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The Earliest British Accounts of Okinawa

by Michael Clayton

Captain William Broughton of HMS Providence is considered the first Western official to make contact with Okinawa (Great Loo Choo) in 1793. He spent 2 days in Naha harbour and reported back to the King of England about the possible advantageous trading position this port held in the region. However, due to British focus on the Napoleonic wars it was not until 1816 that Okinawa was finally visited and surveyed by Captain Murray Maxwell of the HMS Alceste and Captain Basil Hall of the HMS Lyra. The Island was subsequently visited again in 1827 by Captain Beechey of the HMS Blossom.

The written accounts of these captains are an enjoyable read and provide fascinating insights into the Island. The people of Uchina (Okinawa) are consistently described as liberal, kind and warm natured. They are primitive but decent people who hold elders in great reverence. Women are not seen to be treated particularly well with restrictions on their movements, social interaction and expectations of them to undertake physical work and there are also clear class divisions as is consistent with cultures of the time. However other aspects of the culture are particularly enlightened: children are treated well and appear to be respected, weapons and violence are discouraged, monogamous relations are the norm, fashion and physical presentation are important and good manners are of the highest order of sophistication.

At the time, the British noticed that religion (Buddhism) was not taken very seriously on Okinawa and though the monks were respected, they were also generally disregarded. The monks were not in a healthy condition as can become the way for Buddhist monks.

Captain Hall in 1816 wrote:


“We saw no arms of any kind, and the natives always declared that they had none. Their behaviour on seeing a musket fired certainly implied an ignorance of fire-arms. In a cottage at the north end of the island, we saw a spear which had the appearance of a warlike weapon, but we had every reason to believe that this was used for the sole purpose of catching fish, having seen others not very dissimilar actu ally employed in this way. They looked at our swords and cutlasses, and at the Malay creeses and spears, with equal surprise, being apparently as little acquainted with the one as with the other. The chiefs carried little case knives in the folds of their robes, or in the girdle, and the lower orders had a larger knife, but these were always of some immediate practical utility, and were not worn for defence nor as ornaments. They denied having any knowledge of war either by experience or by tradition”.


Captain Beechey thought the absence of weapons was only superficial, in 1827 wrote:


“I am, therefore, disposed to believe that the Loo Chooans have weapons, and that they are similar to those in use in China. And with regard to the objection which none of them having ever been seen in Loo Choo would offer, I can only say, that while I was in China, with the exception of the cannon in the forts, I did not see a weapon of any kind, though that people is well known to possess them”.


There is no mention of Karate/Kobudo or any other fighting in the captains' accounts other than one incident after a drunken party. The English and Okinawans spent a lot of time drinking sake and wine.


Captain Hall reports:


“On returning to the cabin to tea, they were all in high spirits, and while amusing themselves with a sort of wrest ling game, Ookooma [Ed: One of the Okinawan men], who had seen us placing ourselves in sparring attitudes, threw himself suddenly into the boxer's position of defence, assuming at the same time a fierceness of look which we had never before seen in any of them. The gentleman to whom he addressed himself, thinking that Ookooma wished to spar, prepared to indulge him; but Madera's [Ed: Another Okinawan man} quick eye saw what was going on, and by a word or two made him instantly resume his wonted sedateness. We tried in vain to make Madera explain what were the magical words which he had used to Ookooma. He appeared anxious to turn our thoughts from the subject, by — no fight, no good, no, no. Ingerish very good, yes, yes, yes; Loo-choo man no fight. Possibly he considered that Ookooma was taking too great a liberty; or, perhaps, he thought even the semblance of fighting unsuitable with the strict amity subsisting between us”.

“We found that the Loo-choo surgeon had placed Captain Maxwell's broken finger in a thick paste made of eggs, flour, and some other substance which he brought along with him. He then wrapped the whole in the skin of a newly-killed fowl. This skin dried in a short time and held the paste firm, by which the broken finger was kept steady”- Captain Hall.


The British had no idea that Okinawa was controlled and subdued by the Japanese at this time. The Japanese were never mentioned to the officers. It was noticed that the Okinawans displayed some peculiar behaviour when it came to diplomacy and with retrospect we can understand why. The British saw little profit in Loo-Choo as it “lies quite out of the track, of trading ships, and does not appear to produce anything of value itself, and as the inhabitants seem indifferent about foreign commodities, and if they wished to possess them are without money to make purchases”. For this reason they were protected from colonial advances.


The British Officers met the Prince of Okinawa in 1816 who declared that the nation had no knowledge of other countries or cultures other than the Chinese, Koreans and of course Japanese.  As such diplomatic relations between England and Okinawa were the first for the West. The Prince was a kind and inquisitive man who took particular interest in maps of the world. He showed particular concern when Captain Maxwell broke his finger, and here we learn that the Okinawans used a form of plaster cast for bone repairs.

One of the most valuable contributions of this visit are the drawings made of the Okinawan people at this time in full colour, this can be seen throughout this article and were drawn by Captain Hall and his surgeon. The descriptions of their clothing is vivid in the text and well represented in the illustrations. One of the most intriguing apsects of the Okinawan’s appearance are the presence of tattoos. They were not common, and were more prevalent amongst the fishermen. One tattoo is particularly prominent perhaps for Kobudo-Ka, that of a trident. An image which of course has strong connections to the sea, but also has a passing resemblance to the sai.

The relations between the Okinawans and the British were particularly warm and friendly and involved much mirth, good humour and the exchange of gifts. The British so trusted the Okinawans that they were free to wander their ships without guard or supervision. They shared as much science and equipment with the Okinawans as the time permitted. The Okinawans, understandably cautious of the British with their warships and firearms learned to respect that the British were not there to attack and steal, but to explore, discover and exchange. The Okinawan people have so much to offer the world. It does seem that they lived somewhat close to Utopian lives. Through our Kobudo we can help share Okinawan culture, this was the hope of Matayoshi Shinpo at least.


Written 2016

The island Okinawa was referred to as ‘Great Loo Choo’ by the visitors as it had been described to them by the Chinese, this is a variation of now widely accepted term Ryu Kyu. Much of the 1816 visit was concerned with trying to understand each other’s cultures and a great deal of learning took place. The first attempt at recording the Okinawan language was made during the 1816 visit by the Brit Herbet John Clifford and it is clear that there have been changes in pronunciation and form since that time.


Some interesting words for Kobudo-Ka include: Rope is ‘Cheena’ (suruchin) , Oar is ‘Wayacoo’ (ueku), Pitchfork is ‘ Feera’, Shield is ‘Timbayee’ (Timbei), Fishing spear is ‘Tooga ooyoong’, Sword is ‘Tatchee’, Arm/hand is ‘Tee’, Wood for carrying across the shoulders is ‘Baw’ (bo), to kick is ‘King’, Knuckles are ‘Foochee’. Counting to ten is: Itchee, nee, sang, shee, goo, rooku, st’chee, fat’chee, coo, joo.


On the subject of Kobudo, all British officers noticed the absence of weapons on the island.

Loo Choo Map Chart Priest and gentleman of loo choo Loo Choo Prince party 1818 Prince of Loo Choo 1818 Loochoo tattoo 1816 LooChoo Tattoo 1830