Arnhem • April 21, 1813 – November 27, 1879 • Arnhem
Jan Hendrik Donker Curtius was the last Opperhoofd (chief agent) of the Dutch trading post at Dejima. He was also, after being appointed “Dutch Commissioner in Japan” in 1855, the first Dutch diplomatic representative in Japan.
And he was—although this is mostly forgotten—the first foreign diplomat to conclude a commercial treaty with Japan. He did this nine months ahead of American Consul Townsend Harris, who has gone into the history books as having opened Japan to foreign trade with the Harris Treaty.
When Donker Curtius was appointed Opperhoofd in July 1852, the Dutch government had become deeply worried that Great Britain and the United States would use military force to bring Japan’s two-and-a-half century old policy of isolation to an end. This could embroil the neutral country in war.
It therefore tasked Donker Curtius to persuade Japan to open its ports to international trade without resorting to force. Dutch Minister of Colonies Charles Ferdinand Pahud (1803–1873) wrote a secret letter to Dutch King Willem III that explained the course of action. “No threat whatsoever” was allowed. Additionally, “no intervention should be offered, nor should any side be chosen, between Japan and the attackers, in the event of hostilities.”1
A previous attempt had failed dismally. In 1844, King Willem II had sent the shogun a letter, “from king to king,” advising that it was in Japan’s best interest to open its borders to free trade. The suggestion had been categorically rejected, and the Dutch were told not to send such a letter again.2
In other words, Donker Curtius had been handed a nearly impossible assignment. Even more so because he was not a diplomat. He was a jurist, employed by the colonial government in the Dutch East Indies.
The first opportunity to negotiate conditions for a treaty offered itself when American Commodore Perry visited Japan in 1853 with a threatening fleet of modern warships. Perry demanded that Japan open its borders. He would return the following year for the answer. Although the Dutch government had informed Japan of the expedition well in advance, it still unnerved the Japanese government. The shogunate turned to Donker Curtius to order seven warships, a large number of firearms, and books on military subjects.3
The Netherlands responded by offering the steam warship Soembing as a gift from King Willem III in 1855. The Japanese renamed it Kankō Maru. As it was Japan’s very first steam-powered warship, Japan needed teachers as well. So Donker Curtius simultaneously arranged that a Dutch naval detachment was invited to teach the Japanese how to use their gift.
Naturally, these officers had to be treated with respect and dignity, and needed to move around freely. The strict rules that had confined the Dutch on Dejima for over two centuries were ended. In January 1856, a Dutch-Japanese Friendship Treaty was concluded that encoded these new rights.
Donker Curtius then used this treaty to negotiate additional articles allowing trade in Nagasaki and Hakodate. Signed on October 16, 1857, traders from other nations were also allowed to trade under this treaty, long before these countries concluded their own treaties with Japan.4
Donker Curtius actually helped Harris to conclude his treaty. He regularly communicated with the American consul and even sent a copy of the additional articles soon after they were concluded in 1857.5 Undoubtedly more important were the discussions that Donker Curtius had with Nagasaki officials about the Second Opium War (1856–1860) that Great Britain and France waged against China.
Donker Curtius’ report of this conflict showed Japanese officials how Great Britain twisted a small incident into an excuse to start a war. His report was widely circulated and greatly influenced Rōjū Hotta Masayoshi (1810–1864), who played a crucial role in the negotiations with Harris. Thanks to Donker Curtius’ explanations, Hotta had a thorough understanding of the causes of the war, and the dangers to Japan of ignoring or insulting Harris.6
It is in no small measure thanks to this understanding that Harris was eventually allowed to visit Edo. Here he was able to conclude a treaty that reached much farther than what Donker Curtius had achieved. It opened several ports and can be seen as the start of free international trade in Japan.
Donker Curtius has often been criticized as having been too patient and understanding. But his government gave him no leverage, so he had little choice. The greatest mistake was to remain in Nagasaki when the representatives of the major powers set up legations at the Japanese center of power in Edo. This isolated the Dutch representative from major developments, and made it impossible to exert influence.
Although Donker Curtius’ work was greatly overshadowed by that of Harris and British representatives, his accomplishments should not be underestimated. He negotiated the first trade treaty with Japan, his treaties were used as blueprints for other treaties, and his advice influenced how Japanese officials dealt with Harris and other diplomats. Thanks to his efforts, diplomacy triumphed over war.
Additionally, the naval officers he brought in were instrumental in the birth of what would become the Japanese navy and greatly influenced how science, engineering and industry, and even medical education, developed in Japan.
(Footnotes are only shown on this site, not in the book.)
1 Nationaal Archief. 2.05.01 Inventaris van het archief van het Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, 1813-1870: 3141 1852 feb. – 1859 okt., 0034–0045. Secret report of March 21, 1852, from Ministry of Colonies to King Willem III:
“De Gouverneur Generaal is van oordeel dat met het vooruitzicht op die eventualiteit, onzentwege pogingen zouden behooren te worden aangewend om de Japansche Regering tot het aannemen van een ander stelsel te bewegen, en, bij mislukking daarvan, liever Japan geheel re verlaten, dan ons bloot te stellen aan het gevaar om te worden gebragt in het alternatief om of oorlog te voeren tegen machtige Staten, of dezen de behulpzame hand te bieden in den maatregelen van geweld, welke zij tegen Japan zouden nemen.
1o. om den Gouverneur Generaal te magtigen door middel van het nieuw te benoemen Opperhoofd van den handel op Japan, bij de Japansche Regering, door een schrijven van hem, Gouverneur Generaal aan te dringen, of althans een ernstig vertoog te doen, ten einde die Regering een ander stelsel aannemen dan zij tot dus ver heeft gevolgd, bij welk vertoog zal moeten worden gewezen op den zoo welmeenend door Zijne Majesteit Koning Willen II in 1844 gegeven raad, en op de waarschijnlijk spoedige verwezenlijking van de destijds voorspelde gebeurtenissen, hetgeen uit de maatregelen, welke in Noord-Amerika worden beraamd duidelijk is.
2o. om verder aan den Gouverneur Generaal te kennen te geven dat aan de Japansche Regering bij gelegenheid der boven bedoelde mededeelingen, geenerlei bedreiging moet worden gedaan, en ook niet tot het afbreken der betrekkingen met Japan, of het intrekken der Faktory te Decima moet worden overgegaan, ten ware de loop der gebeurtenissen zulks gebiedend vorderen en onvermijdelijk maken moet voor de eer en waardigheid van de Nederlandsche Regering, dat geen tuschenkomst aangeboden en ook geen partij gekozen moet worden tuschen Japan en de aanvallers ingeval het tot vijandelijkheden komen moet, maar dat, ingeval onze tuschenkomst mogt worden ingeroepen, getracht moet worden, die tot eene gewenste en goede uitkomst te doen strekken.
3o. Om de Nederlandsche Legatie bij de Vereenigde Staten van Noord Amerika bekend te maken met den brief in 1844 door Z. M. Koning Willem II aan den Keizer van Japan geschreven, ten einde daarvan, op eenen geschikte wijze, gebruik te kunnen maken om het Amerikaansche Gouvernement op de hoogte te stellen van de demarches reeds toen door Nederland gedaan, om de Japansche Regering tot andere beginselen te nopen.”
2 Jacobs, E. (1990). Met alleen woorden als wapen. De Nederlandse poging tot openstelling van Japanse havens voor de internationale handel (1844). BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, 105(1), 54–77.
3 McOmie, W. (2006). The Opening of Japan, 1853–1855: 10 The Dutch, British, Russians (and Americans) in ‘Opened’ Japan. Leiden: Brill, 326–372.
4 Pompe van Meerdervoort, Jhr. J. L. C. (1868). Vijf jaren in Japan. (1857-1863): Bijdragen tot de kennis van het Japansche keizerrijk en zijne bevolking. Tweede Deel. Leiden: Firma Van den Heuvel & Van Santen, Hoofdstuk VI, 14.
5 Nakanishi Vigden, Michiko (October 1987). Bulletin of the Japan-Netherlands Institute Vol. 12 No. 1 (No. 23). The Correspondence between Jan Hendrik Donker Curtius and Townsend Harris (47–78), 53.
6 Masuda, Wataru, Fogel, Joshua A. (2000). Japan and China: Mutual Representations in the Modern Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 46.
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). 1. Jan Hendrik Donker Curtius, From Dejima to Tokyo. Retrieved on December 7, 2023 (GMT) from https://www.dejima-tokyo.com/articles/55/1-jan-hendrik-donker-curtius