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Oregon Indian prince was Japan's introduction to the West

In his short 11-month stay on the island nation, he taught 14 Imperial diplomats to speak English, and impressed them with his gentility and respectfulness. And after a long, adventurous life in Canada, his last word was, “Sayonara.”

Ranald MacDonald as he appeared in the 1870s, after his return to North America. (Image: WSU Libraries)

Ranald MacDonald was overcome with emotion as he watched the whaling ship disappear over the sea, leaving him behind in his small open boat. No doubt he had at least a moment of doubt. His plan was audacious almost to the point of recklessness: He intended to deliberately land on the closed and forbidden island of Japan, present himself as a shipwreck victim, and hope for the best.

Ranald’s situation was made the more intriguing because of who he was. He was no ordinary mariner; he was the highly educated and polished son of Archibald McDonald of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Princess Raven, daughter of Chief Concomly of the Chinook Tribe. In other words, he was both an English gentleman and an Indian prince. In him, the native holders of the Columbia River lands had a direct blood connection with Great Britain.

Had things gone just a little differently, Ranald might have become the founding father of a greater British Columbia — one encompassing all of Washington and most of Oregon.

But Ranald had no idea. As far as he knew, he was just another sailor, albeit one with more education than most. Like many sailors, he craved adventure. And he meant to find it here, in the forbidding and whispered-about land of Japan.

When he finally arrived on the shore, Ranald found the locals quite frightened — not of him, but of the Imperial Japanese authorities. Japan, during this time, had a surprisingly low threshold for the death penalty. At one point, Ranald was shocked to learn that a jail guard who had brought his wife and children to see him had been summarily decapitated as punishment.

The village in which he had arrived soon sent him along to Nagasaki, the Japanese port city at which a limited trickle of trade was conducted with carefully selected Dutch and Chinese merchants.

The monument to Ranald MacDonald in Nagasaki, Japan, the site of his residence/captivity while he was there. (Image: friendsofmacdonald.com)

After meeting with the local authorities, Ranald was basically placed under house arrest for roughly a year while the Japanese waited for a Dutch trading ship to return. At this time, alone among Western nations, the Dutch had a tenuous monopoly of trade with Japan. It was all done through intermediaries who shuttled back and forth to the tiny island that was the only place the traders were allowed to go.

While Ranald waited for the return of the Dutch ship, though, some of the translators who had been painstakingly learning Dutch started coming to see him. Japan had been coming under increasing pressure from British and American merchant fleets trying to get access to their markets, and the government was increasingly aware that its isolationism wouldn’t protect it for much longer. To properly deal with the “barbarians,” it needed people who could speak to them directly, without resorting to two-step translation through Dutch.

So the translators had been trying to learn English. They’d created a Japanese-Dutch dictionary, and acquired a Dutch-English one; but through this two-step process, they had made very little progress. When Ranald arrived, they eagerly flocked to his house/jail.

Soon his room became, in the words of author William Griffis (quoted by Roe), “a house of reception, lit with wax candles on low square stands. Men of all orders came to see and talk.”

A total of fourteen Samurai spent that year learning English from Ranald and carrying on conversations at all hours.

Ten months passed by, and it must have seemed all too soon that an American Navy ship arrived looking for a gang of deserters. The ship was Ranald’s ticket back to the west. Bidding farewell to his Nagasaki friends, he boarded the ship and was off.

Behind him, he left a nation that was now actually ready to open itself to the outside world once again. When American Navy Commodore Matthew Perry arrived a few years later, Ranald’s students were able to meet him and his officers in proper style.

But more importantly, their contact with Ranald — the first well-educated North American Englishman they’d encountered — had left the Japanese with a very favorable impression. Two centuries earlier, they had had a wholly different experience with Portuguese traders and missionaries, whose dishonesty, contempt and aggressiveness had inspired Japan’s closing in the first place. In Ranald, they saw an emissary of a completely different sort of Western power, one they could work with on a basis of mutual respect.

After he left Japan, Ranald knocked around the world for another dozen years or so. He went to Australia, where he joined the gold rush there. Then he returned home to Western Canada (just a few months too late to see his father again; Archibald MacDonald died thinking Ranald drowned off Japan) but in time for a joyful reunion with Jane MacDonald, the woman he still thought was his biological mother. It was then that he learned of the truth of his birth — but of course, his ancestral lands were now officially part of the United States of America, and the hour for claiming his patrimony was past. This doesn’t seem to have much troubled him, though.

Ranald spent the remainder of his life pursuing opportunities in British Columbia. He launched a freight business in the gold fields of the Fraser River and the Cariboo, and was part of an expedition to explore Vancouver Island. In all his dealings, he was known as a courteous, mild-mannered, friendly and good-hearted man. Occasionally, people would interpret that as weakness, and find out the hard way that Ranald MacDonald was as tough as they come. There are several stories from his life on the rugged frontiers of the world, where people do things like pull knives on him and then wake up a few hours later with a splitting headache wondering what happened.

Ranald never did go back to Japan. But his short stay in the country left an impression on him. In 1894, at the age of 70, now living at Fort Colville in Washington State, he fell sick with influenza, and his niece, Jenny Lynch, left her home in Ferry County and came to see him. Finding him in very bad shape, she brought him home with her to nurse him back to health — but a few days later, he died. His last words, spoken to Jenny, were, “Sayonara, my dear, sayonara.”

(Sources: Roe, JoAnn. Ranald MacDonald: Pacific Rim Adventurer. Pullman: WSU Press, 1997; friendsofmacdonald.com)