American History

Orphans of Empire

West by northwest of California, across 5,000 miles of Pacific Ocean, swells break against the volcanic rocks of the Bonins, a small island chain that takes its name from the Japanese for “uninhabited.” Japan is 600 miles north; Guam a thousand miles southeast. The 30 Bonins comprise about 32 square miles of land; nine-mile-square Chichi Jima, the largest of the islands, is dotted with 1,000-foot peaks. In the 1830s, Americans landed here, in an Orient where Japan and Korea rebuffed foreigners and China let them in at only a few ports. The pioneers held out against piracy and Imperial Japan, hoping the United States would annex the Bonins. That never happened in the way they envisioned it, but this motley of Americans boldly established a colony in hostile waters a half a world away from the United States, maintaining and expanding their settlement to the present day—gradually becoming Japanese, then Americans again, and back to Japanese, all the time holding onto their heritage and language.

Spanish sea captain Bernardo de la Torre was the first European to arrive at the Bonins in 1543. Japan credits their discovery to Sadayori Ogasawara in 1593. Japanese expeditions landed in 1670 and in 1675. By the 1790s, Japanese and European cartographers were including the Bonins on maps—inaccurately. All that time, the islands lived up to their name. But when Captain F. W. Beechey, sailing HMS Blossom, visited in 1827, he had a copper plate from his ship’s hull pounded into a tree trunk with an inscription claiming the chain for the British Empire. Beechey gave the largest island the name “Peel” after British Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel. Word of the Bonins’ existence spread across the Pacific as mariners updated charts and courses.

To the east 3,400 miles, the Hawaiian port of Honolulu was a human hodgepodge at which Polynesians, European sailors, and missionaries worked from

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