Thursday, 14 September 2017

‘Algernon and Ernest’s Excellent Adventure’ by Lesley Downer

In October 1866 a young man called Algernon Mitford arrived in Japan. ‘I found myself in a world younger by six centuries than that which I had left behind,’ he recalled. Like the eponymous heroes of the 1989 film ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’, he had stepped into a time machine, but in his case, his experiences were real.

The extraordinary world that Mitford found himself in is the setting for The Shogun’s Queen as well as the other Shogun Quartet novels. One of the most exciting parts of my research was reading Mitford’s Memories. His writing is so vivid, fresh and full of life that he brings alive that Japan of a century and a half ago that was even then on the brink of disappearing.
Algernon Freeman Mitford
portrait by 
Samuel Lawrence, 1865

Japan had been largely closed to outsiders for 250 years, until 1853 when the American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived to force open its doors. Just eight years had passed since 1858 when a treaty was negotiated permitting westerners to visit, trade and settle in a few specific ports.
Ernest Satow 1869

Algernon - the grandfather of the famous Mitford sisters - was 29 years old and had been posted to Japan to join the newly established British Legation under Sir Harry Parkes. He had paid his own way. In those days you had to have private means to be a diplomat.

Another of the officials at the legation was the 23 year old Ernest Satow, from Clapton. He’d arrived in Japan in 1862 and was fluent in written and spoken Japanese. The two became firm friends. Satow, too, later wrote his memoirs, a gripping account entitled A Diplomat in Japan.

At the time there were few westerners in Japan and most were confined to the heaving port of Yokohama. In those days Yokohama was like a wild west gold rush town, populated largely by unscrupulous adventurers who’d gravitated there, pretending to be merchants or traders, out to make a quick buck by fair means or foul. The only westerners allowed to live and travel outside the port were diplomats attached to the legation - like Mitford and Satow.

'younger by six centuries' pic from Rutherford Alcock
The Capital of the Tykoon 1863
After several of their small wooden houses had burnt down in the regular fires that took place, the two set up house in Edo, now Tokyo, in a little temple in Shinagawa, near the Legation, in the south east of the city, as far as possible from Edo Castle where the shogun lived. It was the roughest part of town, a ‘sinister and ill-famed quarter’. On a morning ride they sometimes passed a headless body lying at the side of the road, the aftermath of a vendetta execution.

'Like hobgoblins of a nightmare'
Samurai by Felice Beato
‘Edo,’ Mitford writes in his stirring prose, ‘was like the Edinburgh of the olden days with the cries of the clans and the clash of arms ringing in its wynds and alleys, and a Walter Scott is needed to tell the tale.’

Shinagawa was where the execution ground was. The standard mode of execution was crucifixion on a X shaped cross and Mitford writes of seeing the executioners, who were of the outcaste class, sitting peacefully smoking their spindly pipes, having finished their work for the day, with the corpse still hanging on the cross.

In Japan this was a time of enormous and dramatic change with the empire-building British doing their best to interfere in every means possible so as to advance Britain’s influence and power. Mitford and Satow hobnobbed with all the major players on both sides of what was rapidly developing into full scale civil war. They dined with the last shogun, Tokugawa Keiki, who features in The Shogun’s Queen. Mitford describes him as ‘the handsomest man that I saw during all the years that I was in Japan. ... He was a great noble if ever there was one.’ 
Tokugawa Keiki, the Last Shogun, 1867

Mitford also witnessed some of the fighting that brought about the fall of the shogunate and saw troops of samurai in full armour ‘with crested helms and fiercely moustachioed visors’ and streamers of horsehair floating to their waists, ‘like hobgoblins out of a nightmare.’

But the biggest adventure was a trip which the two took overland through territory which no westerner had ever passed through before. They travelled by palanquin with a guard of twenty men. Crowds gathered to see what to their eyes were ‘strange wild beasts.’ 

Whenever the two were out of sight of people they walked though in order to preserve their dignity they had to squeeze back into their cramped and uncomfortable palanquins whenever they passed through a populated area.

They were nearing the end of their journey when they came to a hurdle. Impatient to reach their destination, Osaka, they had decided to take a short cut. But the officials they met up with that night argued incessantly that they should take the regular route, which was longer. The officials dreamt up all sorts of arguments but Mitford and Satow were well aware of the real reason - to keep them away from the sacred city of Kyoto which no westerner had ever been allowed to visit and which would be defiled even by their proximity.

'cramped and uncomfortable' - palanquin
Eventually Mitford, exasperated, demanded that the officials put their arguments in writing and said that if they did so they would comply with their demands. The officials did so and the two men reluctantly took the longer route. 

They reached Osaka two days later, having been on the road for 15 days. Only then did they learn by chance that there had been four hundred samurai lying in wait along the shorter route to ambush them, intending to cut them down to punish them for defiling the neighbourhood of the sacred city. ‘Had we taken the route which we proposed we should have been dead men,’ Mitford wrote.

Unknowingly the Japanese officials had saved their lives.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun's Queen, set in the world of Mitford’s Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see


Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating! Great story about the narrow escape...

Penny Dolan said...

Their stories - and your book - sound very exciting!