How a convict mutiny became the first Australian sailing ship visit to Japan.

The rich history of the Melbourne to Osaka yacht race contains many accounts of endurance and exhilaration, storms, calms, whales, groundings and even sinkings. But few compare with the mutiny and subsequent piracy which dogged the first recorded voyage from Australia to Japan which started in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and ended in Canton (now Guangzhou, China) after first visiting the village of Mugi, just 50 miles south of today’s Osaka on Shikoku Island. The long voyage ended with two mutineers hanged on London’s Execution Dock for piracy and another in Van Diemen’s Land and one to spend rest of his days as a convict.

A long ocean voyage like the M2O might create tension on some yachts but the events of 1829 on board the brig Cyprus overshadow anything the race is likely to present.

The Cyprus mutiny took place in 1829 off the British penal settlement of Van Diemen’s Land when convicts seized the brig Cyprus and sailed her to Canton, China, where they scuttled her and claimed to be castaways from another vessel.

On the way, Cyprus visited Japan, the first recorded Australian ship to do so, during a period of severe Japanese restrictions on the entry of foreigners. Seeking water, firewood and food, the Cyprus anchored off the village of Mugi, but were chased away amid gunfire, eventually making landfall at Canton in China.

The adventure began on August 6, 1829, when the brig Cyprus, a government-owned vessel used to transport goods, people, and convicts, set sail from Hobart for Macquarie Harbour Penal Station on a routine voyage carrying supplies and convicts under a guard commanded by Army Lt Carew. There were 62 people on board, including wives and children of some personnel and 31 convicts.

On reaching Recherche Bay, south of Hobart, the vessel was becalmed. The convicts, allowed on deck, attacked their guards and took control of the brig. The officers, soldiers, and convicts who did not join the mutiny, were marooned onshore at Recherche Bay, without supplies but were saved by a convict called Popjoy who constructed a makeshift boat to Partridge Island with Morgan, a free man, where help was obtained.

Nineteen convicts sailed away in Cyprus, with William Swallow, the only one with sailing experience, appointed as sailing master. The mutineers first sailed to New Zealand and then on to the Chatham Islands where they plundered the schooner Samuel of a cargo of seal skins.

Cyprus then sailed for Tahiti, but changed destination to Tonga. After landing seven of their number on Keppel’s Island Cyprus then sailed to the Ladrones. There four more of the mutineers left the ship while Swallow sailed on to Canton. Eventually, the mutineers scuttled Cyprus near Canton claiming they were castaways from another vessel. Swallow and three others worked their passage back to Britain aboard the East Indiaman Charles Grant.

However, a man the mutineers had left in Canton confessed and by chance his account reached Britain a week before Swallow and his last three companions arrived there. The mutineers were tried in London and two of them, George James Davis and William Watts, were hanged at Execution Dock on 16 December 1830, the last men hanged for piracy in Britain. Swallow, and two others, were returned to Hobart, where another one named James Camm was hanged. Swallow died at the penal colony of Port Arthur.

A water colour by samurai Makita Hamaguchi showing one of the sailors with a dog.
Photograph: Tokushima prefectural archive

Swallow wrote an account of the voyage, which included details of the visit to Japan, before reaching Canton but, at the time of his trial, this was dismissed as fantasy. However, in 2017 this account was compared with Japanese records of an unwelcome visit by a British vessel off the town of Mugi, Tokushima on Shikoku in 1830, which matched Swallow’s account in many details.

The Japanese historical records have revealed that a local samurai, Makita Hamaguchi, was sent, disguised as a fisherman to check the ship for weapons. Hamaguchi wrote an account of the episode which included watercolour sketches of the ship and its crew. The sketches still survive in Japan.

Another samurai chronicler called Hirota noted the crew offered gifts, including an object he later drew which has since been identified as a boomerang. The mutineers were desperately low on water, firewood, and supplies, but were attacked and sent away by the Japanese, in line with the isolationist policy of the time.

Warwick Hirst, a former curator of manuscripts at the State Library of New South Wales, said that there were “too many coincidences for it not to be true”. Takashi Tokuno, chief curator at the archive of Tokushima Prefecture, Japan, said there is a “high probability” the ship in Japanese records was Cyprus.

The link between Swallow’s account of his voyage and the Japanese historical records was discovered by English history buff Nick Russell. Mr Russell speaks and reads Japanese fluently, has lived in Japan for 30 years and teaches English in Kobe.

In 2017 Mr Russell, a keen surfer, bought a beach shack on Teba Island, off the coast from the township of Mugi on Japan’s Shikoku island. The back of his house looked out over the stretch of water where local legends told of a “barbarian” ship which had visited in 1830 and been fired upon by samurai commanders, acting on orders to repel any foreign incursion.

Japan was a “closed country” at that time, ruled by a Shogun and governed by local samurai lords. Seeking more information about the mystery ship, Mr Russell asked to see the original samurai records of the ship’s visit. One of those records included detailed watercolour paintings of the ship flying a British Red Ensign and its crew. The old Japanese script was hard to decipher and did not translate well into modern Japanese.

At first Mr Russell’s research focused on the whaling industry. One of the watercolour paintings showed smoke coming from the bow of the ship suggesting the ship was a whaler but the records and paintings contradicted this. After further work on the old records by one of Mr Russell’s students the pair began to look into recorded mutinies around 1829. The archivist in Tokushima, Takashi Tokuno, was surprised by Mr Russell’s breakthrough.

“Two completely separate historical stories — an incident that’s a little famous in Australia and an incident that’s a little famous here in Tokushima, Japan,” he said. “The two incidents connected here — it also connects Japan and Australia.”

Samurai accounts details the ship’s arrival

Mr Russell has translated the two samurai accounts of the ship’s arrival, but admits his translation may be flawed because it involved very old Japanese characters and complex phraseology. He has invited English and Japanese scholars to review his translations.

The samurai account by Makita Hamaguchi, entitled, ‘Illustrated Account of the Arrival of a Foreign Ship’, records the comments of local samurai commander, named Mima, who was monitoring the ship’s movements.

“I’ve been suspicious of that ship since it arrived yesterday afternoon,” it records Mima as saying. “Through the spyglass, I can see a floor halfway up the mast and one of the crew climbs up there to look out. “The men on the ship do not look hungry at all.”

The following day, another commander named Yamauchi orders the painter to disguise himself as a fisherman and row his boat out to get a closer look. Hamaguchi’s record recalls: “As we approached the barbarian ship the dog wagged its tail and whined at us.” “Its face looks like my illustration. It did not look like food. It looked like a pet,” it reads.

“Some of them were painting the outside of the ship with tar, one was climbing the mast and another was mending the sail. “Each of them was involved in some task. All of them stopped work and looked at us. “At first, we kept our distance at about 50m, but they waved to us to come closer and did not seem to be hostile so we rowed over to get a better look.”

In another account, titled ‘A Foreign Ship Drifts in Off Mugi Cove’, a local farmer named Harada is reported to have rowed out to the ship to take a closer look. “The crew then tossed gifts: something shaped like this, a metal bell and what looked like a religious icon of a woman framed in black and covered with glass into our boat … we returned each of them,” it reads.

Photograph: Tokushima prefectural archive

Yamauchi was under orders from the Shogunate in nearby Tokugawa, whose policy stated: “All foreign vessels should be fired upon. Any foreigner who landed should be arrested or killed.” Yamauchi ordered his samurai officers to communicate this to the crew. “Go aboard the barbarian ship and with sign language tell them to leave immediately,” the report says. “If they do not comply, show them the large ball and tell them that we are ready to fire it at them from Teba Island and reduce them to matchwood.”

The samurai record says when the ship showed no signs of departing, a cannon ball was fired from the island — it flew between the two masts of the ship and landed on the other side, in the water. When the ship still did not appear to be weighing anchor or spreading its sails, the samurai fired on it again. It was only then that the crew started to sail the ship westwards, but the lack of breeze made their getaway very difficult.

The samurai account says the commander ordered a direct hit on the ship. “They ordered fire to be directed at the waterline in the red copper sheathed area. Two cannon balls hit and shook the ship badly,” it reads.

Complied by Ian Howarth with thanks to the ABC for parts of this story

Feature photo: A painting of the ship by samurai Makita Hamaguchi Tokushima prefectural archive.