Remembering the 1886 Sinking of the Normanton (ノルマントン号事件)- in which the British Captain and European Crew Abandoned Ship, Leaving all Asian (including all 25 Japanese) Passengers to Drown
By Avi Landau
I am an atrocious typist. In fact the word TYPIST should not even be used when referring to a person with the poor keyboard skills that I have. It would probably be best just to say that when it comes to typing- I stink. You should not be surprised then, that when I took on the task of translating into English one of world-renowned author Junichi Saga`s still untranslated books*, that I did so with paper and pen.
Naturally, when I completed the English version, I felt a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, though all I actually had to show for all the work was a color-faded plastic shopping bag stuffed with hundreds of loose sheets of paper. Fortunately I had remembered to number (most of) them!
Because of my TYPOPHOBIA, it took me a few months to build up enough resolve to start inputting the text onto my computer. Much more pain-staking for me than the actual translation work itself, I spent every free hour, for months, going through the repeated process of examining a few words of my scrawl, and then SEARCHING AND PECKING at the keyboard. It was a tedious and dizzying experience – a real come-down after the challenge and thrill of translation.
Making it all the more depressing, was the TV news I would often hear wafting in from the next room while I was at work. First there was the baffling disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, and then the tragic sinking of the Korean ferry Sewol, in which more than 300 high school students had gone down with the ship.
Making this disaster even more painful for Koreans was the mishandling of what should have been a routine rescue effort – and even more so by the fact that the captain and crew had escaped the sinking ship, saving themselves while leaving the students to drown on the doomed ship.
Even when I was not at work typing, while I was out about town, it was the Sewol story which dominated conversation. No one could fathom how the captain and crew could have left those students on board telling them to stay where they were, while they themselves snuck off incognito (the captain in his underwear) to safety.
Then one night, right in the midst of all the unfolding of this and the continued debate about the behavior of the captain and crew, I came to a passage in my translation which I had completely forgotten about. My curiosity was peaked as I typed out these sentences I had translated months earlier:
“Mother was sitting beside the PECHKA (traditional Russian stove) and singing softly. The words went something like: “The foreign ships are well-known, we were led on board, and taken far from the shore…..” It was a song that was very popular at the time, about a famous incident that occurred in the 1880`s. There had been a British passenger ship- The Normanton- which sank. There were many Japanese on board who perished. She was singing that song. I stood in the darkness of the late night and listened as she repeated it over and over again.”
A sunken ship! What a coincidence! But when I did a little web surfing to find out more about what had happened at that time, I realized the coincidence was much greater than I had first thought- the sinking of the Normanton in 1886 also involved a captain, in this case a British captain, abandoning ship and leaving his passengers behind to drown!
You can read more about the all but forgotten Normanton Incident here:
and listen to the song the boy (Susumu Saga) heard his mother singing that night in Siberia way back in 1920 :
Here are the some of the lyrics translated into English:
The roar of the waves pounding against the shore Awoken from a dream by a storm in the dead of night Staring out at the great blue expanse Wondering where the hell my fellow countrymen are
Try to call out, try to shout, but I have no voice I seek and search but find not even a shadow If the rumors are true, the passing moon and twenty-five of our dearest brethren set sail
Godspeed your journey as the crow flies We know a little bit about foreign ships And we know those built by Brits Are famed for their nautical prowess
Like lambs, we were led aboard the vessel we passed all too quickly the 300 kilometers of distant wake and water to old Totomi only to reach Kumano Inlet in Kishuu
and then in the middle takes a surprising turn:
O, the inhumanity of this foreign ship The cruel and merciless captain Whose very name reeks of cowardice Watched their sorrowful plight from afar
Forgetting all of his responsibility Hey made fast for a cowardly retreat Dragging his men along with him They jumped aboard the lifeboats
They see each others shadows off Tears of regret cutting quick and deep They wipe them down and fight them off You’re a hateful bastard, Drake
No matter how different your race may be No matter how little you know of mercy You just stood by and watched You left us there to die, you coward
The photos I have used in this post were uploaded from the following site. Go to it for more images of the Monument to the Normanton Incident:
* HYOSETSU NO BAIKAL (氷雪のバイカル) which can be literally translated as the “Frost and Snows of Baikal” is the true story of a Japanese family (the author`s own grandparents and father) that went off to live in Siberia just after the Russian Revolution. My English version was released under the title: “Susumu’s Saga”.
Just today (Dec. 12, 2020) I found an old Japanese film on youtube called: Masquerade – Secret of the M.S. Normanton Incident (仮面の舞踏ー秘話ノルマントン号事件) which was made in 1943 (in Japanese only – with no subtitles)