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船員と犬 A watercolour of a foreign sailor and his dog by Japanese Samurai artist Makita Hamaguchi in 1830. Image courtesy of Tokushima prefectural archive

In the early 19th century Japan had closed its doors to foreign ships in an effort to resist colonisation. One day in January 1830, a British flagged ship appeared off the coast of Mugi, in Shikoku, southern Japan. A low-ranking Samurai official duly recorded information about the ship and its crew before being ordered to send it away by firing cannon at the vessel. The ship, the brig Cyprus, was in fact a pirated vessel with a crew of escaped convicts from Tasmania under the command of the self-styled ‘Captain William Swallow’. Until now, this wonderful record of Australian pirates in Japan has been sitting, unrecognised in a Japanese archive.

イギリス船 A watercolour of a British-flagged ship that arrived off the coast of Mugi, in Shikoku, Japan in 1830, by Samurai artist Makita Hamaguchi newly discovered in the Tokushima prefectural archive. Image courtesy of Tokushima prefectural archive

Earlier this year, Nick Russell, a Japan-based English teacher and history buff, came across this wonderful manuscript with images in the Tokushima archives. It showed a meticulous documenting of the visit of a British ship in 1830, at a time when any ‘barbarian’ vessel had to be reported and probably turned away. Japan had instituted an isolationist policy under the Tokugawa shogunate from the mid-1600s. Called ‘Sakoku’ 鎖国 or ‘closed country’, severe restrictions were placed on the entry of foreigners which remained in place until the ‘gunboat diplomacy’ of American Commodore Perry forced the opening of Japan to trade with all western nations in 1866.

Nick Russell became intrigued with the manuscript and finding out what vessel it may have been. He came across references to the capture of the brig Cyprus by convicts in Tasmania and their journey to Japan and then China in 1829-1830. While many historians had thought the visit to Japan may have been an embellishment of an escape story, Nick’s detective work – published recently in The Guardian newspaper – and the NSW State Library’s Warwick Hirst (author of The Man Who Stole the Cyprus) have confirmed it. Nick has brought to life a maritime connection between Australia and Japan from early 19th century – at the height of Japan’s isolation from the world.

機関部 Makita Hamaguchi described and carefully painted the details of the foreigners’ equipment and clothing, including hats, pipes and even Captain Swallow’s colourful red coat – possibly fashioned from captured British officer’s scarlet cloth. Image courtesy of Tokushima prefectural archive

The brig Cyprus had travelled a long way from Tasmania. Before this it was transporting a group of convicts from Hobart to Macquarie Harbour in 1829, when a group of them took an opportunity to seize the vessel, put their guard ashore and sail away – with a rough plan of heading to Tahiti or China.

Warwick Hirst Great Escapes by Convicts in Colonial Australia Kangaroo Press, Sydney 1999

Warwick Hirst The man who stole the brig Cyrpus, Rosenberg, Sydney, 2008

Frank Clune and P R Stephensen The Pirates of the Brig Cyprus, William Morrow, NY, 1963

Sydney A Spence The Mutiny & Piratical Seizure of the Convict-brig Cyprus, etc.; Being the Apprehension, Trial, Sentence, of the Mutineers, 1968


Stephen Gapps

Dr Stephen Gapps is the museum's Senior Curator, Voyaging and Early Colonial Maritime History.