New York Herald 1867

Newspaper Articles
1866-10-28 Great Fire of Yokohama


Report of the Great Fire of Yokohama of November 26, 1866 in the New York Herald. Most of the report is from The Daily Japan Herald of November 28, apparently reprinted on December 1.

Twelve days ago we received per Atlantic telegraph from London the following despatch: —“Advices from China report that a great fire had occurred at Yokohama, Japan, causing a Ioss of over $6,000,000.”

We now lay before our readers the detailed statement of the great disaster, received by our Pacific communications with Japan. The following complete description is extracted from the Japan Herald of December 1, for an early copy of which we are indebted to Messrs. Heineman and Payson, of this city. We receive this news ten days in advance of the overland mail, and probably earlier than its receipt in London.

It is with feelings of profound gratitude that we find ourselves to sit down unscathed to record one of the most awful catastrophes it has been our lot to witness. The 26th of November 1868, will ever be remembered in Yokohama as one of the blackest days in its annals, for the conflagration which consumed nearly two-thirds of the native settlement and one fifth of the foreign.

Commencement of the fire.

See Great Fire of Yokohama, November 26, 1866 (pdf).

Source: The New York Herald. New York, January 28 1867.

Report in Young Japan

A very similar account was published in Young Japan by John R. Black:

The morning broke on one of the brightest days of the season, but the wind which had been blowing strongly from the south during the night seemed increasing in power, and, blowing over the bay towards Kanagawa, raised the spray in perfect clouds. At a little before nine in the morning, the fire bell gave warning of danger, and all rushed to the scene, which was found to be the street leading from Benten-dori to Yoshiwara. In a few minutes, however, flames were observed issuing in various quarters simultaneously. Ota-matchi broke out at several points: the new American Consular building, at the distance of a fall quarter a mile, shewing flames through the roof at the same moment. The flames worked up against the wind from the locality in which the fire originated, and in half an hour the whole of Yoshiwara was destroyed. With the exception of one or two fire-proof godowns, and the temple at the end, not a single stick was standing to mark the boundaries of dwellings.

Unhappily, here was a terrible loss of life, no less than thirty five dead bodies having been found. Yoshiwara, being quite surrounded by water, and there being only one narrow bridge which led into the street that was already in flames, became a cul de sac, from which the only retreat was by improvised plank bridges brought into use with all the celerity possible; but the flames were so rapid in their career of destruction, that many fled from them only to meet death in another element. In several parts of the native town persons were burnt or crushed to death. In Ota-machi, the effects of thoughtlessness and disorganisation were painfully apparent. All along the street, the people were getting their little movables out, to fly with them to the mumechi (the newly filled in ground) or some other place of safety, but towards the end near the foreign settlement, several people had filled up the street with their goods and chattels, thus making a perfect barricade. Here was an obstruction, that even men who were unencumbered found great difficulty in overcoming; whilst those who were carrying loads were driven to desperation in their efforts to pass, and many women and children were very much hurt.

Meanwhile the fire spread towards, and in, the foreign settlement. The New American Consulate was now literally level with the ground, and reports flew around, that No. 1, the residence, offices, and godowns of Messrs. Jardine, Matheson & Co., had caught. In another few seconds it reached the whole settlement that the private residence on No. 2, Messrs. Walsh, Hall & Co., was on fire. Simultaneously with this, the whole range of the old Consular buildings — the French, Prussian, American and English, in which latter several gentlemen of the English Legation and Consulate were residing — were swept off like so much tinder. The wind increased almost to a typhoon : the sparks communicated with the old Japanese Custom house, and in almost as short a time as it takes to pen this tale of desolation, it was a thing of the past.

Now arrived on the ground a party of soldiers, who commenced to knock down the portion of the new Bonded warehouse buildings that had any exposed wood; but the debris caught as it fell on the ground, and the first building was in flames. Mr. Scare, in his correct perception ofthe impending danger, directly alarm of fire was given, caused all the window shutters of Bonded warehouse A (which were coppered on the outside) to be closed, and the crevices filled up with mud — but it was of no avail; almost before it could be finished, the roof had become ignited, and it was, if a less speedy, an equally certain prey to the raging flames. The wind had hitherto continued to blow steadily in the same direction as when the fire broke out — and hopes were entertained that the direct line the fire had taken, would be that in which it would exhaust itself (by reaching the sea shore.

Already the native town had found a boundary beyond which it did not pass, and all was level but smouldering, when a momentary shift of wind sent a spark in at the single unclosed shutter of the foreign godown nearest to the native town, on No. 89. Immediately another strip of buildings caught, and in a wonderfully short space of time, the whole blocks Nos. 70 and 50, Nos. 41 to 43 and 1 and 2 were all ablaze. Now serious apprehensions began to be felt for the settlement; as, should the wind continue high and shift to the eastward, nothing seemed likely to save it. The fire engines were brought out the instant the alarm of fire was given; but alas, for the efficiency of the Yokohama Fire Brigade, there was not the slightest organization; and some of the engines were entirely useless — having got out of order, probably from disuse.

It was difficult also, to procure a sufficient and continuous supply of water for some of those that were well manned and in order, so that at length there seemed to be an almost entire absence of effort to make them available. About 11 o’clock the wind shifted a little more easterly, and quickly laid hold of the houses and godowns in the new direction. No. 71 and part of No. 72 in the Main Street— and Nos. 51, 52 and 53 were speedily attacked. Proceeding in the same direction, Nos. 44 and 49 — Nos. 21 to 28 and 3 to 8 became sharers in the general woe. About 11 o’clock, much apprehension was felt, in consequence of its being reported that there were three cannons, loaded with ball, on No. 51 — and that the balls could not be drawn. This difficulty was got over by the military, who, either removed the guns to a place of safety, or otherwise made them secure. Shortly after, there was an alarm spread, by the report that one of the godowns that was about catching, had a quantity of gunpowder in it. The proprietor allayed any apprehension on that score, by contradicting the report. Up to this time, the Naval and Military had worked well; as, to do them justice, all the officers and some few of the men continued to do throughout the day. Colonel Knox, of H. M.‘s 2nd 9th, was in all directions trying to direct the efforts of his men — and Admiral King and Captain Jones from the Princess Royal, with Captains Courtenay, Stevens and Waddilove, with detachments from H. M. S. Scylla, Perseus and Adventure, used every possible exertion. Lieut. Bond with his Sappers worked with the utmost zeal throughout the whole day; but all seemed hopeless; there was no impression made upon the general conflagration; and in spite of everything that the proprietors and their employees could do — in spite of the willing and hearty co-operation of their friends and of all who had hands to help, and the daring of the soldiers and sailors, the fire had it all its own way.

At length, it was determined to blow up a number of buildings across the line the flames seemed likely to take, and a commencement was made in the house of Mr. Van der Tak (the Netherlands Trading Company). A protest was made by the owner, and, it is said, by some of the Consuls ; but the Admiral, deeming it the only thing that could be done to cut off the communication, persisted. “Whether the step was judicious I will not pretend to say, for the débris of the house caught and burnt to ashes. The adjoining house, the Club, however, was not consumed, although it caught fire once or twice; but it was terribly shaken by the explosions, and much damage was done to it. The exertions of Mr. Smith and his staff succeeded in extinguishing every ignition that occurred. In most instances the houses blown down subsequently ignited and became an easy prey to the flames; and the last — a new fire-proof godown belonging to Messrs. Textor & Co. — was only saved from combustion by a miracle,— as the stone work having been all shaken down — left the woodwork quite exposed, and at nightfall, the premises exactly opposite — No. 8 — having been entirely destroyed, the wind changed, and a perfect rain of sparks fell among the rubbish. How it failed to ignite, was simply miraculous — and if it had caught, there is no knowing where the mischief would have stopped. As it was, the buildings of of which it formed a part, escaped through the resistance the corresponding fireproof walls, on the opposite side, offered to the fire — so that, with the exception of the sparks before-mentioned, the fire did not reach that limit. On the Bund the first building that escaped was the French Hospital. It was proposed to blow this up— but the Commissaire objected so strenuously, that the idea was, as it happened, fortunately abandoned. The house of Mr. Davies (Adamson & Co.,) on No. 28 was in great peril. Some of the other buildings on the lot were destroyed. At one time it seemed that Nos. 54 to 68 in the Main Street must inevitably go— but happily, although all received some damage, it was of no very great extent. To save them, however, their owners had to use almost incredible exertions, and but for the assistance of a party of men from one of the merchant ships. No. 58 could not have been saved.

The blocks destroyed then, were 1, 2, 3, 4,— a part of 5, 6, 7,— (Bungalow saved, but much damaged) 8,21, 22, 23 (small bungalow saved) 24, 25, 26, 27, part of 28, part of 29 bloAvn down, 40, 41, 41a, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48 (part saved but much injured), 49, 60, 51, 62, 53, part of 54, 70, 71, 72 and No. 89. In addition to these, the block of buildings containing the French, American, Portuguese and Prussian Consulates and the old British Consulate buildings; the newly built American Consulate — the whole of Bonded Warehouse A, and all the adjoining buildings — the whole of the Japanese Custom Plouse and the fire-engine house. Of the native town, fully two thirds were utterly destroyed within two hours of the original bursting forth of the flames.

Many declared the whole to have been the determined work of incendiarism; but there can be no proof of anything of the sort, and the Japanese must therefore have the benefit of the doubt. The fact of the origin being so far from the Foreign settlement, seems to disprove it, as it is hardly likely that for the sake of burning down the foreign residences, any would be so foolish as to burn down the greater part of their own town — especially as it was bringing certain ruin on thousands, upon the chance of injuring hundreds.

Up to about 11 o’clock the men belonging to the services worked well. By that time, however, so many had found the means of obtaining drink, that they became, with a few honourable and fine exceptions, almost uncontrollable. It was impossible to keep them immediately under the eyes of their officers, and the moment they were out of reach, their worst passions were quickly and deplorably exhibited. It was most humiliating to see fine fellows, in whom ordinarily their country has such pride, so completely lost as on this memorable occasion; for I never saw men so utterly and helplessly drunk as many of those were, on whom so much dependence was placed for help. One gentleman whose godowns were on fire, went into his house adjoining them, and in the dining room found several who had been sent to assist in removing some of the things, helping themselves to wine with such determination, that he had to draw his revolver to drive them out. Many of the men went in only for plunder; and I heard one say to a sentinel, who was true to his duty — “Now, you look here. You may as well shut your eyes a bit, and we can all divide afterwards.” One man was also heard asking his comrade if he knew which were the best houses in the place; — a question asked in a way that revealed plainly the meaning of the questioner.

About 1/2 past 5 P.M. the wind changed as it was feared it would, and there seemed but little hope of confining the flames to the ground they occupied. With the change, however, came moderation; and there was no longer that fierce furnace blast that made every spark a match. The fire ceased to spread, and although on the space over which it had sway, several large godowns were still blazing, it seemed to burn more quietly, and to content itself with the victims it already had, without seeking for more. Up to seven o’clock the wind continued light, and after that time veered to seaward again. Thus danger seemed to lessen; men’s minds became less perturbed; and apprehensions for the remainder of the settlement sunk to rest.

In the course of the morning many persons who felt fearful of the spread of the flames had caused their furniture to be removed, as they hoped, to places of safety. In several instances the buildings to which they were thus taken were destroyed, and of course, everything in them.

The activity, zeal, anxiety and watchfulness for their employers’ interest, of the Chinese compradores and servants connected with the various Hongs, were everywhere observable. In most instances, too, the Japanese servants behaved very staunchly, and stood to their posts at their masters’ houses, in spite of apprehensions for the safety of friends or relatives in the native town.

On Tuesday morning — some of the Japanese were already beginning to get up shanties almost upon, and certainly among, the smouldering ruins of their former domiciles.

It was ascertained that the fire had its origin in a small cookshop. Some grease dropping on to the fire, caused a blaze that caught the dry wood-work, and in a few minutes attained mastery over the whole place.

An incident occurred the same morning, between Kanagawa and Yoshida, which reminded us that foreigners must continue to be on their guard beyond the limits of the settlement. As Mr. Van der Tak was driving home from Yedo, having a lady in the phaeton with him, a drunken samurai drew his sword, and gave chase for aconsiderable distance. From the top of Noge hill, near the Governor’s house, to the bottom, Mr. Van der Tak was obliged to keep his horses at full speed, to avoid the fellow ; but he succeeded in distancing him, although at the risk of am accident to horses or to carriage, through, the rapid descent.

I do not know that I attach any importance to the fact, but it certainly is extraordinary, that 1866 acts up to the charter, and refuses to allow November to pass without trouble to foreigners. It will be remembered that poor Baldwin and Bird were murdered in November; and most of the untoward events that have succeeded each other in the history of Japanese and foreign intercourse, have happened at about this period of the year.

Source: John R. Black (1881). Young Japan. Yokohama and Yedo. A narrative of the settlement and the city from the signing of the treaties in 1858, to the close of the year 1879. With a glance at the progress of Japan during a period of twenty-one years. Yokohama: Kelly & Co, 17–25.


Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). 1866-10-28 Great Fire of Yokohama, From Dejima to Tokyo. Retrieved on April 23, 2024 (GMT) from

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