. She then stood out to sea, pursued by the second steamer, which had cast off the bark she had in tow, and in this chase soon joined also the steamer just retired from the engagement, which had evidently somewhat recovered from the damage she must have sustained.
Late in the evening I received a message from the governor of [Page 630] Kanagawa apologizing for the delay in officially notifying me of the occurrences on that day, owing to his many pressing engagements, and stating that it was only known that fighting had been going on in Yedo, both ashore and afloat; that the three yaskis of Satsuma had been burned, and that all precautionary measures had been taken for the safety and protection of Yokohama. It was further promised that as soon as he received detailed information he would not fail to communicate it to me at once.
If there had been any ill-will towards foreigners on the part of the native population, the principal danger to be apprehended would have been from incendiaries; but the night passed without the slightest alarm; the natives, particularly those in foreign employ, behaved well; and although there was great uncertainty, of course, as to what the next day might bring forth, not the slightest symptom, even of excitement, was perceptible amongst them.
At about nine o’clock on the next morning, (the 20th, Monday,) an aide-de-camp of the governor called on me on his behalf to say that more detailed information had been received from Yedo, and this was to the effect that the government detectives had been successful in tracing the Ronin movement to Satsuma’s yaskis as the headquarters, and ascertained that some of the leaders had taken refuge there. An official messenger was sent to demand their surrender for trial and punishment. In sole reply to this demand the messenger had been assasinated on the spot. Troops were then immediately dispatched to destroy the yaskis and kill or capture the Ronins and Satsuma men. The yaskis were destroyed. A few of those men had, however, succeeded in making their escape by land, and a few others in reaching a small steamer of their prince, at anchor in the Yedo roads. The result of the naval engagement was not known, as up to this day no success has been proclaimed. It is supposed that the small steamer, now known to be Satsuma’s, effected her escape.
I transmit inclosure No. 2, copy of two notifications officially issued on the 21st instant.
There is reason to suspect that this extensive Ronin movement was not an isolated one, but that it formed part of a vast scheme of surpassing boldness for the purpose of overturning the Tycoon’s government and substituting the supremacy of the Prince of Satsuma. By this mail you will receive from Mr. Van Valkenburgh a full account of the success of several Daimios, under Satsuma’s leadership, in surrounding the Mikado’s palace at Kioto, and thus obtaining the control of that sacred personage.
The inference is, that the magnitude of the Ronin’s operations rendered necessary the employment of large bodies of troops, thus preventing reinforcements from reaching the Tycoon, and greatly aggravating his apprehensions for the safety and prosperity of his own domains, as it interfered with trade and the regular collection of revenue; and that the utter inability of the government to suppress their depredations and arrest those armed outcasts must have been disheartening and paralyzing in its effects upon the Tycoon’s chief authorities, at no time remarkable for manliness and resolution; and it was no doubt further calculated to demonstrate to the treaty powers the oft-alleged unfitness of the Tycoon and his ministers to hold the reins of government.
On the 15th instant the intelligence of Satsuma’s success at Kioto was generally known in Yedo, and on the 17th a part o the Tycoon’s castle, the western wing, was destroyed by fire. It was the general impression, even among the common people, that this was the work of incendiaries.[Page 631]
The object in destroying this palace still remains a mystery, to which no clue can be obtained; but in the higher circles I have been privately informed a suspicion is entertained that the object was a political one, not merely the destruction of a handsome building and of valuable property, but a deep-laid scheme for the abduction, daring the confusion that always attends a conflagration, of the widow of the late Tycoon, a near relative of the Mikado, and to whom he is said to be fondly attached. This young lady always enjoyed the reputation of being exceedingly intelligent, with a will of her own, and of fretting under the restraints of court etiquette, to which she was subjected in virtue of her exalted station.
Whether this suspicion be well founded or not, it appears to be quite certain that, as long as this lady remains in Yedo and under the protection of the Tycoon, the influence of the Prince of Satsuma and his confederates with the Mikado must remain imperfect.
The extensive Ronin agitation—the destruction by fire of that part of the castle which was inhabited by the lady whom it must have been so very important to capture—and the presence of a small steamer off Yedo at a time when at any moment the intelligence of actual hostilities having broken out at Kioto might be expected to arrive here, thus endangering her safety, are three undoubted facts, which, taken in conjuection, induce a strong presumption of the correctness of the suspicion that the abduction of the lady referred to was really contemplated, and that this bold attempt was simply on a par with the one so successfully carried out at Kioto, of securing the person of the Mikado in the very presence of the Tycoon and his numerous armed friends and retainers.
It is presumed that the attempt in Yedo was unsuccessful, and that the lady in question is still in that capital.
It is hopeless to expect that information will be tendered by the Gorogin and prime minister—the only member of the Tycoon’s cabinet in Yedo; it is even doubtful whether, under the present circumstances, he could be induced to receive any one whomsoever, except his immediate subordinates. I had no other resource, therefore, than to apply for such information in writing, and I accordingly addressed a letter to the minister, copy of which I herewith transmit, inclosure No. 3.
Mr. Van Valkenburgh, who has been fully informed of all my proceedings by every opportunity, and entirely approved of the same, has authorized me to address you should anything of importance occur. I beg to submit, therefore, that I would not be justified if I omitted to report at once what has recently taken place here—the more so as this intelligence is likely to reach even England and France some two weeks earlier by this Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s steamer, both by mail and telegraph, than by either the French or English lines, whether via Marseilles, Brindisi, or Trieste.
From my letter to the Japanese minister, to which no reply has as yet been received, you will perceive that I carefully explained to him the advantage of being able to communicate the latest intelligence by the American route, so much in advance of the usual mail opportunities, thus leading him to expect that, whatever measures the President may deem proper to adopt, either in conjunction with the governments of England and France, or otherwise, there is a strong probability of your taking the initiative.
At present perfect quiet prevails, both here and at Yedo. The Monocacy, Commander S. P. Carter, is in this port.
I remain here, under special instructions to await the arrival of the [Page 632] Stonewall. Further instructions concerning her delivery under the present altered circumstances will no doubt soon be received by me.
I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, your most obedient servant,
Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.