The Lazarus Project and the Wreck of the “Viking”

Re-imaging the Opening of Japan

 Guest post submitted by Gregory Heyworth Director of the Lazarus Project  and Associate Professor of English at the University of Mississippi.

“The past,” as Faulkner said, “is never dead. It isn’t even past.” This past May, a team of imaging scientists and students from the Lazarus Project, an initiative to recover damaged manuscripts using multispectral imaging technology housed at the University of Mississippi, arrived at the New Bedford Whaling Museum to prove Faulkner right.

The object of interest was a damaged logbook from 1862 faded into near illegibility. The method involved photographing the manuscript with a cutting edge 50-megapixel camera and LED light arrays in twelve wavelengths between the ultraviolet and the infrared. With careful image processing, multispectral photography can “see” text that has been washed away, faded and charred.

Lazarus Project

 [Image before and after]

While Drs. Gregory Heyworth and Roger Easton from the Lazarus Team regularly deal with ancient manuscripts, modern manuscripts can be equally challenging and historically important. That is certainly the case with much of the New Bedford collection. The significance of this particular logbook begins two centuries before the shipwreck of the Fairhaven merchant vessel off the coast of Japan.

For two hundred years between 1633 and 1853, while Western Europe was moving from Renaissance to Enlightnment to Industrial Revolution, Japan languished frozen in the past, a Hermit Kingdom cut-off from the rest of the world. Under the policy of the Tokugawa Shogunate known as the sakoku, any foreigner attempting to enter Japan did so upon pain of death, while natives were forbidden from leaving Japan. Aside from limited contact with the Dutch, Japan had no trade dealings with the West whatsoever.

As we all learned in high school history, all that changed in 1852-54 when Admiral Matthew Perry “opened” Japan, establishing a trade relationship and mutual amity. The truth, however, is more complicated. Perry’s “opening” of Japan was really an act of coercion, backed up by outright threats of military annihilation by a modern fleet of steam-driven warships. In practice, the Japanese capitulation was widely resisted by the general populace and the sakoku with its death-sentence for foreigners remained unchallenged.

Alongside the political narrative of the opening of Japan, scholars have been turning to the logbooks of whaling and merchant vessels to establish a more accurate social narrative of the period. The 1832 the shipwreck of Japanese fishermen on the coast of Washington, followed in 1841 by the more famous rescue of Manjiro and another crew of Japanese fisherman by a whaler off the coast of Japan, offer firsthand accounts of crucial early contact and the germs of a fragile detente between cultures without which Perry’s  trade treaties could never have succeeded in practice.

Among these early relations, perhaps none is more historically significant, and yet less studied, that the wreck of the Fairhaven merchant ship the Viking in 1863. With a crew of Americans and 400 Chinese immigrants, the Viking ran aground on the small Japanese island of Mikurajima. Faced by the suddeness of this foreign intrusion, the villagers took steps to execute the crew according to the law of sakoku until the village secretary intervened. In the ensuing months, a genuine friendship, aided by their creation of the first Japanese-English dictionary, grew between the sailors and villagers. In many ways, a truly open, modern Japan began on this small island, and its story is preserved in this unique neglected record of the Viking.

The Lazarus Project hopes to continue the process of recovery by collaborating with the New Bedford Whailing Museum in the creation of a digital archive of 19th century Japanese-American maritime relations held by the museum into a digital archive.

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