Sometimes, when you dig into a bit of family history you find a location of an ancestor’s death that makes you wonder … what did they do there?

Johannes Cornelis van Sandwijk was a marine 2nd class aboard the corvette “Medusa” of the Royal Dutch Navy, the first military steam ship to be built in the Netherlands, with construction starting in 1852 [1]. The Dutch navy was going through a time of innovation in an attempt to catch up with its closest competitors, in particular the United Kingdom, whose officers took a rather sober view of the capabilities of the Dutch navy [2].

The Dutch in Japan

The story of the Dutch in Japan starts in 1609 on the small island of Hirado (平戸オランダ商館), just off the south-east coast of Japan, where the Dutch East Indies company (VOC) started its first trading outpost in Japan. The Japanese Empire at that point only allowed the Portuguese and Dutch to set-up such trading posts, hesitant as they were to open-up too much towards these powers from alien shores. After the expulsion of the Portuguese in 1641, and due to the willingness of the VOC to sign up to the condition of not allowing Christian missionaries to enter the settlement, the Dutch trading post was relocated to Nagasaki-Deshima.

For a period of almost 2 centuries the VOC held practically a monopoly on trade between Japan and Europe, and the slow diffusion of knowledge about the West into Japan in the form of rangaku (蘭學) or “Dutch learning[3]. In the 1850’s European “nation” building of the late 17th and 18th century arrives in Japan with a period of ‘coerced opening’ by Western powers [4]. This, and the events unfolding in China suffering from the Opium Wars, led the Shogunate to refashion the relationship with the Dutch into one that now also involved assistance with the build-up of an Imperial Japanese Navy [5] while Dutch power in Europe was in steady decline [6].

The Medusa’s Journey

The corvette Medusa was put in service on May 1st 1862. A celebratory moment during which also the crew was assembled on board for the first time, amongst them Johannes Cornelis van Sandwijk, 2nd class marine, from Utrecht, who had turned 25 not even 4 weeks earlier, on April 6th 1862. A few days after an inspection by King William III, on July 1st 1862, the Medusa finally sets sail for her maiden voyage, a long journey to the far East.

On 29th of November the Medusa dropped anchor in the harbour of Djakarta (then Batavia). After a few inspections, and taking on board people suffering from “tropical fevers”, the Medusa set course for Japan on January 20th 1863. Ill-winds and -currents required her to take a detour that only saw her enter the port of Nagasaki-Deshima on March 15th 1863. Ten days later the Medusa, and a sister ship, sail on a diplomatic mission to Edo (now Tokyo) and arrive in the port of Yokohama-Kanagawa on March the 28th 1863. The board is now set.

Tensions in Yokohama

The Medusa arrived in a tense atmosphere, in a port hosting several western navy ships, including a squadron of British ships, while the UK was entangled in a conflict with the Japanese authorities concerning the killing of a British citizen in late 1862. This conflict however plays into wider dissatisfaction amongst the Japanese nobility, and within the Japanese authorities, with the way the Emperor, the Shogun and the warlords, are divided on the issue of how to deal with the foreigners and the foreign powers on their doorsteps and beaches.

On April 11th 1863 the Emperor repeats an “order to expel the Barbarians” (攘夷実行の勅命). Ten days after Johan Cornelis’ 26th birthday, on April 16th the commander of the Medusa is so worried about the situation that Medusa’s Marines are ordered to prepare for a role in possible evacuations of European citizens and the defence of Yokohama against rebellious warlords. On May the 8th a detachment of Marines is brought ashore to guard the Dutch Consulate in Yokohama. On May 11th the Medusa undertakes a diplomatic ferry trip to Edo to facilitate negotiations of a joint Swiss-Dutch delegation, and returns to Yokohama not long afterwards.

A mysterious death

Here, in a way, our story breaks off, at least as far as the official documentation goes. The whereabouts of Johan Cornelis van Sandwijk are unclear for this period. Only much later would the parents of Johan Cornelis hear what the rather terse official version is of what has happened. On November 27th 1865, i.e. a full 2 years and 7 months later, the civic registry of Utrecht, records Johan Cornelis’ death as having occurred at 9h am, on May 22nd, 1863, aged 26, unmarried.

The city of Utrecht record this information was brought to them as an “extract from the diary kept on board of the HMS Medusa“.

What is even more striking is that this notification not come after the publication of an extensive monograph [6] about events involving the Medusa by its Commander JM Casembroot. The foreword of that monograph is dated September 1865. Although that source presents the dramatic events of that summer of 1863 in great detail, it regrettably has a gap between May 11th and May 26th of 1863.

In the days following Johannes Cornelis’ official death, the Medusa deploys 100 marines to ‘parade’ in Edo to the Dutch-Swiss consulate, before returning them to the ship again, after security guarantees for the negotiators were assured by the Japanese authorities in Edo, The ship then sails back the short distance to Yokohama. In the following weeks the Medusa returns to Nagasaki via the Shimonoseki Strait. The Commander reports this in [6] and writes he has based his account on his diary notes. His aim, so he says, was to describe that Dutch-Japanese relationships were still very friendly and cordial despite the tensions within the Japanese governance.

Four weeks later Commander Casembroot steers his ship back to Yokohama, again via the Shimonoseki Strait. While doing so, he is warned, by the highest commanding officer of the French navy present on a ship they pass just outside Nagasaki, about how he and his ship have just come under fire from artillery operated by the Chōshū clan, under command of the daimyō Mōri Takachika, in defiance of the Edo Shogunate, during their passage of the Strait. Casembroot, who is utterly confident in the good relations between the Japanese authorities and the Netherlands, and trusting in a centuries long relationship, proceeds with only very minor caution. The next day, on July 11th the Medusa comes under heavy and sustained fire for nearly 90 minutes while crossing the Shimonoseki Strait. Casembroot’s diary details 4 deadly casualties, and another 7 injured, 3 of whom severely, but all injured survive.

What is the mystery?

There are a few oddities here. Remember the unnamed diary in the civic registry entry? It is tempting to conclude that this must be Casembroot’s diary from which he also extracts his material for his book. He is actually doing last corrections around the same time as the death notification is written. Casembroot is very detailed in his book [6], but he makes no mention of a death of a marine on May 22nd 1863 in Yokohama-Kanagawa. In fact from his account it isn’t necessarily 100% clear whether the Medusa was at Kanagawa, or at Edo, at the time. This lack of clarity stands in contrast to, for example, his detailed account of how many crew suffered from “eye disease” due to the heat and how the medical staff on board cured all of them. It seems odd that the death of one of his marines would be left unmentioned, when a mild tropical disease affecting a few crew members gets multiple mentions? The death notification to Utrecht’s civic registry records no cause of death, nor any information about a burial at sea or elsewhere.

What next?

It is possible to speculate at length about what might have occurred here. Was there an incident that the Dutch authorities, or the Commander of the Medusa, preferred to ignore? Surely if Johannes Cornelis would have been killed under circumstances that might include a degree of responsibility of the Japanese authorities this would not only be a diplomatic obstacle, it would also cast doubt on Casembroot’s trust in the ‘good relations’ and make his decision a few weeks later to sail through the Shimonoseki Straits even more of a misjudgement. On the other hand, the entire monograph contains no mentions of deaths other than through military causes. So perhaps it was merely a case of illness, that Casembroot didn’t consider worth mentioning in his book. Perhaps his mentions of other ill sailors was simply inconsistent and he left this particular one out? If that is the case though, it seems additionally odd that there somehow was an incentive to report this death tot he Utrecht authorities despite the extensive delay. It has a feel of something that needed to be cleared for the book to be able to appear.

Johannes Cornelis came from a family of limited means. His father was a bricklayer, and of his mother no craft was recorded. They had 8 children in all, although four of them died young, Johannes Cornelis being the last of those 4. Johannes’ father passed away just a few months after the news of Johannes’ death was confirmed.

I guess Johannes Cornelis’ death might just remain a mystery covered by a metaphoric Great Wave of Kanagawa. A wave that did not only sweep this young marine from Utrecht away, but also the entire Edo period.

Johannes’ brother, Isaak was my direct ancestor. He was 6 years the older of Johannes Cornelis, and had married a few years before Johannes left aboard the Medusa. The names Johannes and Cornelis have been passed down in my family, on my father’s side, via various pathways so it is hard to argue that in the naming of uncles and brothers with those names there is still an echo of what must have been a shocking loss. So, although there is neither a grave, nor seemingly a persistent memory, there is at least a little family story right here.


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  • [5] Enthoven V. Oude vrienden: de Nederlandse rol bij de opbouw van de Japanse marine, 1850-1870. Leidschrift. 2018;33 (mei: Tussen vriendschap en vijandschap. Nederland en Japan door de eeuwen heen):65-90.
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