Manitoba History: Behind the Bamboo Curtain: A Nineteenth-Century Canadian Adventurer in Japan

by David N. Cooper
Brampton, Ontario

Number 74, Winter 2014

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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In recent years there has been renewed interest in a nineteenth-century man named Ranald MacDonald, a Scottish-Chinook mixed-blood adventurer born in the Columbia District of present-day Oregon. The interest has come about in part due to the republication of his autobiography in 1990 by the Oregon Historical Society. [1] The book details his journey to, and sojourn in, Japan where at the time a strict edict of isolationism prohibited contact with all foreigners but the Dutch—upon pain of death. Fascinated with the mystery of this forbidden island nation, Ranald came up with a plan to enter the country, passing himself off as an educated castaway, and appealing hopefully to the humanity of the Japanese not to kill him. The plan, whether madcap or naive, combined his knowledge as a sailor with the education he received while attending school at the settlement of Red River, District of Assiniboia (Manitoba).

Ranald MacDonald (1824–1894) was the first native Anglophone to teach the English language in Japan. His formative years were spent at the Red River Settlement in Manitoba.

Ranald MacDonald (1824–1894) was the first native Anglophone to teach the English language in Japan. His formative years were spent at the Red River Settlement in Manitoba.
Source: Friends of MacDonald,

Ranald was born in 1824 at Fort George, near Astoria (Oregon), and raised among the Hudson’s Bay Company posts that dotted the Columbia District before much of the area was ceded to the United States in 1846. He was the first-born son of HBC officer Archibald McDonald and his wife, Princess Raven, daughter of Chief Comcomly of the Chinook Nation. Sadly, Princess Raven died shortly after childbirth and Archibald remarried a year later with Jane Klyne; a Métis woman who raised Ranald as her own. Ranald began attending school at John Ball’s school at Fort Vancouver. However, wanting more for their children, Archibald and Jane decided to send Ranald and two of his siblings to study at the Academy at Red River—then the only high school in western Canada. Archibald knew the Red River very well. He played an important founding role in the colony, personally leading a tattered party of Selkirk settlers to the area in 1814. He also served as deputy governor of the colony under Miles Macdonell before signing on with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1820.

Ranald left on the York Factory express for Red River on 20 April 1834 and it was likely around this time that he heard news that would have a lasting impact on him. When Chief Factor John McLoughlin, a family friend of the McDonalds, received word of a mysterious shipwreck near Cape Flattery, at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula in future Washington state, he sent a couple of search parties to find survivors. One of the search teams, dispatched on 23 March 1834, was led by Ranald’s uncle Thomas McKay. The survivors—three destitute Japanese fisherman—were located, having been made slaves to the Makah tribe, and brought to Fort Vancouver to learn English at Ranald’s former school only months after his departure. Describing his reaction to such news, Ranald wrote, “What, of such people?—What of their manner of life?... These and such like questions and considerations ever recurring; the subject, oft, of talk amongst my elders...[entered] deeply into my young and naturally receptive mind...[and] dominated me, as a soul possessed.” [2]

Ranald would spend the next five years at the Red River settlement, his first year at Pritchard’s Elm School (1834–1835) and the remaining four at the Red River Academy (1835–1839). The Elm School was located not far from where the Battle of Seven Oaks took place—an area of marshy land referred to in French as “La grenouillère” or “Frog Plain”. In fact, not only was schoolmaster John Pritchard a witness to the battle on 19 June 1816 but he was also taken prisoner briefly by the armed Métis forces under Cuthbert Grant. In 1835, the school body comprised “33 European children, almost entirely Highland Scotch extraction” and “12 private borders [sic], all half-breeds.” [3] Presumably one of the boarders was Ranald.

It was at the Red River Academy, however, that Ranald would truly acquire an advanced education. The school was first proposed by Reverend David Thomas Jones in 1832 and construction was completed the following summer. A tutor, John Macallum, and a governess, Mrs. Mary Lowman, arrived in the fall of 1833. According to recorder Alexander Ross, the school was provided for the children of Governors and Chief Factors, “...the great nabobs of the fur trade.” [4] And in an interview later in life, Ranald described his learning experience as “‘a No. 1’ education” claiming that “the church school knocked the spots out of the Catholics with their doctrines.” [5] The Academy had an ambitious curriculum. In their 1835 report to the Church Missionary Society, Reverend Jones and Reverend William Cockran detailed the young gentlemen’s program as including studies in reading, writing, bookkeeping, arithmetic, algebra, mathematics, Latin and Greek, while newcomers studied grammar, history, the New Testament and various Catechisms. Today, the historical significance of the school runs deep in Winnipeg, as it was the precursor of two other well-renowned schools: St. John’s College School and the amalgamated St. John’s-Ravenscourt School.

Back at Fort Colville (near Kettle Falls, now in Washington), Archibald was proud of the reports he received about Ranald’s progress but worried that some untrained “Indian” part of the teenager might begin to assert itself. In a letter dated 25 January 1837, Archibald confided to his friend Edward Ermatinger, “ I heard very favorable accounts of him this fall from Mr. Jones, & who knows but he may turn out a rare exception to the race.” [6] Archibald’s concerns were not unfounded. Though the Mixed-blood progeny of HBC officers attending the school were social elites in an exclusive company hierarchy, they were often not unsympathetic to racial issues that affected the larger Métis/Mixed-blood community and ultimately impacted their own sense of identity. In 1836, when Factor John McLoughlin’s son, John Jr., and several other sons of the HBC were seduced into joining James Dickson, general of the so-called “Indian Liberating Army”, it undoubtedly confirmed some of Archibald’s worst fears. As Archibald would later write: “It will go very hard for me if I let any of them loose in this vile country, tho’ that nevertheless seems to be the lot of the entire rising generation.” [7]

Upon graduation at Red River in 1839, Ranald was shipped off to St. Thomas, Ontario to work as a bank clerk under Archibald’s old friend, Edward Ermatinger. While Archibald sought a position for his son in the Hudson’s Bay Company, Ranald boarded (initially at least) in the home of the Ermatingers. The experience would instruct the youth on how to live like a gentleman in a European home. For Ranald, however, the cracks had finally started to appear as they had with John McLoughlin, Jr., and the stress of having to conform to foreign ideals of European conduct made Ranald long for release: “In spite of all my training for civilized life...I felt, ever, and uncontrollably in my blood, the wild strain for wandering freedom...of my Highland father...and possibly more so (though unconsciously) of my Indian mother.” [8] While living in St. Thomas, Ranald became obsessed with the idea of travel and in particular visiting Japan, though it was still very much a closed and forbidden land. In time, he began to devise an ambitious plan to escape from St. Thomas and, ultimately, the clutch of his father’s influence in the hopes of becoming a sailor: “To carry out this design while sitting ... on my high stool in the Bank of Elgin...I had resolved on it; that was enough. For means to carry it out, I simply with grip sack in hand, walked forth into the darkness of an unsympathetic world; alone, telling no one; with barely a scrip for the hour.” [9]

Ranald made his way to Sag Harbor, New York in 1842 and was apparently at sea in the Tuskany by 1843. In his time, Ranald visited more places than most people will ever see today, including Calcutta, Hawaii, Bombay, Java, Madras, Australia, Africa, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore among others. But it was undoubtedly his trip to Japan that was the most memorable. To position himself for the adventure, Ranald signed on as a crew member of an American whaler, the Plymouth, en route to the whaling grounds off the coast of Japan. Ranald, now 24 years old and an experienced sailor, made a deal with captain Lawrence B. Edwards that once he had fulfilled his contract, the captain would set him adrift in a small boat near the northern coast of Japan. Ranald hoped that in this less fortified area, he might find a way to enter the country without being detected. The captain reticently agreed. Patient in his planning, Ranald had been slowly amassing a small fortune in books and teaching supplies as part of a brash scheme to pass himself off as an educated castaway: “The mysterious veil of mystery which then hung...over that strange realm, unaccountably attracted my roving mind... Having heard that which I thought might induce them to engage me as an instructor on history, geography, commerce, and modern art, and the Bible: this I did in expectation of being engaged by them as a teacher.” [10]

Though Captain Edwards claimed it was “a wild and fool-hardy expedition”, he kept his promise. He lowered a small boat for Ranald near Hokkaido, on 27 June 1848. “Against the strong remonstrances of the Captain and crew, I stepped into my boat, taking with me my box of books and stationary... My comrades refused to unloose the knot which bound me to them... Myself, with averted face, had to cut the rope by which I hung to all of them.” [11] Ranald would sail first to Yagishiri Island, then head 45 miles north to the island of Rishiri. In the early hours of 2 July, MacDonald spotted smoke and in accordance with his plan, overturned his boat, turning out the reef of his sail to make it look like he was a sailor in distress. He watched as he was approached by a skiff. But as it turned out, he was being approached not by Japanese, but by another race of people indigenous to the area, the Ainu. Unlike the Japanese, Ainu tend to have rounded eyes, larger bones and generally more body and facial hair. Traditionally, they wore clothing with abstract or geometrical patterns, were often tattooed and subsisted on hunting, gathering and fishing. In demeanour, Ranald described the Ainu as “simple, kindly people”, a “subject race” [12] under the control of the Japanese. Once ashore, Ranald was led to the village of Notsuka and the Japanese authorities were promptly notified.

Nearly a week into his stay, he was visited by half a dozen Japanese officers and interrogated. All the belongings in his chest were carefully examined and inventoried: “They took a minute inventory of everything brought ashore. Everything seemed to excite their curiosity—especially my books and letters.” [13] According to official Japanese records, the effects included 23 books with covers, fifteen books without covers, a map of the world, a telescope and a “varnished board” (a slate for writing)—implements that Ranald felt would be useful for teaching. Informed he was to be taken to Nagasaki to be deported, the ensuing journey south would involve travel by junk, on foot, and by palanquin. At all times Ranald’s chest was sealed and guarded and a record kept of what was taken out or returned to it. Even his small whaling boat was brought along.

Reading, writing, Red River, 1852. Ranald MacDonald was among the first pupils of the Red River Academy. Founded in 1832, the Academy provided education for the children of Hudson’s Bay Company employees and assisted in the training of a native Anglican ministry. The building was located on the church mission grounds near the present-day St. John’s Park in Winnipeg’s north end.

Reading, writing, Red River, 1852. Ranald MacDonald was among the first pupils of the Red River Academy. Founded in 1832, the Academy provided education for the children of Hudson’s Bay Company employees and assisted in the training of a native Anglican ministry. The building was located on the church mission grounds near the present-day St. John’s Park in Winnipeg’s north end.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Red River Settlement - Schools - Red River Academy #2, N17237.

While the Japanese made detailed reports of Ranald’s incarceration, Ranald was also paying attention to his captors, as his autobiography reveals a number of insightful observations concerning the customs, spirituality and social organization of the Japanese in the era. Fashioning a pen out of a crow feather, he recorded these impressions along with a list of Japanese vocabulary he learned during his stay. Sadly, Ranald later lost many of these documents in a shipwreck near Madras, India—a disaster where “for [his] dear life” he was forced to swim ashore, a small bundle containing “only a few of [his] notes” on top of his head. [14] Today, a portion of Ranald’s vocabulary list still survives in the British Columbia Archives.

Great pains were taken to prevent Ranald from seeing the Japanese countryside. When he was travelling across land, large ceremonial curtains were erected—presumably to block his view. Likewise, a palanquin reserved for him was “boxed up...without even a peephole.” [15] Conversely, wherever Ranald went, he attracted the intense curiosity of Japanese citizens who wanted to catch a glimpse of the foreign stranger. In Matsumae, Ranald recalled encountering a large crowd waiting for him by lantern light. “They gazed at me as if I were a wild beast, I could not stand it. I made good my retreat into the palanquin, which I made to answer a double purpose—for what the Japanese provided in order that I should not see the country I made use of that I should not be stared at.” [16] Perhaps sensing his irritation, Ranald’s chaperons would later relax their adherence to procedure, leaving his palanquin open when they later arrived in Nagasaki, affording Ranald a view full of wonder. This tendency of the Japanese to extend small acts of kindness toward Ranald in exchange for his cooperation is a recurrent theme in his narrative. Several comments are made about receiving gifts of food, clothing and western cutlery and, at one point, a welcome card. In his own words, he was “well fed, kindly attended, and amply supplied with all conveniences, with the luxuries of tea and tobacco ad libitum...” [17]

At Nagasaki again, though initially treated coolly, he found that with time his captors began to warm to him. In particular, he made fast friends with a number of so-called “Dutch” interpreters who “being a people of literature and books”, appeared to be fascinated with Ranald: “[S]eeing me ever reading, a man of books, they drew to me: the books magnetized them: and they (books and Japanese) made me their teacher.” [18] How exactly Ranald came to instruct these government interpreters is unclear, but according to historian Frederik L. Schodt, officials had gained information from Matsumae that MacDonald was different from the other foreign prisoners. They knew that he was intelligent, good-natured and that he was well educated. They also understood that during 200 years of Japanese seclusion, the world outside had greatly changed. With the whaling boom of the mid-19th century, the Japanese government was overwhelmed by the multitude of foreign vessels that now plied the Japan Sea. Lacking the naval force to repel them, there was a growing sense that Japan’s seclusion laws increasingly put the country at risk. What they needed was to begin a dialogue with the West, particularly in countries of global influence like America and Great Britain. In that sense, Ranald’s timing couldn’t have been better.

Ranald was well provided for, with all the supplies, materials and space he required as an English teacher. He taught a group of 14 interpreters and he kept a list of their names on a scrap of paper that still exists in the Archives of British Columbia. All official interpreters were required to speak Dutch, as Holland was the only country Japan maintained contact with—and it was through this partnership that Japan gathered essential international intelligence. The “Dutch interpreters”, as they were called, belonged to a hereditary caste of professionals from notable families and Ranald perceived them to be “very quick and receptive”, and that they “were all well up in grammar, etc.” [19] As Ranald describes in his Narrative, “[T]heir habit was to read English to me; one at a time. My duty was to correct their pronunciation, and as best I could in Japanese explain meaning, construction, etc.” [20]

What Ranald didn’t know, however, was that he wasn’t the only western prisoner in Japan and that an S.O.S. had been sent out by Factor Joseph Levyssohn, guardian of the Dutch monopoly in Japan, to rescue another group of sailors who were also being detained in Nagasaki. According to Japanese records, the original group of 15 crewmen from another whaling vessel, the Lagoda, arrived north of Matsumae in three boats around 7 June 1848, only 20 days before Ranald. Unlike MacDonald, however, they received miserable treatment from their captors. In 1849, the New York Courier and Enquirer reported that they were “treated with the utmost inhumanity and cruelty...beaten upon the slightest pretext, shut up in cages like wild beasts, excluded from light, air and exercise, and fed just enough to prevent starvation.” [21] In reality the crew members were deserters with a tendency toward violence, bickering and frequent escape attempts who had turned a bad situation into something deplorable. Taking pity on the crewmen and their worsening plight, Levyssohn sent a communiqué to the US consul in Batavia. The consul was quick to react in making a plan to send a warship, the USS Preble on a rescue mission from Hong Kong under James Glynn.

Ranald was holding an English class with his Dutch interpreters on 17 April 1849 when Glynn entered Nagasaki harbour. Interrupted by the report of six cannon shots, Ranald was informed that a foreign ship had arrived, but he had to wait another week before he was told anything about it. Finally, on 25 April, Ranald was summoned to Town Hall and saw, for the first time, the 13 remaining members of the Lagoda’s crew, looking “very pale and thin.” MacDonald wrote, “They had their ordinary sailor dress. I had my best Japanese dress, plain and respectable... They made me kneel apart from the rest... The Governor, through interpreter, then told us of the arrival of the ship; and that they had, after consultation, decided on allowing us to depart by her.” [22]

With Ranald’s departure on the Preble on 27 April, so ended his teaching career, but not his influence. Ranald MacDonald is remembered in Japan today as the country’s first English teacher. But as Frederick Schodt points out, “[H]e actually did far more than that. He imparted information about the outside world, all of which was filtered through the interpreters.” [23] Over and over again he was asked about world geography, the whaling industry and the armies, navies and governments of Europe. MacDonald, for his part, was more than willing to tell them “all that [he] knew” endeavouring to “impress upon them among other things...the advancement made by Western nations.” [24] Moreover, Ranald’s pupils would greatly assist Japan’s opening to international trade and diplomacy. They served as interpreters during Commodore Perry’s American expedition to Japan (1853–1854) and played instrumental roles in creating the first treaties between Japan and the US and later with Britain, France and Spain. One of Ranald’s pupils, Gohachiro Namura would take part in Japan’s first embassy to the United States on 22 May 1860, while another, Einosuke Moriyama, would serve in his home country as a liaison between Japan and US ambassador Townsend Harris. In the end, this historical shift in Japan’s relationship with the world spelled not only the end of seclusion, but also Japan’s rebirth as an industrialized nation.

If, like John McLoughin, Jr., Ranald MacDonald belonged to that lost generation of Mixed-blood offspring who failed to make a mark in the Hudson’s Bay Company hierarchy, Ranald certainly used his education gained at Red River for a purpose no less honourable. Like young Archibald McDonald before him, who arrived in the foreign, often hostile country of the Red River with a tattered party of Highlanders, Ranald also sought adventure and meaningful social change. Perhaps, in that way, Ranald resembled his father more than Archibald would have liked to admit.

Parry’s Japanese voice. These two men, Moriyama and Tokojiro, both former students of Ranald MacDonald, served as interpeters for American Navy Commodore Matthew C. Parry on his 1852 arrival in Japan.

Parry’s Japanese voice. These two men, Moriyama and Tokojiro, both former students of Ranald MacDonald, served as interpeters for American Navy Commodore Matthew C. Parry on his 1852 arrival in Japan.
Source: Narrative of an Expedition of an American Squadron to the Chinese Seas and Japan, M. C. Perry, 1856.


1. Ranald MacDonald, et al., The Narrative of His Life, Portland, Oregon: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1990.

2. Ibid., p. 131.

3. Archives of Manitoba, CMS, Class “C,” C.1, North West American Mission (Rupertsland) (John West), C.1/M, Mission Books (Incoming Letters) 1822–1862, reel A-77, “Report of the State of Religion and Morality and Education of the Red River Settlement and Grand Rapids, by the Rev. Messrs. Jones and Cockran (5 June 1835), pp. 62-71.

4. Alexander Ross, The Red River Settlement: its rise, progress and present state, Elder and Co., 1856. pp. 243-244.

5. Elizabeth B. Custer, “An Out-of-the-Way Outing,” Harper’s Weekly, 18 July 1891.

6. Oregon Historical Society (OHS), MSS 1012, file 5, Archibald McDonald to E. Ermatinger, 25 January 1837.

7. OHS, file 7, McDonald to E. Ermatinger, 1 February 1839.

8. MacDonald, p. 118.

9. Ibid., p. 133.

10. British Columbia Archives, MS-1249, Box 9. Folder 1, “‘Adventure in Japan during 11 months’ by Ranald MacDonald.”

11. MacDonald, pp. 150-151.

12. Ibid., p. 168.

13. Ibid,, p. 163.

14. Ibid., p. 199.

15. Ibid., p. 193.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., p. 173.

18. Ibid., p. 133.

19. Ibid., p. 227.

20. Ibid., p. 226.

21. New York Courier and Enquirer, Fall 1849.

22. Ibid., pp. 246-247.

23. Frederick Schodt, Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan, Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press. p. 296.

24. BCA, MS-1249, box 9, folder 5, Malcolm McLeod, “R. McDonald, Part of journal,” p. 35; ibid., folder 13, MacDonald to McLeod, 24 May 1889.

Page revised: 3 April 2020