The other day, I was scrolling absently through the abstracts in a recent issue of Pacific Science, when a paper by Hiroshi Kudoh made me do a double-take. Its subject was the typically modest question of modern evolutionary biology: how to explain the loss of seed buoyancy in Hibiscus glaber, a species of hibiscus found in the subtropical Ogasawara Islands, a Japanese owned archipelago about 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo. The paper compares H. glaber with H. tiliaceus, its pan-tropic progenitor, and finds that the air spaces in the seeds of H. glaber are smaller than those in the seeds of H. tiliaceus. Kudoh et al. attribute this to a shift in habitat as H. glaber moved inland. Presumably, seed buoyancy becomes less valuable the farther a plant gets from the sea.
But it wasn’t the paper’s science that got my attention. It was the title of the paper: “Loss of Seed Buoyancy in Hibiscus glaber on the Oceanic Bonin Islands.”
The Bonin Islands–another name for the Ogasawara Islands–share a largely forgotten connection with Hawaii, one that has fascinated me since I chanced upon fragmentary memoir of the lonely archipelago. Here it is, in brief:
Although the Bonin Islands are well served with the basic necessities of life–abundant fish, arable soil, reliable sources of water–they were situated far from traditional sailing routes in the Pacific. Consequently, even though they were claimed at various times by Spanish, English and American explorers, and apparently visited by a Japanese expeditionary force as early as 1670, the islands had no permanent inhabitants until well into the 19th Century–just the occasional shipwrecked sailor anxiously awaiting rescue. The word “bonin,” in fact, is an archaic version of “bunin”, meaning “no people,” or “uninhabited.”
That changed in 1830, when a group of colonists arrived by sloop from Honolulu. Honolulu was already common port of call for whalers, and apparently,there was quite a bit of talk among the sailors and merchants about the “newly discovered islands” ever since the uninhabited archipelago was claimed by the British explorer Captain Beechey three years earlier. With the support of the British Consul to Hawaii, a group of Western adventurers, included two Americans, a Dane, and a man variously listed as Italian or Croatian, set sail for Bonin in early May, arriving a month later. Most accounts of the Bonin Islands add, almost as an afterthought, that these Westerners were accompanied by as many as 25 Native Hawaiians, or Kanaka, including seven women. These 30 to 35 settlers, (accounts vary as to the exact number), along with an assortment of castaways and beachcombers who joined them over the next two or three decades, became the progenitors of what ethnologists call the Bonin Islanders. Their story is an interesting one.
Much of what we know about the settlers and their heirs comes from The History of the Bonin Islanders, an account by Lionel Cholmondelely, the Anglican chaplain to the British Embassy in Tokyo, who visited the islands sixteen times between 1894 and 1922. According to Cholmondeley, the longtime leader of the Bonin colony was a former American sailor named Nathaniel Savory. Savory, who, despite his nationality, spent most of his early life working on British ships, apparent became stranded in Honolulu, in 1829, after being injured in a shipboard accident. While recovering from surgery, he joined in with a group of Westerners that were trying to get the British consul to support an expedition to the newly discovered islands. Surprisingly, the Consul agreed–maybe because of Bonin’s strategic location close to the then mysterious country of Japan–and helped provide for and provision a ship.
Once they arrived, there were conflicts between the colonists. The ostensible leader of the group, Matteo Mazzaro, the Italian (or Croat) fought with Savory. There were arguments about property and leadership and personal conflicts as well. Nevertheless, Mazzaro remained the titular leader of the colony for several years. But when Mazzaro died in 1848, Savory married his widow, and became the undisputed leader of the Islanders until his death in 1874 at the age of 80. Much of the history of the island is tied up in his interactions with the ships that visited the port, especially the incursions by pirates and marauding crews of some whalers. There also continued to be conflict among the islanders themselves.
But the biggest challenge for the original Bonin Islanders and their descendants came with the arrival of Japanese colonists, beginning with a failed expedition in 1861, and followed by a more successful waves of settlers starting in 1875. Japan’s claim on the islands was tenuous, but dated back more than 200 years. Nevertheless, their proximity made them much more likely colonizers than Spain or England, both of which may have had prior claim to the islands. In time, the growing number of Japanese settlers would swamp the small population of Bonin Islanders. Eventually, the Bonin Islands were subsumed into the Japanese Empire (despite a visit from Commodore Perry, who even bought a stretch of land along the harbor to help insure American title) and the Islanders were made citizens of Japan.Gradually, they intermarried with the Japanese population, and, bit by bit, the culture and language of the Bonin Islanders changed. But it’s fascinating to reflect on the little we now know about it.
First, in this polyglot group of early settlers, Native Hawaiians predominated. As a consequence, the Bonin Islander culture seems to have had a distinctly Hawaiian flavor, including a taste for lei and a kind of local version of hula. Maybe more interesting is the lingua franca of the Islands, a kind of English dominated pidgin that shared a lot of the features of Hawaiian pidgin. That may also be partly because of the predominance of the descendants of Savory, who, like the early missionaries in Hawaii, was a New Englander. Finally, it’s intriguing to find that the Hawaii connection didn’t end with Bonin’s colonization. There seems to have been a steady (well, as steady as the Age of Sail allowed) correspondence between the two archipelagos. In fact, Mazzaro made at least two separate trips back to Honolulu to try to secure more support from the English Consul, and at least two more Native Hawaiians made the trip to Bonin. Savory also maintained contact with some of the merchants in Hawaii. (He also kept of a lengthy and fascinating correspondence with his relatives in New England.)
The tail end of the Bonin story is also fascinating. Bonin would play an important role in WWII. At the outset of the war, the Japanese removed all the Bonin Islanders back to Japan and fortified the Islands as a supply base. In fact, the larger geographic entity, the Ogasawara Islands, include the famous Iwo Jima. When George Bush was shot down as a Navy pilot, it was within sight of Chichi-jima, the largest of the Bonin Islands, which was also the site of one of the most notorious Japanese prisoner of war camps. War crimes trials, after the war, led to the hanging of several Japanese officers on Chichi-jima.
Amazingly, though, many of the Bonin Islanders were rounded up after the war and returned to Bonin, which, like many Pacific Islands post WWII, fell under the administration of the U.S. Navy. This was a kind of hey-day for the Bonin Islanders, who, for the first time in nearly a century, once again predominated in the local population. It was a time of interest, among ethnographers and linguists, in their unique heritage. But it wouldn’t last.
In 1963, without consulting the Bonin Islanders, the Navy restored ownership of the archipelago to Japan. Not surprisingly, many of the former inhabitants and their children began to return. Quickly, the population of ethnic Japanese once again overwhelmed that of the Bonin Islanders, and, over the ensuing five decades, the unique island language and culture has begun to vanish. Travelers say you can still find a few of the old-timers who, despite the dilutions of intermarriage and the dominance of Japanese culture, still maintain a bit of their peculiar, and ever so slightly Hawaiian, heritage. Just not for much longer.