The Edge of Empire

This Saturday Christopher Harvie (‘A Floating Commonwealth) and Michael Gardiner are at Word Power Books, Edinburgh.

This is an extract from Michael’s ‘At the Edge of Empire’:

According to some accounts, Glover Brothers’ business almost single-handedly revived the prestige of the Aberdeen shipyards. Others point out that Glover diverted some shipbuilding from Scotland to Japan, and others that the 1870s would have been a boom time for Aberdeen shipping with or without the Glovers’ intervention. In any case, Glover banked on the fact that labour was cheaper in the north-east than in Glasgow. Most significantly for Japan, not only did he promote investment into new weapons, he also promoted the idea that a strong national military was central to development. Looking at British imperial success in the decades before Japan’s opening, this seemed an attractive proposition, and was taken up by the samurai who slid into governmental positions in the 1870s and 1880s, who aimed to turn the age into one of expansion based on the new weaponry. From the time of the defection to England of the Choshu Five to the height of what became known as Meiji Conservatism in the 1880s, national pride was increasingly tied to military logistics.


By the time of the Restoration in January 1868, Choshu had long since passed through the frantically joi period when Ito had helped to burn down the British Legation, and had determined, like Satsuma, to reorganise its army, placing the diarist Kido Takayoshi in a brokering position. As early as 1865, influenced by what his troops had seen of foreign armies, the Choshu daimyo had taken a step away from the way of the sword by decreeing that the clan should be restructured as a western-style army on meritocratic grounds, using the latest military technology largely supplied by Glover. At the height of arms sales in October 1865, to conduct deals with Choshu, Glover disguised himself as a Satsuma samurai, his business suit replaced with a yukata and his already thinning hair tied back. Despite the comic look, he took his espionage seriously: ‘We’re all here getting good experience… there are also about thirty men here from all parts of Japan, all getting experience, and this is really a very busy place’. He may have seen this as an adventuresome piece of pantomime, but he was determined to go native to get between the clans if he had to. He was also risking treason: according to official policy, the bakufu still had British support, and Glover was by now arming against both the bakufu and the British Navy itself. Yet even while watching several years of gunrunning, British consuls had shown themselves unwilling to question him. The Foreign Office knew about but tolerated his behaviour. The young Glover recognised the slipperiness of the attitudes of the Foreign Office: on paper they were behind the bakufu, but in practice wanted little to do with what was turning into a civil war. By 1866, he realised that because of the British punitive strikes and the influence of the traders, Satsuma and Choshu were increasingly facing the bakufu together as a modern force. Nor could diplomats fail to notice the bakufu’s nervousness in the face of the assembled clans: the bakufu appealed for support to the British head of state, sending ‘a pointed request to the British Queen not to allow the illicit trade. The Shogun himself sent her a personal letter’.


Until 1867, Glover continued to watch his fortune rise as he rearmed the clan alliance leaders via two of the best-remembered Restoration heroes, Sakamoto Ryoma and Kido Takayoshi, and organised by Ito and Inoue. Sakamoto founded a company as a flag of convenience to get around sanctions on munitions imports. He was particularly well placed to mediate, since as a member of Tosa he had numerous joi comrades, but was relatively untroubled by Saccho rivalries. As Marius Jansen says, ‘[i]n Nagasaki, Sakamoto’s dealings were largely with foreign merchants. Of these, the most important was Thomas Glover…’


When Parkes softened towards the clans, Glover came to feel that his foresight into Japanese politics had been vindicated, and he began to move politically on behalf of the rebels. After the Parkes-Saccho meeting, it was clear that British diplomats mainly, if grudgingly, had come to regard Glover as an authority in dealing with samurai. However, Parkes was also under orders to threaten to remove protection for rogue traders, which he did in spring 1866. Regardless, Glover went on to sell the steamship Union as well as 7,300 Minie rifles through Ito and Inoue. On 22 June 1866 Parkes again halfheartedly reminded traders that anyone dealing with the rebels would lose the protection of the Foreign Office, but by this point, Nagasaki had already become a focal point for samurai for the organising southern rebel clans. Sakamoto likened 1860s Nagasaki to the most fluid times of the country: ‘Nagasaki, with all these people here, is as interesting as something from the period of the warring states’.


The shrewder settlers had realised after the Saccho alliance in 1866 that amongst the clans the immediate priority was to get rid of the bakufu, and settle old scores later. Politely ignored by Queen Victoria and a Foreign Office that showed little interest in non-European domestic situations, the bakufu prepared to fall on its sword. The two clans that it had been relying on to slice one another apart were now united in a common cause, and armed with guns rather than swords. There could no longer be any divide-and-rule policy. The bakufu perished under the weight of arms: with no real struggle, the revolution was more or less a velvet one, with a tinge of seppuku. As it turned out the shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi, died not long before the armed rebellion began on 10 January 1867, and the end of the bakufu era was presided over by a new shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Later that year, anticipating consistently strong arms markets when he returned to a new Japanese government, Glover took a trip home to Aberdeen, after a decade away. On 3 January 1868, in his absence, the end of the bakufu was officially declared by five clans in Kyoto. In Glover’s last interview, as pointed up by Alex McKay, Glover claimed that ‘it wasn’t simply about getting money: I believe that I was the greatest rebel of them all against Tokugawa’.

But there would be an ironic outcome for Glover’s Nagasaki after Restoration. In the mid-1860s, Nagasaki had been a city dependent on its frontier status, where business could take place on a semi-legal basis and weapons dealing was common. Within three years of the Restoration which standardised trade and removed the need for surreptitious deals, Kyogo (Kobe) and Osaka would both expand and sideline Nagasaki. As early as 22 July 1871, the Nagasaki Express was reporting that ‘[b]eyond having a trade in Coal and Tea, both of which articles are likely to cause few firms to remain, Nagasaki has but little business of any description worth speaking of, so that literally the port, year by year, continues on its downward course’. While Glover was overcoming his reverse-culture-shock in Aberdeen, the Japanese war economy centred on Nagasaki was in fact contracting, and military demand slowing.


Moreover, after January 1868 the rebels had to account for themselves in government rather than opposition. The transfer of power would not be smooth, and the clans unevenly offloaded responsibilities onto the central government. Glover would struggle to deal with the complex power shifts and to adapt his arms and ships business to a peacetime economy. Despite these cash flow problems, his pre-Restoration arming role would be long remembered by many in the new samurai bureaucracy, who saw him as a natural connector and ally. His office became a meeting place for high-ranking officials, and he was discussed casually as an insider. On 1 June 1868 Kido wrote:


In the morning I went to the Glover Trading Company; and I chanced to meet Godai Saisuke [later Tomoatsu] there, as well as Joseph Heco. I talked with Glover about leasing a warship, and he assented; but we have not yet concluded the negotiations for a contract. I did make an appointment for further discussions of the matter in Naniwa [Osaka]…


As the clans were converted to modern warfare, facilities were built on-site for education in military logistics, and there was a phase of enthusiastic training in Nagasaki in seamanship. Marcus Flowers, Nagasaki British Consul, noted in 1868 that


so anxious are they to learn that there is not a single steamer that enters the harbour but they are sure to visit and take minute copies of everything they see, and such rapid progress have they made with regard to machinery, that they are able to work all the steamers they have recently purchased themselves.


After Restoration, Godai, Ito and Inoue would gain important positions as reformers in Osaka, Hyogo and Nagasaki, all good news for Glover. On the other hand, after rifles had flooded the market, his days of small-arms dealing were over. The new central government would have to resist only occasional armed uprisings, or counter-revolutions, by discontented joi samurai – not a mammoth task with their new military superiority. After having made a fortune selling guns to rebels and regarding himself as ‘the greatest rebel’, Glover saw his weaponry pressed into service by the authorities against any remaining rebels – for example, his great ship Ho Sho Maru was used to put down the rebellion of Eto Shinpei in 1874.


The end of the old way of the sword was conclusively sounded with the defeat of the last samurai Saigo Takamori, a model for the film starring Tom Cruise. In 1877 Satusma rebels led into revolt by Saigo called for an immediate invasion of Korea, a hawkish stance typical of those conservative rebel samurai of the 1870s and 1880s who feared the erosion of national pride with the new ways – a stance which would later be embraced by the government as a whole, including Glover’s allies. But Saigo’s swordbearing rebels were defeated on their home turf of Kumamoto in a desultory manner without getting near the government forces. This would be the last uprising which the new government would have to exert itself to suppress, and the agents of this disarming were the politicians Glover had empowered. While Glover has sometimes been colloquially compared to Bonnie Prince Charlie because of his pre-Restoration activity, in the Saigo affair he occupied something like the opposite position: the government armed with his technology were able to disarm native rebels seeming to hang on to misguided clan causes – the part played by the British authorities in the Jacobite defeat of 1745-46.

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