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Blakiston, Thomas Wrightlocked

(1832–1891)
  • H. E. D. Blakiston
  • , revised by Christopher J. Schmitz

Blakiston, Thomas Wright (1832–1891), army officer and explorer, was born at Lymington in Hampshire on 27 December 1832, the second of three sons of John Blakiston (1785–1867), army officer, and his wife, Jane, daughter of the Revd Thomas Wright of Market Harborough, Leicestershire.

Major John Blakiston was the second son of Sir Matthew Blakiston, second baronet (1761–1806), and his wife, Anne (d. 27 November 1862 in her 101st year), daughter of John Rochfort of Clogrenane, co. Carlow, Ireland. He served in the Madras engineers and in the 27th regiment (Enniskillens), participated in the battle of Assaye and the capture of Bourbon, Mauritius, and Java, and fought during the Peninsular War from Vitoria to Toulouse. On 26 September 1814 he married Jane Wright, retiring from active military service around the same time. He published Twelve Years of Military Adventures anonymously (1829) and Twenty Years in Retirement under his name (1836). He died on 4 June 1867 at Moberley Hall, Cheshire.

His son Thomas was educated at St Paul's Proprietary School at Southsea, and at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, from which he obtained a commission in the Royal Artillery on 16 December 1851. He served with his regiment in England, Ireland, and Nova Scotia, and in the Crimea before Sevastopol, where his younger brother Lawrence was killed in the battle of the Redan on 8 September 1855. In 1857 Blakiston was appointed, on the recommendation of Sir Edward Sabine, a member of the scientific expedition for the exploration of British North America between Canada and the Rocky Mountains, under the command of John Palliser. He was principally employed in taking observations on the magnetic conditions and temperature; but in 1858 he crossed the Kutanie and Boundary passes independently, and subsequently published Report of the Exploration of Two Passes through the Rocky Mountains (1859).

During the Chinese war of 1859 Blakiston was left in command of a detachment of artillery at Canton (Guangzhou), and there he organized a widely reported exploration of the middle and upper course of the Yangtze (Yangzi), the idea being to ascend the river as far as the Min, and then cross the province of Szechwan (Sichuan), and reach north-western India via Tibet and Lhasa. The party consisted of Blakiston, Lieutenant-Colonel H. A. Sarel, and Dr Alfred Barton, and with the Revd S. Schereschewsky as interpreter, together with four Sikh and three Chinese attendants, it set out from Shanghai on 12 February 1861, convoyed by Vice-Admiral Sir James Hope's squadron, which left the party at Yaan (Ya'an) on 16 March. They reached Pingshan on 25 May, having travelled 1800 miles from Shanghai, 900 miles further than any other Europeans, except the Jesuits in native costume. The country there being subject to considerable insurgency, they were forced to retrace their route on 30 May, reaching Shanghai on 9 July. Blakiston produced a remarkably accurate chart of the river from Hangchow (Hangzhou) to Pingshan, published in 1861, for which he received in 1862 the royal (patron's) medal of the Royal Geographical Society. Blakiston quickly published a substantial account of their journey, Five Months on the Yang-tsze (1862), with illustrations by Barton. This remained a standard account for the region for at least the following fifty years.

Towards the end of 1862 Blakiston made a brief visit to Yezo (Hokkaido), the northern island of Japan. Returning to England at the end of the year, he resigned his commission and entered into a business arrangement with a small group of Scottish merchants. Together they registered the West Pacific Company Ltd, on 12 February 1863, to exploit the rich timber resources of the area with the aim of erecting sawmills in Yezo, as well as acting as general shippers between China and Japan. Blakiston, having subscribed nearly half the company's £4400 capital, returned to Japan, via Russia, Siberia, and the Amur River. Settling at the treaty port of Hakodate, then widely regarded as an isolated and storm-battered settlement, he acted as local manager for the company, as well as establishing his own local trading firm, Blakiston, Marr & Co. The West Pacific Company failed to prosper, however. Hostility grew between Blakiston and the Scottish shareholders, local Japanese officials proved increasingly obstructive, and, finally, political turbulence initiated by the Meiji restoration of 1868 badly disrupted trade. With losses of nearly £25,000 the company went into liquidation in July 1869.

Notwithstanding this set-back Blakiston remained in Hakodate, operating as a merchant on his own account. He also designed fortifications for the port, undertook scientific surveys, and soon became the longest established and best-known of the European residents—'le véritable Roi d'Hakodate'—keeping open house for travellers, especially those with scientific interests. In 1872 he contributed to the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society a narrative of a journey round Hokkaido, containing information on its topography, climate, forests, fisheries, mines, and population, and first calling attention to the existence of a pre-Ainu race of pit-dwellers.

During Blakiston's residence at Hakodate he cultivated a deep interest in the ornithology of Hokkaido. He made an extensive collection of birds, which was later housed in the University Museum of Natural History at Sapporo, Japan, and in 1878 compiled, with H. Pryer of Yokohama, a pioneering catalogue of the avifauna of Japan (Ibis, 4th ser., 2, 1878, 207–50), revised and reprinted in London in 1884. He demonstrated that the birds of Hokkaido belong to the Siberian as distinct from the Manchurian sub-region of the Palaearctic region; and the zoo-geographical line of division formed by the Strait of Tsu-garu was termed Blakiston's line in contemporary ornithological literature. In 1883 he read to the Asiatic Society (Transactions, 11, 1883) a paper entitled 'Zoological Indications of the Ancient Connexion of the Japan Islands with the Continent'. Seven new species of Japanese birds were named after him. Blakiston also published a book, Japan in Yezo (1883), consisting of articles reprinted from the Japan Gazette as well as a number of papers in The Ibis, The Chrysanthemum, the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, and the Proceedings of the United States National Museum, on the birds of British North America and Japan. Besides the collection at Sapporo, he gave Japanese birds to the United States National Museum (Smithsonian Institution), and sent living specimens to the gardens of the Zoological Society of London.

In 1884, after a visit to Australia, New Zealand, and England, Blakiston retired from his business and left Japan for the United States. He was married relatively late in life, on 16 April 1885, to Anne Mary, daughter of James Dun of Dundaff, London, Ohio. They had a son, Lawrence Wright, and a daughter, Jessie Carmichael. He eventually settled in New Mexico; he died on 15 October 1891 at San Diego, California, and was buried at Columbus, Ohio.

Sources

  • Proceedings [Royal Geographical Society], new ser., 13 (1891), 728–9
  • The Ibis, 6th ser., 4 (1892), 190
  • Auk, 9 (1892), 75–6
  • private information (1901, 2004)
  • board minutes, annual returns of capital and shareholders, West Pacific Company, Limited, 1863–72, NA Scot., BT2/129
  • T. W. Blakiston, Japan in Yezo: a series of papers descriptive of journeys undertaken in the island of Yezo, at intervals between 1862 and 1882 (1883)

Archives

  • Hakodate Municipal Library, Japan, letters
  • University Museum of Natural History, Sapporo, Japan, ornithological collection

Likenesses

  • photograph, repro. in Blakiston, Japan in Yezo

Wealth at Death

under £8000—John Blakiston: probate, 1867, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)
National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh