Blakiston, Thomas Wright 1832-1891, explorer and ornithologist, was born at Lymington in Hampshire on 27 Dec. 1832.
His father, John Blakiston 1785-1867, major, was the second son of Sir Matthew Blakiston, second baronet, by his wife Anne, daughter of John Rochfort. He served in the Madras engineers and in the 27th regiment (Enniskillens), was present at the battle of Assaye, and engaged at the capture of Bourbon, Mauritius, and Java, and during the Peninsular war from Vittoria to Toulouse. He published Twelve Years of Military Adventures anonymously in 1829, and Twenty Years in Retirement with his name in 1836. He died on 4 June 1867 at Moberley Hall, Cheshire. On 26 Sept. 1814 he married Jane, daughter of Thomas Wright, rector of Market Harborough.
His second 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 Dec. 1851. He served with his regiment in England, Ireland, and Nova Scotia, and in the Crimea before Sebastopol, where his brother Lawrence was killed in the battle of the Redan on 8 Sept. 1855. In 1857 Blakiston was appointed, on the recommendation of Sir Edward Sabine [qv.], 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 [qv.]. He was chiefly employed in taking observations on the magnetic conditions, temperature, &c.; but in 1858 he crossed the Kutanie and Boundary passes independently, and published at Woolwich in 1859 a Report of the Exploration of Two Passes through the Rocky Mountains. During the Chinese war of 1859 Blakiston was left in command of a detachment of artillery at Canton, and there he organised his famous exploration of the middle and upper course of the Yang-tsze-Kiang, the idea being to ascend the river as far as the Min, and then cross the province of Szechuen, and reach north-western India viâ Tibet and Lhassa. The party consisted of Blakiston, Lieutenant-colonel H. A. Sarel, and Dr. Alfred Barton, who still survives, and with the Rev. S. Schereschewsky as interpreter, four Sikhs, and three Chinese, set out from Shanghai on 12 Feb. 1861, convoyed by Vice-admiral Sir James Hope's squadron, which left them at Yo-chau on 16 March. They reached Pingshan on 25 May, having travelled eighteen hundred miles from Shanghai, nine hundred miles further than any other Europeans, except the jesuits in native costume. The country there being much disturbed by rebels, they were obliged to retrace their route on 30 May, reaching Shanghai on 9 July. Blakiston produced a surprisingly accurate chart of the river from Hankow to Pingshan, published in 1861, for which he received in 1862 the royal (patron's) medal of the Royal Geographical Society. Partial narratives were published in the Society's Journal, vol. xxxii., by Sarel and Barton, while Blakiston prepared in October 1862 a longer account of their Five Months on the Yang-tsze, with illustrations by Barton and scientific appendices. This is still treated as a text-book for the country (cf. A. J. Little, Through the Yang-tse Gorges, 1888).
Before returning to England Blakiston visited Yezo, the northern island of Japan. Having resigned his commission in 1862, he entered into an arrangement with a substantial firm, and returned to Yezo in 1863, viâ Russia, Siberia, and the Amur river. He settled at the treaty port of Hakodate, and founded sawmills for the export of timber to China. This business had to be abandoned owing to the obstructions of the Japanese government; but he remained in Hakodate as a merchant, executed surveys and designed fortifications, and soon became the 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 (vol. xlii.) a narrative of a journey round Yezo, containing information as to the 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 paid great attention to the ornithology of Yezo. He made an extensive collection of birds, which is now in the museum at Hakodate, and in 1878 compiled, with Mr. H. Pryer of Yokohama, a catalogue of the avifauna of Japan (Ibis, 1878, pp. 207-50), revised and republished in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan in 1880 and 1882, and finally in London in 1884. He demonstrated that the birds of Yezo belong to the Siberian as distinct from the Manchurian sub-region of the Palæarctic region; and the zoo-geographical line of division formed by the Strait of Tsu-garu has been termed Blakiston's line (v. Auk, 1892, ix. 75-6). In 1883 he read to the Asiatic Society (Trans. xi. 1883) a paper on Zoological Indications of the Ancient Connexion of the Japan Islands with the Continent. Seven new species of Japanese birds are named after him (for list see Auk, l. c.).
In 1884, after a visit to Australia, New Zealand, and England, Blakiston retired from his business and left Japan for the United States. He settled eventually in New Mexico, died 15 Oct. 1891 at San Diego, California, and was buried at Columbus, Ohio. On 16 April 1885 he married Anne Mary, daughter of James Dun of Dundaff, London, Ohio. By her he left a son and a daughter.
Besides the works already mentioned, Blakiston published in 1883 at Yokohama a book called Japan in Yezo, consisting of articles reprinted from the Japan Gazette, and a number of papers in the Ibis (on the birds of British North America and Japan), in the Chrysanthemum, the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, and the Proceedings of the United States National Museum. His Canadian specimens are at Woolwich; and, besides the collection at Hakodate, he gave Japanese birds to the United States National Museum. To the gardens of the Zoological Society of London he sent living animals.
Obituary notices in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, December 1891, pp. 728-729
the Ibis, 1892, p. 190
and by Dr. L. Stejneger in the Auk, 1892, ix. 75-6
Writings as cited above
private information from his brother, Mr. Matthew Blakiston, F.R.G.S.
Contributor: H. E. D. B. [Herbert Edward Douglas Blakiston]