Jones, Noreen. North to Matsumae: Australian whalers to Japan

University of Western Australia Press

In the mid-1800s, Japan was a country closed off from the rest of the world. Whaling was a growth industry in the west due to an increasing demand for whale oil, and Japanese waters provided a lucrative hunting ground, particularly for sperm whales, which the Japanese caught with nets used close to shore.  Castaways and runaways from the foreign whaling ships, when captured, faced imprisonment and execution.

North to Matsumae is an account of two Australian whaling ships that visited Japan in the middle of the nineteenth century in different circumstances: the Lady Rowena, whose captain sought shelter and whose crew fought a minor battle with the Japanese; and the Eamont, whose shipwrecked crew was spared, transported toNagasaki for passage away fromJapan on Dutch ships.

That this was the first documented contact between Australians and Japanese inJapanis historically noteworthy, but this fact is not the book’s strength. Nor should it be considered a mere whaler’s tale. (Although some descriptions of whale hunts are distressing, thankfully, these are few.) It shines as a meticulous, at times, rollicking tale of shipboard life on the Pacific Seas, an account of a hunters’ quest, and a document of personal clashes leading to mutiny. Contact with foreign people – such as the indigenous Ainu inJapan, and Melanesian and Polynesian tribes – is portrayed in the rich yet dispassionate detail that Jones’s fastidious research allows.

The Lady Rowena’s journal was found in the mid 1970s, and it is from this document that most of Jones’s story is faithfully based. A final two chapters depart the Lady Rowena’s story to tell the Eamont’s tale. Although in keeping with the author’s desire to tell of Australian-Japanese links and whaling history, the effect is a little disjointed.