On this frigid early March morning, I drove down to the small town of Fairhaven, just outside of New Bedford on Massachusetts’ South Shore, on the trail of a pioneering Japanese American and a forgotten illustration of our longstanding, truly multicultural national diversity.
16 year old Manjiro Nakahama was brought to Fairhaven by whaling Captain William Whitfield in May 1843. Nakahama and four fellow fisherman had been stranded on a Pacific island during an 1841 storm, and months later Whitfield’s whaler the John Howland had rescued them. Whitfield dropped the four older men off at Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands), but offered Nakahama the chance to return to Whitfield’s home in Fairhaven and gain an education in that New England setting.
For the next few years, Nakahama was a fixture in Fairhaven, boarding with Whitfield’s neighbors the Akin family, attending church with the widower Whitfield, helping Whitfield build a farmhouse for his expanding family when the captain remarried. He received multiple stages of a New England education: first tutoring lessons from the Akin’s neighbor Miss Jane Allen; then attendance at the one-room Stone School House; and finally advanced lessons in navigation from Louis Bartlett at his private academy.
Although he went back to the sea aboard another whaler in 1846, and subsequently returned to his native Japan, Nakahama carried his American experiences and influences with him for the rest of his life. He wrote A Short Cut to English Conversation (considered the first English textbook in Japan), translated Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator into Japanese and taught navigation at Tokyo’s Naval Training School, and became a proponent of interconnections and a diplomatic envoy between the two nations, visiting Fairhaven on one such 1870 journey and staying at the Whitfield farm.
I learned about all these stages of Nakahama’s journey and life on Fairhaven’s Manjiro Trail, a series of historical sites and markers created and maintained by the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society. The Trail starts at the town’s historic Millicent Library (1893), which includes an impressive display of Nakahama artifacts and legacies. In the spirit of the friendship society, the Trail also features the Dr. Hinohara Bench and Peace Pole, a tribute to the efforts of prominent Japanese physician Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara to save the Whitfield house and preserve Nakahama’s memory in Fairhaven.
All of these sites, historic and contemporary alike, offer an engaging and inspiring glimpse into Asian American and American history. But they’re also very easy to miss, even if you’re in Fairhaven and certainly if you’re not. I’m a professor and public scholar of American Studies, with one of my books focused on the Chinese Exclusion Act and its contexts, and I had never heard of Nakahama—much less known about this trail less than 90 minutes from my home—until a student in my adult learning course mentioned him to me. And our collective forgetting of histories like Nakahama’s has had and continues to have a profoundly destructive effect on our national narratives.
To put it bluntly: I would argue that most Americans, whether they see our 21st century multicultural diversity as a strength or a weakness, believe that it is a relatively new phenomenon in our society. That in the half-century since the 1965 Immigration Act, among other forces of globalization and changing demographics, a national community that was once more homogenous in ethnicity, religion, and language has greatly diversified. Of course no one can dispute the foundational presence of African and Native American communities—but in this narrative, many of our other prominent 21st century cultures, from Asian Americans to Muslim Americans to Hispanic Americans, represent recent, significant demographic shifts.
That narrative couldn’t be more historically inaccurate, however. In much of what comprises the current United States, there were Asian American presences long before the U.S. had expanded to include those areas: Filipino villages in Spanish Louisiana in the mid-18th century; Chinese arrivals to Spanish Alta California in the first decades of the 19th century; Japanese communities in the Sandwich Islands throughout the 19th century. While men like Nakahama or the Chinese American student and diplomat Yung Wing were among the first Asian Americans to reach the Northeast, they were simply extending these longstanding, deep-rooted continental presences.
Muslim Americans were even more overtly part of that eastern seaboard origin of the United States. Many of the African slaves brought to all thirteen original colonies throughout the first post-contact decades were Muslims (historians estimate between 15 and 20 percent), making the religion as much a part of 17th century America as Puritanism. Then there was the Moroccan Muslim (or “Moorish” in the language of the era) community in Revolutionary-era Charleston, South Carolina, a community whose presence was noteworthy enough to produce one of that state’s first post-Constitution laws. When Thomas Jefferson and other framers wrote favorably about Islam, they weren’t simply engaging with philosophical or spiritual debates; they were responding to existing American communities.
No community exemplifies the foundational nature of America’s multicultural diversity better than Hispanic Americans, though. From the Caribbean to St. Augustine in Florida, California missions like San Diego to Texas and the Southwest, Spanish settlements were the first in the post-contact Americas. As St. Augustine’s status as the nation’s oldest continually occupied European city illustrates, these communities have endured throughout our history, with Anglo and other settlers adding to but not in any way expelling or erasing their Hispanic heritages. In the 19th century aftermath of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, American laws and settlers did try to push these Hispanic (now Mexican) American communities out—but as with the Chinese Exclusion Act and so many other exclusionary efforts, they largely failed to do so.
Such exclusionary laws and policies did become dominant for one specific period of American history: starting with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, building through a series of subsequent extensions of that law (including a limit on Japanese arrivals with the 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement”), and culminating in the 1921 and 1924 Quota Acts. All these laws were explicitly designed not only to restrict future immigration, but also and most especially to target longstanding American communities, to lessen the nation’s longstanding diversity in service of that mythic idea described by South Carolina Senator Ellison Durant Smith as “pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock.” They didn’t succeed in destroying those multicultural communities—but they certainly limited and circumscribed both their existence and (especially) their presence in our collective memories.
That historical period—between, let’s say, the 1924 Quota Act and the 1965 Immigration Act—is one in which many older Americans were born and raised. But it’s that period—the one time in our more than five centuries of post-contact history when diversity was somewhat limited, rather than continually amplified—which is the exception to our national rule, the blip on the radar screen of American diversity. At any other moment, wherever you look and however you define this developing and expanding national identity, multicultural diversity has been the story. From individuals like Nakahama to communities like the South Carolina Moroccan Muslims, you can’t trace our history without finding such cross- and multicultural trails.
Parked just in front of me outside Fairhaven’s Millicent Library this morning was a truck with two seemingly contradictory yet coexisting bumper stickers: Trump/Pence 2016 (“Make America Great Again”); and the famous Jimi Hendrix quote “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.” As seems to be the case in 2017 America, the Trump sticker was on top. But underneath was the love. The story of America’s foundational multicultural diversity is of course not without its darknesses and horrors, moments of violence and division and exclusion such as the one in which we once more find ourselves. But as William Whitfield and Manjiro Nakahama exemplify, it’s also a story of love, of friendship, of cross-cultural connections through which our collective community has been defined. That’s a historic trail we all need to walk, and then carry with us into the future.