The Grafton Affair

johngraftonIt was not lost on the Tsar’s enemies that the Finns were ready for direct action, leading the Japanese secret service to plot a daring act of espionage in 1905, designed to distract the Tsar from the Far East by creating trouble on his doorstep.

The Japanese naval attaché in Stockholm, Motojiro Akashi, was given a million yen in cash, and told to do everything he could to stir up the Finns. Akashi, a lone man ‘worth ten divisions’ in the eyes of the Japanese high command, hatched a plan to undermine Russia by starting a revolution in its most volatile territory. He assembled an unlikely multinational group of agents, led by Konni Zilliacus, a committed revolutionary who acquired an aging tramp steamer, the John Grafton, bought in the name of a Stepney wine merchant and stocked with thousands of rifles, pistols and rounds of ammunition, all bought by agents claiming to represent the King of Siam.

Owing to a misunderstanding with the aforementioned wine merchant, the John Grafton was also loaded with several hundred gallons of wine, which the Finnish crew had already begun to work through by the time the ship was in the North Sea. Zilliacus, meanwhile, unwisely chose this highly stressful secret mission, with his crew unconvincingly disguised as members of the Southampton Yacht Club, to try to give up smoking – leading to an embarrassing set-to with the police in Copenhagen where he was caught trying to break into a tobacconist.

After several more misadventures in the Baltic, the John Grafton eventually reached the Finnish coast, which it located by unceremoniously ramming into it. Trapped in the shallows of Ostrobothnia, the crew began unloading their cargo, only to be surprised by a vessel from the Russian navy. Realising that time was tight, they ran up the red flag, saluted it, and then ran for dear life while a lit fuse sparked the onboard explosives.

The explosion of the John Grafton was heard two counties away. The Tsar’s men inspected its twisted wreckage, and fearfully reported on the conditions of the many hundreds of rifles that had been landed before the explosion. Although the revolutionary mission had been a failure, the mere fact of the existence of the John Grafton, and the possibility that it was only one of many ships, was a source of great concern to the Russian state. However, it had taken care of most of Akashi’s money, and he would soon be run out of Europe after some of his meddling correspondence was made public; he ended up as governor of Taiwan. Konni Zilliacus, meanwhile, fled to England, and would write his memoirs and a cookbook. In one of those odd footnotes of history, his namesake son became the Labour MP for Manchester Gorton.

Extract from An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland by Jonathan Clements, available now in print and on the Kindle (UK/US).

6 thoughts on “The Grafton Affair

  1. Sorry, but sounds just a bit exaggerated, if not completely made up. Has anyone else written about this? Are there any archival records? Contemporary newspaper accounts?

    • Yes, there are. I am in the process of translating the source materials out of Japanese and Finnish so I can write a book about it in English. It is taking so long because there is so *much* about it.

      Akashi’s own reports on the incident were published in English in 1988 as volume 31 of Studia Historica, released by the Finnish History Society. Michael Futrell’s account of Akashi’s mission was published in Far Eastern Affairs #4 in 1967. There are books about it already in Finnish and Swedish, and the John Grafton incident forms a substantial part of the papers and testimonies collected in volume three of Parmanen’s Taistelujen Kirja, a collection of papers about the Finnish revolutionary struggle against Tsarist Russia — all of these sources are mentioned in my Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, the book from which the extract comes.

      But I’m used to this, Mikhail. Your reaction tells me I am on the right track. When I pitched Coxinga to my agent, she thought it was fiction until I showed her the proofs. People took a while to take me seriously when I told them Mannerheim had been a Russian spy in China. Several publishers refused to believe that Christ’s Samurai was a true story. Finding a historical subject that seems too crazy to be true is kind of what I do!

  2. Loved this little tidbit (and indeed your comment as well!), and will enjoy sending it to my Finnish mother. And that Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland will be landing on my Kindle post-haste.

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