Following the murder in September 1862 of Charles Richardson, by the samurai retinue of Shimazu Hisamitsu, the British had demanded compensation from the Japanese government, and had received it. Japan though wasn't just the central government, which was in many ways just a cipher. In reality, Japan was made up of provinces, each ruled by a clan with it's own armed forces. Shimazu Hisamitsu ruled the province of Satsuma, and demands he give up the murderers and pay reparations were dismissed out of hand.
The Satsuma capital was Kagoshima, but their main source of wealth was the port of Yokohama which had a large, and nervous, colony of foreign traders. Masters of merchant ships there had organised means of communication with the shore by signals, so that the foreign residents could get speedy on board ship, in case of danger. To reassure them, and make a point to Satsuma, a substantial British fleet was dispatched. The commander was Vice Admiral Kuper, although his position as Vice Admiral was only "acting", given to ensure parity with the local French equivalent. Kuper had a lot of experience of active service in the east, and had just been appointed head of the East Indies and China station, but his experience so far had been in China, not Japan. That was about to change.
By February 1863 the South Australia Register was reporting a substantial fleet in Yokohama harbour consisting of;
HMS Euryalus, Kuper´s flagship. HMS Pearl, HMS Argus, , HMS Centaur, HMS Rattler, HMS Racehorse, HMS Havoc & HMS Kestrel. These would shortly be joined by H.M.S. Ringdove, Encounter, Scout, and Coromandel, and the gunboat Hesper, with coals and stores.
The British were by no means the only foreign power with grievances.The Chosu clan had attacked French, Dutch and United States shipping, resulting in a running battle between the USS Wyoming and Chosu warships and forts at Shimonoseki. The Dutch Medusa and French Tancrède and Dupleix had also fired on Chosu positions. But the Satsuma clan were supposed to be more reasonable. Nonetheless, after a year of fruitless discussions, the British decided enough was enough, and Kuper was ordered to threaten the use of force. Alarmed, the central government sent a last minute plea for delay to Lieutenant Colonel Neale, the British Chargé dáffaires in Japan.
"On receipt of your despatch of the 3rd of August, we fully understood that you intend to go within three days to the territory of the Prince of Satsuma with the men-of-war now lying in the Bay of Yokohama, to demand satsifaction for the murder of a British merchant on the Tokaido last year. But owing to the present unsettled state of affairs in our empire, which you witness and hear of, we are in great trouble, and intend to carry out several plans. Supposing, now, something untoward were to happen, than all the trouble both you and we have taken would have been in vain and fruitless; therefore we request that the said departure may be delayed for the present".
The Fleet at Kagashima
Pleas for patience fell on deaf ears and Kuper and Neale left Yokohama on August 6th 1863, arriving off Kagashima on August 11th with the following fleet....
HMS Euryalus, the flagshuip with Admiral Kuper and Colonel Neale onboard. The Euryalus was a wooden screw frigate with a crew of 515, 51 guns (incl 16 carronades and, most effectively, 17 breech loading Armstrong guns) and over 70 tons of shot and shell. She had seen action in the bombardment of Bomarsund and Sveaborg in the Baltic during the Crimean war, and in China during the Taiping rebellion. Possibly not the luckiest of ships, she had already lost 20 men to cholera in China, and in April 64 had 40 cases of smallpox. Her luck was not to improve at Kagashima
HMS Pearl, a screw corvette and the 2nd most powerful ship in the squadron, with 20x 8 inch muzzle loading smooth bores mounted as broadsides and a 10 inch smooth bore on a pivot at the front.
HMS Perseus, a 17 gun wooden screw corvette.
HMS Argus, a 6 gun paddle steamer, she had already served in North America, and would later be seen in Africa
HMS Coquette, a wooden screw gunboat
HMS Racehorse, a wooden screw gunboat with one 110 pdr and 2x 20pdr guns.
HMS Havock, a wooden screw gunboat with 4 guns, built by Hills of Bristol in 1856. The smallest of the squadron at only 232 tons. She had been in the East since 1860 and was destined, slightly bizarrely, to be sold in Yokohama in 1871.
The squadron anchored in the deep waters of Kinko bay and a 24 hour ultimatum was delivered. The theory was that the fleet would work just be being there, surely the Satsuma regime would see sense? That wasn´t the view in Kagoshima however, they evacuated the town, and primed the guns in forts around the bay. Impatient with yet more diplomatic prevarication Kuper decided to seize three Satsuma steam merchant ships in the bay, with a combined value of about 200,000 pounds, to use as bargaining counters. This delighted the sailors in his fleet who now stood a fair chance of getting prize money. What they did not expect was opposition, but the Satsuma forts, some equipped with huge 150 pound cannon opened fire,...
"The Spit battery fired a signal gun, and immediately all the batteries opened fire with shot and shell on the squadron, the shot flying very close over our heads"
Shocked, the British pillaged and burnt the captured steamers and retired to organise themselves. It took 2 hours to ready the ships for war, but then they formed line of battle and opened fire with shell and round shot.
On the Euryalus
"Opened fire with pivot gun on No. 8 battery the shells bursting well. 2 20 p.m. - Opened fire on battery with starboard broadside, the shot and shell telling well particularly the quarter-deck Armstrongs. The enemy's shot and shell began to fly very thick about the ship, cutting a great many of the ropes. Men in top observed men leave battery, our fire having dismounted four guns. We now began to approach the large batteries owing to the wind blowing, so fresh and directly on shore all the smoke covered completely these forts, so that we could not tell how far off we were, but we supposed about 700 or 800 yards.
2 55 p.m. - Captain Josling and Commander Wilmot both killed on the bridge by one and the same shot. The Admiral and Mr. Parker, the master, were on the bridge along with the captain and the commander when the latter were killed, and narrowly escaped the fatal ball. The Admiral's coolness and collectedness on this trying occasion was very remarkable; but when all was over he paid a worthy tribute of feeling to the memory of the brave officers and men who had fallen around him on the spot. A 10-inch shell exploded at the muzzle of the No. 3 gun on main deck, killing seven men on the spot, and wounding Lieutenant Jephson and five men. A shell came through the starboard waist bulwark, and burst under the starboard launch, completely blowing her bottom in, but without hurting any one. A shot carried away starboard speaking tube on the bridge, and lodged in the brake of the poop, breaking all the cabin windows. The firing very hot; at this time we were under the fire of 37 guns from 10-inch to 18 pounders.
3 10 p.m.- Racehorse got on shore under No. 8 battery, she firing at it and keeping them away from the guns; the Argus and Coquette sent to her assistance.
3 30 p.m. -Ceased firing.
3 45 p.m. - Came to under Josling Point in 25 fathoms.
4 20 p.m. - Forts discontinued firing on the Argus. Racehorse and Coquette observed the town to be on fire.
7 p.m. - The Havoc set fire to five large Loochoo junks.
8 p.m. - Observed Satsuma's foundries to be on fire; blowing very hard, with rain; ship with two anchors down and steaming slowly against it.
Midnight. - Town foundry and junks burning fiercely.
"Sunday, 16th, 4 a.m. - Town and foundry still burning; junks burnt to the water's edge and drifted on shore; saw that several had been dismounted in batteries Nos. 7 and 8.
11 a.m. - Committed to the deep the bodies of Captain Josling, Commander Wilmot, and the following men:- Wm. Yardley, A.B.; Jas. Smith, ordinary; Wm. Hagarty, A.B.; R. Lindsay, A.B.; John Warren, ordinary; John Hawkins, ordinary; Patrick Fleming, Royal Marines, all killed yesterday during the attack on Kagosima. Noon. Town and foundry still burning.
330p.m. - Weighed and proceeded in company with squadron; cleared for action. Engaged batteries on both sides, firing shell at Satsuma's house and town.
3 45 p.m. - Magazine in No. 11 battery and also that in Spit Battery blew up Batteries on Tori Island, and Spit Battery firing on squadron.
5 p.m. - Ceased firing; observed the town to be on fire to the south of Satsuma's house.
5 20 p.m. - Came to off the Seven Islands in 8 fathoms, about 68 miles to the south of the town.
9 30 p.m. - Departed this life Thomas Harding, B.I.C., from the effect of wounds received yesterday.Leading the line the Euryalus was, according to the Times, " hulled ten times, and her masts and rigging cut to pieces." besides "30 of the crew put hors de combat".
The following Foreign Office telegrams were later printed in The Times
"SATURDAY, AUG. 15.
"All hope of negotiations being at an end, the fleet took up its position opposite Kagosima, and prepared for action. "Two shore batteries opened fire on the fleet, which returned it. "By dusk the town was in flames in several places. "Three forts were silenced. "Our loss consisted of 11 killed and 39 wounded. "Captains Josling (of the Euryalus) and Wilmot were killed by the same shot. "9 p.m.- The whole town is in flames.
"SUNDAY, AUG. 16.
"The fleet stood out, engaging the whole of the batteries. The city ia one mass of ruins - palace, factories, arsenal, &c. "Three steamers of Satsuma are destroyed completely. "The shore batteries are reported to have been well served."With no land forces, Kuper had done all he could and retired to Yokohama.
Strangely, relations between the Satsuma regime and Britain became quite close. Tortuous negotiatians via the central governoment hgradually improving matters. The Satsumas had saved face, after all they caused more casualties, but they had been very impressed by the Royal Navy. Significantly, they didn´t give up Richardsons murderers, but they did pay the 25,000 pound compensation demanded (about 16 million in today's money) and even bought new ships from the British. Samurai were trained as naval officers and the Satsuma navy became, in time, the basis for the future Imperial Japanese fleet. Heihachiro Togo, the hero of the Russo-Japanese war was manning one of the Satsuma cannon in the battle.
Kuper was heavily criticised in some quarters initially, but exonerated, and in fact promoted to Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath in 1864 "for his services at Kagoshima".
The Times quotes come from the Mid Victorian Naval site, which has more about Anglo-Japanese hostilities at the time
The Richardson affair is fictionalised in James Clavells novel Gai Jon