Barbarian Diplomat

One of the more successful American diplomats of the Nineteenth Century, Townsend Harris, a native of New York City, became wealthy in the China trade in the early part of the century.  He then turned to public service, serving as the President of the New York City Board of Education from 1846-1848.  He founded the Free Academy of the City of New York, later renamed as the City College of New York, in order to provide college educations to low income people in New York.

In July 1856, Franklin Pierce named him the first American consul general to the Empire of Japan.  He opened the first American consulate in Japan in the city of Shimoda.  Overcoming enormous difficulties, in two years he negotiated what has become known as the Harris Treaty, which established full diplomatic and trade relations between Japan and the US.

On the hundredth anniversary of the treaty in 1958, John Wayne, in one of the oddest films of his career, starred as Townsend Harris in the film The Barbarian and the Geisha.  Few men could have been more unlike John Wayne than Harris, and Wayne appears uncomfortable in the role of diplomat to me.  The film played up an alleged romance between Harris and Okichi, a 17 year old housekeeper, which has long been a tale told in Japan.  Unfortunately, this aspect of the story is untrue.  Harris fired Okichi after she worked for him for three days due to the fact that he considered her to be an incompetent housekeeper.  However, the look of the film is splendid, even if the film is the usual Hollywood mix of lies and half-truths.  Go here to view a clip from the film.

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Published in: on August 9, 2010 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Barbarian Diplomat  
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