Basil Hall

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Basil Hall was a British officer and diplomatic official who served as a member of an 1816 mission to China led by Lord Amherst. He later traveled to Korea, Ryûkyû and elsewhere, producing an account of his journeys, Voyage of discovery to the west coast of Corea and the great Loo-Choo Island, which remains a prominent and oft-cited source today.

Born in Edinburgh in 1788, Hall joined the British Royal Navy in 1802. In 1812, he was assigned to the East Indies, and in 1816 was named captain of the HMS Lyra, which accompanied the HMS Alceste in carrying Lord Amherst's formal diplomatic mission to China later that year.

Though Hall accompanied Lord Amherst to China, he did not join him in traveling to the secondary imperial palace at Rehe (aka Chengde), where Amherst was to meet with the Jiaqing Emperor. As Amherst and his men found the ritual of kowtowing to the emperor terribly offensive, they made excuses of illness and were encouraged to leave the country, with no further gifts or banquets; this was to be the last British mission to China of that sort.

Meanwhile, Hall led the two ships in conducting a survey of the East China Sea region. This survey included visits to the Kingdom of Ryûkyû and to Joseon Dynasty Korea, during which Hall and his compatriots recorded much about local customs, architecture, geography, language, and so forth. In total, Hall and his men sojourned in Ryûkyû from September 15 to October 27, 1816 (8/24 to 9/7 on the Japanese/Ryukyuan calendar). Fusei dayû Nakijin Chôei (Shô Kokki) was appointed by the court to serve as the lead representative of the kingdom in talking with the foreigners, while Gima peechin Sai Shû served as interpreter.

They passed Iô Torishima on September 13, and Iejima the following day. On the day after that, September 15, they anchored off-shore near Itoman, rowed to shore, and received water and potatoes from the locals. Hall and his men then made their way to Naha the following day, on September 16. After anchoring roughly half a mile away from the port, they soon found themselves surrounded by sabani (Okinawan canoes). According to Hall's diary, Ryukyuans began climbing aboard the ship, and eventually one of them, an official, came before Hall and asked him why he had come to Ryûkyû; he responded that they had been at sea for a long time and were in need of water and repairs, and so the official granted Hall those things. Hall and his men surveyed portions of the island, including Naha port, and determined it was too shallow for the Alceste. The following day, Gima peechin visited the Alceste along with another Ryukyuan official named Okuma. They received a tour of the ship, and suggested Kenken (健堅), a port on the Motobu peninsula, facing Sesoko Island, as a port that could accommodate the ship. The Alceste's captain, Maxwell, then requested from Gima and Okuma the opportunity to meet with the king, but was refused. Hall's diary for the next day (September 18) is taken up mostly with comments about Okinawa's latitude, architecture, and so forth. On September 19, Gima, Okuma, and four other officials boarded the ships and reminded the Brits they did not have permission to come ashore. On the 20th, the Brits nevertheless met with a number of Ryukyuans and gave them wine glasses in exchange for hairpins (kanzashi); they also shifted their anchorage and surveyed the port further, under the watchful eyes of kingdom officials. Fukumine ueekata Mô Teiki then visited the ships on September 22. He is illustrated in Hall's diary in an image captioned "Ryukyu chief and his two sons." On the 23rd, the Brits were banqueted at the Buddhist temple Rinkai-ji, but on the 24th, due to strong winds, they remained on their ships. The following day, on September 25, Gima and Okuma returned to the ships, and while speaking with the Brits, attempted to learn one another's languages. Maxwell, Hall, and their crew would remain in Ryûkyû just over an additional month after this.

Upon his return to Europe, Hall is said to have met with Napoleon, then in exile on the island of St. Helena. Hall's description of Ryûkyû to Napoleon, as an utterly peaceful society entirely lacking in arms or armies, played a key role in perpetuating, if not initiating, this myth and stereotype of a pacifist Ryûkyû. In truth, King Shô Shin, back in the 16th century, confiscated weapons in order to consolidate power and prevent rebellion against him, and the Shimazu clan of Satsuma han did similarly following their invasion of Ryûkyû in 1609; but in neither of these cases was the kingdom fully rid of weapons, nor was it ever done for a pacifistic purpose.[1]

Hall's accounts of his voyages were published in 1818. He retired from the Navy in 1825, and enjoyed a long retirement, dying in 1844.

Hall's grandson Basil Hall Chamberlain took up residence in Japan from 1873 into the early 1900s, and published a number of noteworthy books about Japan.[2]


  • Gallery labels, exhibition "Basil Hall rairyû 200 shûnen kinen, Uranda ga yatte kita!," バジル・ホール来琉200周年記念 ウランダーがやってきた!, Naha City Museum of History, October 2016.
  1. For more on this, see: Gregory Smits, "Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism." The Asia-Pacific Journal 37-3-10 (September 13, 2010).
  2. Kikuchi Yuko, Japanese Modernisation and Mingei Theory, Routledge (2004), 142.