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The British in Bakumatsu Japan: The Anglo-Satsuma War

In time, the relationship between the British and the Satsuma blossomed into a great friendship. After the Meiji restoration, many members of the Satsuma clan filled important posts in the government.



The Anglo Satsuma War (London Illustrated News)


(Third of 5 parts)

Part 1:  The British in Bakumatsu Japan: The Tozenji Incident

Part 2: The British in Bakumatsu Japan: The Namamugi Incident

Negotiations with the Tokugawa Shogunate (London Illustrated News)

The Bakumatsu era and subsequent Meiji restoration were a turbulent time in Japan. It is a bittersweet, complicated period in Japanese history filled with feats of great valor mixed with the sadness of needless ritual suicides and assassinations of passionate young men of opposing forces who all, at the end of the day, only wanted the same thing: to protect the country that they loved. 

There are various storylines that interlink and overlap the many different complicated aspects of this period. This series of articles focuses on events involving British civilians and legation or embassy staff in Japan during the turbulent Bakumatsu era, and features images and eyewitness accounts and reports from the time about the Tozenji, Namamugi, and Joi incidents.

This is Part 3 of the series, which is published in chronological order. 

Following the murder of Charles Lennox Richardson on the Tokaido Road on the September, 14, 1862, uproar had ensued in the Foreign Settlement in Yokohama. 

An impromptu armed party of various nationalities, led by Captain F. Howard Vyse, was rounded up to go out and collect the body of Richardson. However, he had also enlisted members of the British legion’s armed guard without consulting the British charge d’affaires, Lieutenant Colonel Edward St. John Neale. So, Neale sent out another party to order them to stop. 

Vyse and other officers, who viewed the situation as “their duty to recover and identify missing countrymen,” disregarded the order and continued on their way. The recall action by Neale also caused a lot of dissatisfaction with the settlement.


Later that evening, an emergency international committee meeting was held. Vyse further tried to circumnavigate the authority of the charge d’affaires by consulting directly with British Naval Admiral Kuper, and urging him as part of an international union (composed of various factions of the foreign settlement) to endorse a plan for the seizure and arrest of Shimadzu Hisamitsu. 

Kuper, being a man of discipline, informed them that, having only just arrived in Japan and with no experience in the matter, he could not take such action without first discussing it with the charge d’affaires. 

Neale was called to another committee meeting the following day. He only agreed to attend as it was called by the French minister, Admiral Kuper, and other foreign officials. Neale listened to their statements, but did not agree to, or endorse, their actions. 

Edward St. John Neale, British Charge d'Affaires in Japan, 1864

In fact, much to their dissatisfaction, he stated how it was a “much unusual proceeding” and was visibly annoyed at how the community were overstepping their bounds into official affairs. Despite being well aware of the incident, he claimed that he still had not been officially informed of Richardson’s murder. A statement that further perplexed the foreign community.  

Despite Neale facing much resentment and severe criticism, Ernest Satow later confessed that, in hindsight, Neale’s cool head in that time of crisis probably averted an even larger international crisis should an attack on the Shimazu clan for the arrest of a Japanese national (and an elite one at that) have been carried out by members of the foreign settlement. 

The British made a formal complaint to the shogunate. Their demands included an apology, the arrest of the perpetrators, reparations to the sum of £100,000 GBP (about ¥15 million JPY or $135,000 USD) to the British government, and £25,000 GBP (about ¥3.8 million JPY or $38,000 USD) for the family of Richardson and the other survivors of the attack. 

On the one hand, the shogunate, whose grip on Japan was already tenuous, was desperate to appease the foreign powers. The Satsuma clan, on the other hand, could not see how they had done anything wrong, as it was their right as samurai to commit kirisute-gomen — the cutting down of inferiors who disrespected them. They argued that if a Japanese national had done the same as Richardson et al, the result would have been the same (a modern comparison would be if a foreigner forced his way inside the ring of a world leader’s circle of secret service bodyguards).

The Bombardment of Kagoshima, Japan, by British warships

A Show of Strength by the British Navy

After much negotiations with the shogunate, and the refusal to make reparations by the Shimadzu, a stalemate ensued. The British informed the shogunate that it would take matters into their own hands and issued a deadline for the reparations. If it was not met, the Navy would visit Satsuma. 

On the August 6, 1863, a fleet of seven warships — including the flagship HMS Euryalus, the HMS Pearl, HMS Perseus, HMS Argus, HMS Coquette, HMS Racehorse, and a gunboat, the HMS Havock — were assembled and sailed down to Kagoshima on the coast of Satsuma province. Personnel on board the vessels included Ernest Satow and other members of the British legation. 

Although the Satsuma clan feigned ignorance of the British Navy’s advancement, they were prepared. They had evacuated the village, and had large guns lining the coastal defenses. 

The British Charge d’affaires Neale sent out an official demand. After some delay tactics, at a time way past the deadline, a response was received. However, the delivery of the response was actually intended to be a coordinated assassination attempt on Neale and the commanding officers. Due to the diligence of the British Blue Jackets, that mission was aborted.   

The contemporary translation of the Satsuma response read as thus: 


From Kawakami Tajima Minister of Matsudaira Shiuri-no-Daibu, Prince of Satsuma to Charge d’affaires, Colonel E. St. John Neale.

It is just that a man who has killed another should be arrested and punished by death, as there is nothing more sacred than human life. Although we should like to secure them (the murderers) as we have endeavored to do since last year, it is impossible for us to do so owing to the political differences at present existing between the daimyos of Japan, some of whom even hide and protect such people. Besides, the murderers are not one, but several persons, and therefore find easier means of escape.
The journey to Edo (undertaken by Shimadzu Saburo/Hisamitsu) was not with the object of committing murder, but to conciliate the two courts of Edo and Kyoto, and you will therefore easily believe that our Master (Shimadzu) could not have ordered it (the murder). Great offenders against the laws of their country (Japan) who escape, are liable to capital punishment. If therefore we can detect those in question, and after examination to find them to be guilty, they shall be punished, and we will then inform the commanders of your men-of-war at Nagasaki or at Yokohama, in order that they may come to witness their execution. You must therefore consent to the unavoidable delay, which is necessary to carry out these measures. If we were to execute criminals condemned for other offences, and told you that they were the offenders (above referred to), you would not be able to recognize them; and this would be deceiving you and not acting in accordance with the spirit of our ancestors. 
The (Provincial) Governments of Japan are subordinate to the Edo Government, and as you are well aware, are subservient to the orders received from it. 
We have heard something about a treaty having been negotiated, in which a certain limit was assigned to foreigners to move about in: but we have not heard of any stipulation by which they are authorized to impede the passage of a road. Supposing this happened in your country traveling with a large number of retainers as we do here, would you not chastise (push out of the way and beat) any one thus disregarding and breaking the existing laws of the country? If this were neglected, princes could no longer travel. We repeat that we agree with you that the taking of human life is a very grave matter. On the other hand, the insufficiency of the Edo Government, who govern and direct everything, is shown by their neglecting to insert in the treaty (with foreigners) the laws of the country (in respect to these matters) which have existed from ancient times. You will therefore be able to judge for yourself whether the Edo Government (for not inserting these laws), or my master (for carrying them out) is to be blamed. 
To decide this important matter, a High Official of the Edo Government, and one of our Government, ought to discuss with you, and find out who is in the right. 
After the above question has been judged and settled the money, indemnity shall be arranged. 
We have not received from the Tycoon (Shogun) any orders or communication by steamer that your men-of-war were coming here. Such statements are probably made with the object of representing us in a bad light. If it were not this object, you would certainly have them in writing from the Goroju (Tokugawa Government Official), and if so we request you let us see them. In consequence of such mis-statements great misunderstandings are caused.
All this surprises us much. Does it not surprise you? Our government will act in everything according to the orders of the Edo Government.
This is our open-hearted reply to the different subjects mentioned in your dispatch.
29th of the 6th Month of the 3rd year of Bunkyu

It was obvious that Shimadzu Hisamitsu was not going to take responsibility, and was giving Neale the run-around, trying to pass the ball back to the Tokugawa Shogunate. 

Neale, deciding that he had exhausted all diplomatic efforts, passed control of the situation to Admiral Kuper. 

Satsuma Representatives by Felice Beato

Kuper sent men to seize the Satsuma warships in the bay (that had previously been purchased from the British government). In response, the Satsuma opened fire, taking the British by surprise. The main mast of the Euryalus was toppled, and the captain, Joslin, and his second in command, Edward Wilmot, were killed outright. 

The British Navy had obviously thought that their show of strength would be enough to get their demands met. However, this hubris meant that they were woefully unprepared, and it took them a further two hours before they could return fire. When they did finally return fire, they took out the coastal defenses and set most of the evacuated town on fire. 

With less than satisfactory results, the British returned to Yokohama. However, both sides claimed victory. The Satsuma had only suffered eight fatalities. The village going up in flames was considered an expected casualty. They had also seriously damaged a British warship and killed 13 crew members. 

Negotiations and Settlements

Shimadzu negotiations continued with the Tokugawa Shogunate. Neale was contacted by the shogunate to inform him that a delegation from Satsuma on behalf of Shimadzu Hisamitsu had arrived in Edo and wished an audience with him. A meeting was finally set for November 9, 1863. 

There are two well-known photos by Felice Beato that show the Satsuma delegation in one photo, and the delegation plus two Tokugawa negotiators in the other. After several meetings, a resolution was finally reached, and the Tokugawa government agreed to loan the Satsuma clan the indemnity to pay the British, with a clause that they had 200 years in which to repay the loan. 

After the agreement was reached, letters were exchanged. The Satsuma one reads as follows:

Satsuma Reparations Payment (London Illustrated News)

From, The Agents of the Prince of Satsuma 

To, Lieutenant-Colonel Neale 
Yokohama, December 11th, 1863
The money demanded by the British Government having been paid by the Officers of Shimadzu Awaji-no-Kami, a branch family of the Satsuma, we hereby promise as follows:-
The persons who last autumn, in the eighth month, killed and wounded your countrymen at Namamugi, on the Tokaido, have escaped from that place, and although we have diligently searched for them, their place of abode has not been found out.
And as also some time has passed, it is not possible to state with certainty whether they are still alive, but we will use every diligence in searching for them, and as soon as [they are] arrested, punish the same with death in the presence of your country’s officers.
As a promise for the future, we sign this.


Shikono Konosho, Diplomatic agent of the Prince of Satsuma
Iwashita Saiemon, Acting Minister of Satsuma
Countersigned as witnesses to the above promise.


Ukai Taichi, Officer of Department for Foreign Affairs of Shogunate
Saito Kingo, Assistant Ometsuki

Despite the continued misleading statements on the identity of the perpetrator, on December 11, 1863, a row of carts lined the street outside the British legation. They contained not only the indemnity to be paid to the government, but also crates of Satsuma tangerines given as gifts to Colonel Neale, Admiral Kuper, and the British Blue Jackets (sailors). In further correspondence between the British legation and the Satsuma negotiators, it states that Shimadzu Saburo desired to place an order for a British-made warship (despite borrowing the money for the indemnity from the Tokugawa), and that the British government were receptive to the proposal. 

Satsuma Reparations Payment (London Illustrated News)

The gift of tangerines probably made a greater lasting effect than was expected. Even today in the United Kingdom, satsumas are a very popular type of tangerine, especially around Christmas. 

From that point onwards, the relationship between the British and the Satsuma blossomed into one of great friendship. 


Ernest Satow and Algernon Bertram Mitford (1st Baron Redesdale) also became close associates with Ito Hirobumi and other members of the Choshu clan, becoming a great source of intelligence that helped the British navigate the subsequent Japanese civil wars that led to the Meiji restoration. 

After the Meiji restoration, many members of the Satsuma clan filled important posts in the Meiji government, and former Choshu samurai Ito Hirobumi served as prime minister four times, until his assassination in 1909. 

(Story continues in Part 4.)

We would like to extend a special thanks to Sengan-en and the Shoko Shuseikan Museum for their cooperation.

Author: Paul Martin

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