The Economist and Ranald MacDonald

I was surprised and delighted to read  the essay “When Japan was a secret” in the December 19 Special Holiday Double Issue of The Economist. As Chairman of Friends of MacDonald, a historical enthusiasts and Japan-America friendship organization based in Astoria, Oregon (MacDonald’s birthplace) I was surprised that the magazine had discovered the unique and little known story of our 19th century adventurer hero Ranald MacDonald. At the time of MacDonald’s castaway adventure in Japan The Economist was interested in railroads having changed its name in 1845 to “The Economist, Weekly Commercial Times, Bankers’ Gazette, and Railway Monitor. I wonder how the European interest in the opening of Japan might have changed had MacDonald been successful in gaining the attention of The Economist for his story upon his repatriation in 1849.

However, MacDonald’s story did not reach much of an audience during his lifetime and his autobiography remained unpublished at the time of his death in 1894. Finally in 1923 editors William S. Lewis and Naojiro Murakami published Ranald MacDonald: The Narrative of His Early Life on the Columbia Under the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Regime; Of His Experiences in the Pacific Whale Fishery; And of his Great Adventures to Japan; With a Sketch of his Later Life on the Western Frontier (Spokane: Eastern Washington State Historical Society, 1923). Friends of MacDonald supported a reprint of the autobiography by the Oregon Historical Society in 1990. Our organization has also donated hundreds of books about MacDonald to libraries in Canada and the USA including Ranald Macdonald: Pacific Rim Adventurer by JoAnn Roe (Washington State University, 1997) and Native American in the Land of the Shogun: Ranald MacDonald and the Opening of Japan by Frederik Schodt (Stone Bridge Press, 2003). Christopher Benfey and Katherine Plummer whom were cited in The Economist and the historians noted above are among those few who discovered the nearly secret story of  Ranald MacDonald and other castaways and found it worth telling. Friends of MacDonald is impressed with the visibility of this story in The Economistthat now makes it impossible to say these adventurers remain little known.

See The Economist online at


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