Blakiston, Thomas Wright

At a Glance:

Naturalist, Explorer, Lumber Baron, Spy

Nationality:

British

Bird names: 1

Regions studied:

Japan, North America

Thomas Blakiston [link]

Content note: this profile contains discussion of PHRENOLOGY, ABUSE AND RACISM.

The Birds:

Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Bubo blakistoni)

Blakiston’s Fish Owl [link]

The Name:

Thomas Wright Blakiston (1832-1891) was a man who fit a considerable amount into his comparatively short life. In most concise accounts he is described as an naturalist, noted for the discovery of the zoogeographical boundary that also bears his name: Blakiston’s Line. But these were far from his only pursuits; in his time in Hokkaido alone he is credited as a lumber baron, a shipping company owner, designer of Hakodate’s water system, helping establish Japan’s first weather station, smuggling and sping for the Meiji government.

At the time that Blakiston arrived in Hokkaido (then known as Yezo or Ezo) it was to Hakodate, one of the few ports open to foreign commerce, and by his own accounts, something of a backwater. This would change rapidly even within his own time there, and Blakiston was well positioned to take advantage of this. After his initial visit, he would return with Japan’s first steam powered saw mill allowing him to process timber to export to China. However, this result in considerable difficulty due to concerns that he was deforesting the area at too fast a rate resulting in rules restricting which trees he could cut.

Blakiston during his time in Japan would have numerous legal battles, many are suggested to stem from his businesses; but two in particular give a distinct picture of his behaviours. In 1875 he was bought to trial for issuing internal paper money for use within his company, breaking Japanese law and a tactic frequently used by those who want to exert control of their workers – preventing them from leaving by having a monopoly on where they can spend their wages. On another occassion he was forced to appear in court because he “scolded” a servant to the point where they commited suicide.

It should be noted that at the time, Hokkaido was undergoing colonisation. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido, but their ownership of the island had been slowly eroded away under ostensiable Japanese rulership, but from 1855 Japanese settlers were allowed to move into “Ezochi” lands reserved for the Ainu. Part of the apparatus behind this wave were the Kaitakushi or Colonization Office, which recruited ex-samurai to move to Hokkaido to provide a combat capable occupying force. The same office would commission Blakiston to create a comprehensive collection of birds of the island – a partnership with a colonial invader. Particularly egregiously, Blakiston’s Fish Owl is potentially one of the eponym-named species for which there is most cultural evidence for indigenous knowledge of; it is a highly revered Kamuy (a term meaning something akin to god or spirit) as Kotan koru Kamuy – the God the protects the village. A sacred bird, renamed in honour of a man who would work with those who would drive the Ainu from their ancestral lands.

A Group of Ainu circa 1904 – Missouri History Museum [link]

Blakiston was still present in Japan during the Boshin War – the conflict that would result in the Meiji Restoration, and he attempted to profit from it. Consular reports suggest he was acting as arms dealer to Northeastern Domains as well as chartering ships for troop transport. There is also an unconfirmed report that he was acting as a spy for the Meiji Government, for which he was paid $1000, around 150 metric tons of rice and an all expenses paid pass to visit and part of the island. This however would backfire on him when the relatively short conflict resulted in first the financial instability following the war, then dissolution of the domains that had placed the orders.

In later life he would move to the United States, dying in San Diego at the comparatively young age of 58. While the discovery of “Blakiston’s Line” in undoubtedly an important piece of Biogeography, his wider legacy within history is frequently one of opportunism with little regard for the consequences to others.

Alex Holt

Sources:

  • Japan in Yezo: A series of papers descriptive of journeys undertaken in the Island of Yezo, at intervals between 1862 and 1882 [link]
  • Foreign Pioneers. Extract on Thomas Blakiston in Japan [link]
  • Hokkaido: A History of Ethnic Transition and Development on Japan’s Northern Island [link]
  • Fostering a Trade in Japan’s Northeat: The West Pacific Company at Hakodate in the 1860s [link]
  • A Line in Birds: Thomas Wright Blakiston: Ornithologist & Biogeographer in early Meiji Japan [link]