How A Band of Japanese Ronin
Helped Win The American Revolutionary War
By Chris Oakley
On the surface, the very idea sounds like something Harry Turtledove might have conceived on an acid high after watching an all-night anime marathon: Japanese mercenaries, or ronin1, crossing the world’s oceans to settle in the New World in the early 1600s and founding family lines that would later play a critical role in helping the United States win her independence from Great Britain. But as the old cliché goes, truth can be stranger than fiction.
Before Japan isolated herself from the outside world around 1654, European traders and missionaries visited the island nation on a fairly regular basis, often as not bringing with them news of the great European powers’ explorations of the then-mostly uncharted continent that had been dubbed "America" after Italian cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, who’d drawn the first crude map of North America back in 1497. One of these traders, a British merchant who specialized in the fur trade, inspired a group of ronin from the Yokohama area to take to the sea in the summer of 1615 to visit this strange land called Virginia where the merchant’s fellow Englishmen were said to be building a colony.
The voyage from Japan to North America, which took the ronin through some of the roughest seas imaginable, spanned almost two years and climaxed at the mouth of the James River late in the spring of 1617. Some of the ronin had brought their servants and families with them, and the arrival of this exotic retinue inevitably stirred up curiosity and amazement among the residents of the Jamestown colony located along the river’s edge. Likewise, the ronin were just as startled by the huge English encampment situated right in the midst of what seemed like endless miles of dense forest.
One of the ronin, a man named Daisuke Tamagura, had learned the English language in his younger days from books left behind by a Jesuit missionary; accordingly, Tamagura’s comrades chose him to be their ambassador to the Jamestown settlement. In somewhat rusty but serviceable English, Tamagura told the settlement leaders that if they would consent to put aside a small plot of land for him and his companions to build temporary homes on, the ronin would return the favor by guarding the Jamestown colony against outside attack. After considerable debate amongst themselves the settlement leaders agreed to Tamagura’s proposal-- and a partnership that would change the face of North America was born.
Despite being one of the youngest of the ronin who made the voyage to North America, Tamagura soon became the de facto "mayor" of the modest Japanese outpost that was established next door to Jamestown. His negotiations with the leaders of Jamestown had brought out his leadership talents; his proficiency for navigating rough terrain was highly valuable when it came time to mounting hunting and fishing expeditions; and his knowledge of English was an asset in the Japanese settlement’s dealings with the Jamestown residents.
The Powhatan Indians who lived in the woodlands near the two settlements were wary of the alien newcomers they dubbed the "Long Knives"2; Tamagura and his comrades-in-arms were in many respects even stranger to the Powhatans than the Englishmen who had come to the Powhatan homeland ten years earlier. Though the Powhatan people were unaware of Japan’s long military heritage, the way Tamagura and his fellow ronin carried themselves made it clear to the Indians that these were not men to be trifled with.
About a year after the Japanese colony had been established, the Powhatans got a harsh taste of just how ferocious the ronin could be as fighters when one of Tamagura’s sentries caught a rogue party of warriors attempting to make a foray into one of the colony’s outer sections. Tamagura himself led the counterattack against the Indians, personally killing at least three members of the raiding party with his sword; two other Powhatans fell at the hands of Tamagura’s best archer, Ichiro Miyazawa. Rather than risk the Long Knives’ wrath any further, the surviving Powhatans retreated to the safety of their own village, where they were severely punished by tribal leaders for their recklessness.
Tamagura and Miyazawa viewed the Powhatan raid as an insult to their honor; they went to the leaders of the Jamestown settlement to enlish their support for a retaliatory attack on the Powhatans to avenge the insult. Their request fell on very willing ears-- the Englishmen realized all too well that it could just as easily have been Jamestown that was raided, and that next time the Powhatans attacked it would probably be in much greater numbers.
On June 15th, 1618 Tamagura’s men and a party of militia from Jamestown marched on the main Powhatan encampment and decimated most of its adult male population in a pitched battle that lasted more than six hours. The ronin and the English colonists sustained heavy losses themselves; Ichiro Miyazawa was seriously injured by Powhatan arrows before the engagement was over and would spend three days recovering from his wounds. The surviving Powhatan males and their families, seeking to avert the carnage that another fight with the Long Knives was sure to bring, withdrew further into the Virginia woods. That withdrawal marked the beginning of the end for Powhatan control of the territories in the James River area; by the fall of 1620, as additional British colonies were being started in Virginia and in the Cape Cod region of what is now Massachusetts, the colonists at Jamestown and their Japanese allies effectively owned most of the James River region.
Most of the ronin hadn’t known much about firearms when they first arrived in Virginia, but they turned out to be very quick learners. Under the tutelage of the Englishmen at Jamestown, they first mastered the rifle and then became experts in the use of the flintlock pistol; once they’d grasped the basics of that weapon, they began receiving instruction in how to load and fire cannon. In a generation’s time Tamagura and his descendants would shift from learning the use of British guns to manufacturing their own.
Those guns became the first source of dissension within the ranks of the Japanese colonists in Virginia. Some of Tamagura’s fellow ronin felt such weapons were dishonorable, an affront to the bushido code by which all samurai-- ronin included --governed their lives and combat actions. But there were also many men in Tamagura’s camp, including Tamagura himself, who defended these weapons as being a vital necessity in their new homeland. Ichiro Miyazawa in particular came to feel that guns were better than longbows for battling enemies wearing armor; he knew that France and Spain were both challenging his British allies(as well as each other) for supremacy in the New World, and that a Spanish or French attack on Jamestown and the Japanese settlement nearby was a distinct possibility. Thus he was determined that if such an attack came the Japanese colonists and their British neighbors should be able to match their foes rifle for rifle.
There would be many long, loud, and increasingly bitter debates among the men of the Japanese colony over the gun issue. By the spring of 1621, one British colonial leader at Jamestown had written in his personal diary: "There is much Dissension amongst their number...this day I have heard Goodman3 Miyazawa quarreling most bitterly with one of his brethren over the Subject of whether their colony should continue to sanction the use and manufacture of gunns(sic) by its populace. I know but little of our neighbours’ tongue, but from what I have been able to learn it was clear that Goodman Miyazawa’s antagonist was most adamant the practice was an abomination to their ancestors’ code of honor and should be abolished without delay. Goodman Miyazawa did not agree with this point of view and insisted that the practice ought to continue...I should think they might have actually come to blows had not Goodman Tamagura intervened to end the affair."
The author of that particular journal, one Edward Pangborn, would have occasion to record many more such confrontations in the months ahead. The gun question had split Tamagura’s once-unified community wide-open, and the split would get wider with each passing day as spring morphed into summer, summer turned into fall, and fall became winter.
The violent showdown between the pro-gun and anti-gun factions that Pangborn had expressed fears about in his diary finally came to pass in January of 1622 as the Tamagura settlement erupted in one of the first and bloodiest cases of civil unrest in Virginia’s history. Although exact estimates of the casualty count from that confrontation vary from one account to the next, modern history scholars are for the most part in agreement that the death toll alone must have been over 200. Nearly two dozen homes in the Tamagura settlement were burned to the ground and Tamagura’s own house sustained considerable damage at the hands of the anti-gun faction. Tamagura, in despair over the fact that the community he’d established and worked so long to maintain was tearing itself apart, might have committed hara-kiri4 had his gentle and perceptive wife Hiroko not persuaded him to remember that he would be needed to restore order to the Japanese colony and mete out justice to those who were responsible for starting the unrest...
To Be Continued
1To be more precise, ronin were samurai who for one reason or another had lost their lords and hired their martial services out to make ends meet until they could find a new lord.
2A reference to the katana swords which were the samurai’s customary weapons in those days.
3A once-popular synonym for "Mr." among British colonists in the New World; it was widely used until the mid-18th century.
4The traditional Japanese samurai’s ritual form of suicide.