30 December 2014

The Last British Consul

When Ferdinand C. Greatrex took over for Montague B.T. Paske-Smith in December 1927, he probably never imagined that he would remain at the post of British consul in Nagasaki longer than any of his predecessors or, even less, that he would be the last in the long series of British consuls dating back to the opening of Japan’s doors in 1859.

Born in London in 1884, Greatrex had passed the competitive examination to the Japan Consular Service in 1906 at the young age of 18.  He rose through the ranks over the following years, starting as a student interpreter in Tokyo and serving as an assistant and vice-consul in various ports of Japan, Korea and the Philippines.  

As acting consul in Shimonoseki, he oversaw the closure of the British consulate in that port in 1922 and the transfer of diplomatic duties to a consular agent.  His next posting was Hakodate, where again the duty of downgrading the consulate to a branch of the Yokohama British Consulate fell on his shoulders.  Although scheduled to assume the position of consul at Tamsui, Formosa (Taiwan), he was appointed instead to succeed Montague B.T. Paske-Smith in Nagasaki in late 1927. 

Ferdinand C. Greatrex as a young diplomat in Japan. 

In the autumn of 1931, the British Foreign Office aired a proposal to close the Nagasaki consulate as well.  The ambassador to Tokyo, Sir Francis O. Lindley, informed Ferdinand C. Greatrex that he had been asked to submit his views on the abolition of the consulate because “it is the feeling of the Foreign Office that there is not actually sufficient work at Nagasaki to require the presence of a salaried officer."

Greatrex responded on October 18 and 29 with long letters outlining the situation in the Nagasaki district, which included all of Kyushu and the areas formerly under the jurisdiction of the Shimonoseki consulate.  He pointed out that the market for real estate in Nagasaki was extremely depressed and that the sale of the consular buildings could not be expected to fetch any significant sum, and he predicted that, in any case, “all classes of Japanese set great store by the historical associations of this place with foreign countries, and the first suggestion of our withdrawal will, I am sure, cause a much greater outcry than that heard in the case of Hakodate or Shimonoseki."

In the end, the Foreign Office decided to maintain the status quo in Nagasaki despite the decline in the city as an international port and the deterioration of British-Japanese relations in the late 1930s.  As a result, Ferdinand C. Greatrex was still at his desk -- like a captain refusing to abandon the helm of a sinking ship -- when the news of the Pearl Harbor attack reached Nagasaki on December 8, 1941.  Japanese military police immediately surrounded the consulate and placed Greatrex and his wife Margaret under house arrest.

The two were later confined in a school on the outskirts of Nagasaki along with a few intrepid missionaries, elderly men with Japanese wives, and other enemy nationals who for whatever reason had ignored the injunctions to leave Japan.  They were finally allowed to leave the city in July 1942 and to board an exchange ship at Yokohama for repatriation to England.

The activities of Ferdinand C. Greatrex as Nagasaki's last British consul are largely forgotten, but his name lives on in the field of botany, an academic undertaking he pursued in parallel to his long career in the Japan Consular Service.  Greatrex made frequent trips to the countryside near Nagasaki to identify and record unusual plants, and one rare species of violet that he discovered at Unzen was even named in his honor: Viola greatrexii Nakai & Maek.