The Brynners in Far East Russia and Beyond


Copyright © 2006 Rock Brynner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-58642-102-6


PART ONE  Jules Bryner......................7
PART TWO  Boris Bryner......................75
PART THREE  Yul Brynner.....................127
PART FOUR  Rock Brynner.....................239

Chapter One

Julius Josef Bryner was born in 1849 in the village of La-Roche-sur-Foron, thirty miles southeast of Geneva, Switzerland. He was the fourth child of Johannes Bryner, a professional spinner and weaver, and his twenty-five-year-old wife, the former Marie Huber von Windisch. Although they had been in the Geneva region for a time, the Bryners were citizens of Möriken-Wildegg, a village northwest of Zurich, where they soon returned. The Bryners were Protestants, like most families in the surrounding canton of Aargau, though their doctrine probably owed more to the German Martin Luther than to Switzerland's own Jean Calvin or Ulrich Zwingli. The Bryner home in Möriken-Wildegg was a spacious two-story thatched farmhouse, but barely large enough for Johannes's eight offspring, including four that followed "Jules"; he was always known in the family by the French variant of his name.

Jules was born during the first year of the modern nation of Switzerland, in which the centralized New Federal State united the twenty-two previously independent cantons. The country had long been divided between its liberal, Protestant regions and its conservative, Catholic districts, but at the end of the Sonderbund War, the Federal State was founded upon a constitution so ideologically progressive that it helped spark revolutions in Vienna, Venice, Berlin, Milan, and finally France.

The year Jules was born, His Imperial Majesty Tsar Nicholas I, Autocrat of All the Russias, was preparing to conquer the Ottoman Empire and gain control of Constantinople's Golden Horn, the waterway that would give Russia access to the Mediterranean for the first time in its eight-hundred-year history, vastly enhancing its power throughout Europe and the world. But Russia's Holy Alliance with Austria collapsed, and in 1855, Britain, France, and Austria defeated Russia in the Crimean War. By then Tsar Alexander II had succeeded Nicholas I upon the Romanov throne.

Now the only direction for Russia to advance its restless, aggressive imperialism was eastward, where the contest was on for colonial domination of the Far East. China in that era was a helpless, pitiful giant from which pieces were being carved off: by Britain (in Shanghai and Hong Kong); France (in Laos, Cambodia, and Indochina); and Japan (in Manchuria and Korea). Soon Russia, through a treaty with China, would secure a new naval outpost on the Pacific, well to the south of its frozen ports in Kamchatka and Sakhalin. Even the name given to this navy base projected Russian strength: "Ruler of the East," or "Vladivostok."

When he was fourteen years old, Jules struck out from Möriken-Wildegg to make his way in the world. This is not as surprising as it may seem. Apprenticeship provided a boy his age with the opportunity to learn a craft or a trade while relieving his family of his upkeep. But it is also clear from the choices Jules made over the next few years, and over his lifetime, that he was both diligent and extremely adventurous in spirit. He was quick to master new skills, especially languages, and swiftly adapted to the unfamiliar circumstances that his curious nature sought out.

Growing up in the 1850s, Jules knew that one of the most famous men in the world, Johann Sutter, had set out from a small town just near Möriken-Wildegg, and that, in the very year that Jules was born, Sutter's Mills in far-off California became the center of the greatest gold rush in history, drawing ambitious prospectors from all across the globe. Whether or not Jules was inspired by Sutter's story, he had to be well aware of his compatriot's adventures and gold mines, and knew beyond doubt that such rewards could come to those who dared to seek them. Jules probably was not aware that Sutter later lost everything he had earned on his adventure.

As a young teenager, Jules received an internship with the Danzas Company in Zurich, a shipping agency where his uncle Moritz Bryner worked. And through this agency he learned of opportunities on the high seas for young men like himself. By the time he was sixteen, Jules was earning his way as galley boy on a privateer that sailed out of the Mediterranean, bound for the Far East.

The ships that plied the trade routes in the 1860s were still sailing craft, two- or three-masted brigantines and well-armed schooners, sloops, and corvettes with cannon belowdecks. Steam-powered paddlewheels were soon added to push the sailing ships forward when the winds betrayed them, but most of the shipping that circled the globe was still powered by sail, barely evolved from the bellying canvas that propelled the Greeks three thousand years before. Aboard his privateer, Jules discovered a passion for the sea that lasted his whole life. Switzerland, of course, is landlocked; when Jules discovered how attached he was to the bays and oceans of the world and the style of life they entailed, he must have known that he would never again make his home in the shadow of the Alps.

During the next few months, as the winds carried the craft eastward, Jules was periodically locked in the galley, "for his own safety," he was told by the crew. On these occasions, as their ship approached others and tied up alongside them, he heard fierce scuffles and cries on deck, sometimes lasting for hours. His crew were experienced buccaneers who grazed upon the sea lanes, collecting all the bounties traveling westward, which could easily be plundered from the ships they overpowered and boarded. Silk, mahogany, tea, opium, and sometimes even gold and gems were the treasures to be had for the taking by these skimmers of the sea. Only a few of the opium traders were protected by fast-running clippers that fired thirteen-inch shells from mounted guns.

When it dawned upon Jules that he was himself a brigand, feeding the crew of a pirate ship that forcibly seized cargo, the teenager also realized his shipmates would brand him a turncoat if he left without warning and without a plan. He would have to disembark in a large city where he could find work and protection.

Since the 1840s, the city of Shanghai had been tinder the jurisdiction of the British throne, which needed a deep-water mercantile port in the region. Some one hundred thousand pounds of tea passed through the city each year, along with fifty thousand bales of silk and the thirty thousand chests of opium brought down from the neighboring mountains and stored in the hulls moored along the Bund, the embankment in the heart of the city. Once gaslights were installed, the tireless business district was alive with rickshaws and clatter day and night. Because Shanghai was the only deep-water port in the north, virtually all Chinese-European shipping had to pass through the Bund, where goods were transferred from river junks to three-masted schooners. The first steamers were also plying their way along the nearby Yangtze River, and trade figures were poised to skyrocket.

When the seventeen-year-old Jules Bryner disembarked in Shanghai in the mid-1860s, the Taiping Rebellion had been suppressed, and the exodus of Chinese refugees left thousands of jobs and homes available. Jules had already learned some Mandarin, and quickly found work in the office of a silk merchant who obtained raw silk locally to sell overseas. Over the next few years, the Swiss youth became very knowledgeable about silk - perhaps because his father was a cloth spinner and weaver - as well as trade generally throughout the region. While running errands, he developed a workable fluency in different Chinese dialects, and before long he had also learned how to run the company. He added efficiency to what had been a lackadaisical operation, and brought an attention to detail that was his life-long hallmark. Most of all, he could conduct business with English, French, and German customers of the Chinese company that employed him.

For British residents who made up the majority of the three thousand foreign settlers in a city of four hundred thousand, Shanghai was a little spot of England, re-created with a splash of colonial whimsy. Wherever Englishmen go, it was said, they take their church and their racetrack; true to form, by the 1860s the city had five Christian churches and three racetracks. The city also boasted the Royal Asiatic Society, as well as libraries, amateur theater groups, a Masonic Lodge, and, of course, the exclusive, newly built Shanghai Club. In later decades Shanghai became known as the "Paris of the Far East," the first of many Asian cities to claim that title and the only one to earn it; but when Jules worked there in the 1860s, Shanghai culture was largely the British Raj with chow mein instead of curry. Not surprisingly, the Chinese population became increasingly hostile to these Anglo-Saxon intruders, the well-meaning no less than the rapacious: in 1869 Prince Kung, in Peking, declared to British Consul Sir Rutherford Alcock, "Take away your opium and your missionaries, and you will be welcome."

It was in this very cosmopolitan atmosphere that Jules groomed himself for management, acquiring the habits and manners of an international homme d'affaires, learning the niceties of society among British colonials and how to appear interested in cricket. Meanwhile he concentrated upon studying the businesses of the Far East and how they could cooperate to develop the region.

On behalf of his employer, he also became engaged in local English political machinations concerning two issues that would directly improve regional shipping: dredging the mouth of the Yangtze River, and building the first railroad in China, from Shanghai to Woosung. For both these efforts, a group of foreign merchants, mostly English and American, had formed a company. There was much official and public opposition to the plan for a railroad, but the merchants were permitted to construct a tramway; instead, they used wide-gauge locomotive rails and presented the Chinese with a fair accompli. All this, Jules took in.

Tensions were rising between Chinese residents and foreigners in the Shanghai settlement by the beginning of the 1870s. In the turbulent years to come, the restive Chinese under foreign rule began a series of riots culminating in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and its unambiguous motto: PRESERVE THE DYNASTY, EXTERMINATE THE FOREIGNERS.

Jules' Chinese employers periodically dispatched him to Yokohama, Japan, to deal directly with customers. Shanghai had thus far rejected any telegraph connection because of popular concern that telegraph poles would disturb the feng shui of the region. During a business trip to Yokohama, where raw silk from Shanghai was dyed and then exported, Jules became acquainted with an elderly English gentleman who ran a one-man shipping agency throughout the Pacific region, and who soon invited Jules to become his assistant and protégé. Perhaps because of the lack of opportunity to advance within his Chinese-owned company, and perhaps because of the growing threat to foreigners, Jules left Shanghai behind and followed the trail of silk to Yokohama, the largest port in Japan.

Less than twenty years earlier, Commodore Matthew Perry had come ashore near Yokohama carrying a letter from the president of the United States, Millard Fillmore, to the new mikado, Mutsuhito (1852-1912), demanding that Japan engage in foreign trade. Perry then departed for a year, obligingly, to give the mikado time to consider his options. When Perry returned in 1854, Japan signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, opening its doors for the first time to international commerce. Five years later the modern port of Yokohama was inaugurated.

A decade later, Jules settled there, having been taken under the wing of the English shipping agent. Jules was in his early twenties. He had been studying Japanese before he arrived, and soon the Swiss lad who could negotiate in French, German, English, Mandarin, and Japanese, all in the course of a morning, was put in charge of the agency's meetings and correspondence.

A shipping agency did not own ships; it leased them (or space upon them) according to the best contracts that could be obtained to transport cargo efficiently. It was easy enough to arrange for large items to travel from one place to another, but very challenging to make that arrangement profitable - especially with privateers lurking along the coastline, as Jules knew all too well.

An established young businessman, Jules was by now well acquainted with the principal powers in the region, which he approached with a detached, empirical focus that gave him a reputation as a problem solver. He came up with creative new solutions to chafing old problems in the shipping business: maximizing capacity, loading and unloading, transporting goods efficiently by land, and navigating rampant corruption among dock officials. A few months after arriving in Japan, Jules fell in love with a young woman to whom he was introduced, and the following year they had a daughter, and before too long a second daughter. Jules' Japanese descendants still live near Yokohama today, where his grandson, Etoh Naoasuke, became a successful paper manufacturer after World War II.

In the 1870s, Jules' English patron passed away, leaving the ongoing business contracts - which were the business, along with a few assets - to his young Swiss associate. Still in his mid-twenties, Jules now had his own small, successful shipping agency.

Exactly why Jules then chose to leave his family in Yokohama and move the headquarters of his shipping business to a Russian frontier village remains unanswered, but for his business there were several benefits. He had already witnessed the infancy of Shanghai, and of Yokohama; the Russian port of Vladivostok offered an opportunity to help develop a modern city. That would mean railroads, telegraphs, and buildings, and Jules had solid, established banking relationships by this time. And there were significant tax advantages to relocating his headquarters. But the greatest attraction may have been that Russia was a European country that stretched, uninterrupted, more than five thousand miles to the Imperial capital of St. Petersburg in the west. And from the growth of railroads around the world - especially in the western United States and Canada - Jules must have figured that someday he would be able to ride to Europe from the new Russian port.

Chapter Two

The sea gave birth to Vladivostok.

The new naval outpost was established under the benign reign of Tsar Alexander II, at about the time that he emancipated millions of serfs across Russia in 1861. The tsar and his ministers intended to move a large part of the Russian population eastward, beyond Siberia to the coastal regions of Ussurisk and Amur ("Love"), because they wanted to demonstrate to the other powers in the Far East that Russia was fully committed to developing the region. The governor-general of East Siberia, Nikolai Muraviev (later Count of Amur), had himself explored Peter the Great Bay aboard his U.S.-built corvette, the America, a swift, three-masted, steam-driven paddle-wheeler. By signing the treaties of Aigun and Peking with China, Muraviev had assured Russian control of the maritime region known as Primorye.

The first Russian sailors and officers arrived upon a transport schooner, the Manchur, and stationed themselves at the southern tip of a narrow, finger-shaped peninsula, twenty miles long, between Amur Bay and Ussuri Bay, with little more than a cow path to connect them to the mainland. The sailors discovered a natural harbor carved into the peninsula, a wide inlet that they named Golden Horn Bay ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), after the waterway in Constantinople that had eluded the tsar's forces five years earlier. Whether this name was bestowed as a tribute to imperial ambition or a mockery of its failure is still uncertain: it is such a small waterway that the name seems like deliberate hyperbole.

Small clusters of native people still lived at the edges of these bays, tribes of short, swarthy hunter-gatherers that ethnographers trace back to the Paleoasians and Tungus-Manchurians who predated the pyramids of Egypt. The Udege, Nanaďs (Goldi), Orochi, and smaller tribes had been almost eradicated by centuries of Chinese control, followed by the sweeping destruction of Genghis Khan and his Mongol tribes, but remnants of those cultures still existed in the communities that clung to the shores, producing unique and beautiful art and design, wearing clothes fashioned from cured fish-skins.


Excerpted from EMPIRE & ODYSSEY by ROCK BRYNNER Copyright © 2006 by Rock Brynner. Excerpted by permission.
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