22 July 2010

Kanrin Maru :
Setting foot in Hellevoetsluis, from where Japan's first modern warship sailed

By Hiromi Mizoguchi
(English translation: Hans Brinckmann)

U.S. Admiral Matthew B. Perry and his 'Black Ships' arrived in Japan in 1853 demanding that Japan end its centuries-long isolation and open its borders. Not long thereafter, the Shogunate government ordered its first sail and screw-driven warship, the Kanrin Maru, from the Netherlands. The ship was built in Kinderdijk, near Rotterdam, and sailed for Japan from the port of Hellevoetsluis, 25 km west of Rotterdam, in the spring of 1857. We decided to visit this historic spot.

Driving from Rotterdam we found the sign, 'Hellevoetsluis' at the entrance of the town, but the surrounding area was only farmland and pastures without a glimpse of water. No windmills either - that quintessential landmark of Holland. (They are now replaced with white, tall wind turbines).

We parked the car behind a hill and started walking around to find the port. It was lunch time, but a nearby restaurant was closed. We walked on and found an outdoor café. There were no customers, but the waitress gestured for us to take any table. We sat down in the shade and ordered pancakes. I looked around and noticed water beyond the trees. But where were the port and the North Sea?

I had a look inside the café and noticed that the outdoor area on the other side of the establishment was much livelier. There was a pier there with four or five tables occupied by customers having a meal. From here you could see a yacht harbor and a lighthouse, with the North Sea beyond.

We moved to a table on the pier side. While sipping our coffee, we noticed a dry dock nearby. There was a ship in it, a big white beauty. A man and a woman were busy treating it.

Why did the Kanrin Maru leave Holland from this particular port? We learned that Dutch sailing ships of earlier days used to wait here for a favourable wind which would allow them to put out to sea.

Prince William III and his Armada
sail from Hellevoetsluis, 1688

We walked to the VVV Tourist Office, hoping to get some information on the Kanrin Maru. On the way over we passed a brick-building called 'het Prinsehuis.' A sign explained that the Protestant Prince William III of Orange left with his troops for England from here in 1688 to overthrow his Catholic father-in-law James II and start what became known as the Glorious Revolution and the reign of 'William and Mary.'

There were more cafes, alfresco style, their customers sitting with their faces turned to the sun for a good tan. A tanned skin is everybody's dream in Europe.

We had to wait at a bridge. It opens frequently to allow yachts to pass through between the harbour and the sea.

It is clear now that Hellevoetsluis, like many old Dutch towns, was fortified, and the café where we had our pancakes is situated in the old Vesting (= fortress), with its raised battlements and surrounding moats. In fact, the combination of its excellent fortifications and proximity to the sea was what made this port the main base of the Netherlands' fleet in the past.

The staff at the VVV had no information on the Kanrin Maru, but we were advised to go to the Oudheidkamer, the local historical museum. There Mr. H. van Kralingen kindly answered our questions. He knew about Kanrin Maru, and there was an exhibition in the 'Little Church' next to the Prinsehuis a couple of years ago, but there are no relevant artifacts. He did show us an old map and pointed to the probable location where Kanrin Maru was moored while waiting to sail for Japan.

"That's where the Kanrin Maru was moored!"

And this is how it looks today.

What intrigued me is the name of this town, Hellevoetsluis. The most common explanation is the lock at the foot (or base) of the (river) Helle. But Mr. Kralingen said that is just an assumption, and that the origin of the Hellevoet-part of the name is actually unknown. There may have been a small river by that name but it has disappeared. Sluis means lock.

Inside the Oudheidkamer,

In Japan, too, there are place names whose origin remains unknown. Some are linked to mythology. In Holland, sometimes saints' names are attached. 'Vrouwen' in Vrouwenpolder - a village we passed the next day - refers to St. Mary (Onze Lieve Vrouwe = Our Lady), who is depicted in the village's coat of arms, not to wives or women. For the locals who underwent land reclamation and the battles against the water, the naming for St. Mary is a reminder of human endurance and their prayers for peace in the land.

The meaning of 'Kanrin' is 'harmony between master and servants', a quote from the Chinese classic text called I Ching (the Book of Changes). 'Maru' means 'ship'. The Edo Bakufu (the Shogunate regime) gave the ship this name in the middle of turmoil - whether Japan should open up the country or not after two centuries of isolation.

Prince William III who succeeded in overthrowing James II in the Glorious Revolution in England, and Kanrin Maru which in 1860, three years after it arrived in Japan, made a historic voyage to America carrying revolution-minded Japanese samurai like Fukuzawa Yukichi, both sailed from the port of Hellevoetsluis. Now that same port has metamorphosed into a leisure harbour, where you can see lots of pleasure boats and yachts.


© 2010 Hans Brinckmann