PULLMAN, Wash.–In 1848, Ranald MacDonald convinced the captain of the whaling ship Plymouth to cast him adrift in a rowboat off northern Hokkaido, Japan. Inspired by stories he had heard in his youth about Japanese sailors shipwrecked on the Pacific Northwest coast, MacDonald harbored an insatiable curiosity about Japan, which was then closed to outsiders. The story of this nearly forgotten pioneer in U.S.-Japanese relations is recounted in “Ranald MacDonald: Pacific Rim Adventurer,” a new Washington State University Press book by Bellingham author JoAnn Roe.
MacDonald escaped execution, but was held captive for nearly a year, teaching English to Japanese translators. His students later played important roles in the negotiations with Commodore Perry in the opening of Japan, and in the earliest delegations sent from Japan to Washington, D.C.
The son of Hudson’s Bay Company clerk Archibald MacDonald and Koale’zoa, the daughter of the Chinook Indian leader Comcomly, the young MacDonald rejected his father’s efforts to groom him for the world of fur trading. He left a banking apprenticeship in Ontario, Canada, to spend his early twenties at sea, signing onto ships that traveled to far-off ports of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. In 1848, he achieved his dream of entering forbidden Japan.
After his release from Japan, MacDonald continued his travels to the gold fields of Ballarat, Australia, to Europe, eastern Canada and finally to the Pacific Northwest.
There, he continued to press for developing trade routes to Japan from British Columbia and Washington Territory. He participated in daring explorations of Vancouver Island and elsewhere in British Columbia, and was an entrepreneur in the gold fields of British Columbia.
MacDonald’s life spanned a period of extraordinary change–from the end of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur trading empire, through the settlement of western Canada and the expanding whaling industry of New England, and the 19th-century gold rushes that transformed Australia and western Canada. He crossed paths with notable historic personalities such as Sir George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company, traders Francis and Edward Ermatinger, Dr. John McLoughlin of Fort Vancouver and countless other travelers and explorers.
Today, MacDonald’s grave in Ferry County in northeast Washington is a state park heritage site. In Japan, where he is recognized by many as the country’s first teacher of English, the Japanese have erected a monument on Rishiri Island on the site where he landed in 1848.
JoAnn Roe is the author of 12 books and numerous articles on regional travel and history. She has won awards from the Washington Press Association, the National Federation of Press Women, the National Writer’s Club, and others. Her book ” Frank Matsura, Frontier Photographer” (Madrona Publishers, Seattle, 1981), won a Washington Governor’s Writers Award, as well as awards from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and the Photographic Historical Society.
“Ranald MacDonald: Pacific Rim Adventurer” is a 272-page book, available for $18.95 paperback, $35 cloth, in bookstores or from WSU Press, 800-354-7360.