Matthew Calbraith and Oliver Hazard Perry

Matthew Calbraith Perry

If the Perry’s of Newport had been professional wrestlers, they would have been the tag team champs of the 19th century. It is difficult to imagine a more impactful brother act than Oliver Hazard and his younger brother Matthew Calbraith. Both achieved great fame in their lifetimes, but Mathew got to enjoy quite a bit of it, more so than his older brother Oliver Hazard.

Matthew was born in Newport, R.I. on 10 April 1794 and given his naval oriented father and brother he also chose to join them as a naval officer. He was appointed a Midshipman in 1809 and started his career on the USS Revenge under the command of his older brother Oliver Hazard. This vessel sank in R.I. waters in 1811 but all hands survived, this near tragedy did not seem to affect Matthew in his naval career at all.

During the War of 1812 he was promoted to Lieutenant on July 24, 1813 while serving on USS President. Her commanding officer was Commodore John Rogers whose strict discipline apparently impressed Perry and was evident later in Perry’s career.

He served on thirteen naval ships in his career and was commanding officer of four of them: Fulton, North Carolina, Macedonian and Mississippi as well as East India, African and Mediterranean squadrons.

His command of the steam frigate Fulton got him interested in that form of propulsion and he became known as Father of the steam Navy”. In 1838 he proclaimed: “the destinies of Nations are henceforth to be in a great measure controlled by a power of which steam will be the great governing element”.

In 1853 his prediction was powerfully and fatefully displayed to the Japanese, an event which when viewed in retrospect literally changed history and the world order. Perry achieved his great fame via diplomacy and ironically his brother Oliver Hazard lost his life due to the same pursuit in Venezuela to a tropical disease contracted there.

In the 1830’s and 40’s Matthew became one of the earliest proponents of naval engineering and education. In 1834 he drew plans for the naval apprentice system which he promoted until it was approved by Congress in 1837.

He also helped organize the U.S. Naval Lyceum at the New York Navy Yard where he was second in command from 1833 until 1837. Its purpose was to educate naval officers: “elevate and adorn the character of our Navy, by placing within the grasp of its officers the means of acquiring professional and general information to stimulate methods of the profession, by creating a common interest in the result, to new energy in the steady and zealous pursuit of knowledge, as the grand source of mortal power , and to bind yet more closely the ties which unite them, by erecting a National Society.”

US Naval Lyceum

In its first year, 1834, the Lyceum held meetings in Perry’s office every Monday at noon. Famous members included James Fenimore Cooper, Stephen B. Luce and in 1880 Alfred Thayer Mahan. It was disbanded in 1889 and its library and 254 specimens were transferred to the Naval Academy.

In August of 1837 Perry got command of the first steam powered US Navy vessel: USS Fulton and shortly thereafter he organized the first Naval Engineer Corps and between 1839-40 the first American school of gunnery. He also established an experimental battery for testing guns at Sandy Hook, New Jersey and advocated using steamships as rams.

In 1841 he became commandant of the Navy Yard in New York and was recognized as an expert on steam propulsion and naval technology. He was placed in command of USS Mississippi in 1846 and was credited with the capture of Frontera, Tabasco and Laguna in the Mexican War, sharing credit with General Winfield Scott in that endeavor.

After a stint as General Superintendent of Ocean Mail Steamers from 1848 to 1852, he was again given command of USS Mississippi and in January of 1852 he was selected by President Fillmore to attempt a mission which would change the world: open trading relations with Japan.

US Japan Fleet Com. Perry, carrying the "Gospel of God" to the Heathen 1853.

The first step took place on 24 November of 1852 when he left Norfolk on Mississippi heading to China, arriving there in May 0f 1853. Perry was less than optimistic about his chances of success knowing that a previous attempt by Americans to return shipwrecked Japanese sailors rescued on the coast of Washington were rebuffed in 1837 and in 1846 Commander James Biddle was also turned away.

Between 1790 and 1853 27 U.S. ships including naval vessels visited Japan and all were rebuffed in their efforts to establish a friendly relationship with the Japanese. Before Perry left America for Japan, he read all that he could about the country and consulted with Philipp Franz von Siebold, one of the foremost Japan experts of his day. Siebold had spent eight years teaching and studying at the Dutch trading post of Dejima in Nagasaki harbor, where incredible destruction would be seen in 1945.

Perry, no slouch when it came to research and preparation felt that ceremonial events, lively entertainment, wine and spirits and good food played a part in naval diplomacy and prepared by bringing with him an Italian bandmaster, a French chef and large amounts of food and alcohol. Being the science minded officer that he was he also was joined by botanist Dr. James Morrow and artists Wilhelm Heine and Eliphalet Brown to document this momentous undertaking.

This brings us to the motivation for such a complicated and risky venture, but America was not the first western nation to attempt such a diplomatic mission. Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch merchants had all limited success with opening friendly relations, but Catholic proselytizing and unfair trading practices led the Japanese to limit foreign trading to the Dutch and Chinese after 1639.

But why was America so interested in Japan in the middle of the 19th century? A combination of factors was at play that motivated our nation to reach out with a gentle but firm and determined hand. In 1844 the US and China signed the treaty of Wanghia which among other things opened five trading ports to American vessels, initially pursued under pressure from our merchants who felt threatened by English dominance there. With American vessels trading in China the Japanese mainland loomed large with commercial and military potential.

Another major factor was the annexation of California after the treaty of Hidalgo in 1848 whereby Mexico ceded the then largely undeveloped territory to the US. With the discovery of gold just nine days before the treaty was signed, the Mexicans were convinced that the approximately 7,300 residents of the territory would pose no real threat to them. Ironically Perry’s career was given a boost with his victory in the war that led to the Hidalgo Treaty. With the discovery of gold thousands of people flooded into California propelling it to statehood in 1850 with the required sixty thousand residents lured by the promise of quick riches.

With California as a launch pad for Pacific exploration and trade, a steady stream of maritime traffic looked to the far East for numerous reasons including trade, whaling and with the rapid development of steam power, the quest for reliable supplies of coal which Japan was rumored to have in abundance. In a strange twist of fate, Japan would attempt to justify its aggressive land grabbing conquests in the 1930’s by claiming the need for such raw materials.

Armed with letters from President Fillmore, Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay on July 8, 1853 with four ships: two steam frigates and two sloops of war. He approached his mission with a mixture of diplomatic finesse backed up by the knowledge that his firepower was far beyond what the Japanese had ever seen. This knowledge is best reflected in his letter of July 14, 1853:

“For years now several countries have applied for trade, but you have opposed them on account of a national law. You have thus acted against divine principles and your sin cannot be greater than it is. What we say thus does not necessarily mean, as has already been communicated by the Dutch boat, that we expect mutual trade by all means. If you are still to disagree, we would then take up arms and inquire into the sin against the divine principles, and you would also make sure of your law and fight in defence. When one considers such an occasion, however, one will realize the victory will naturally be ours and you shall by no means overcome us. If in such a situation you seek for reconciliation, you should put up the white flag that we have recently presented to you, and we would accordingly stop firing and conclude peace with you, turning our battleships aside. “

Perry and some of his barbarians as depicted by a Japanese artist.

Commodore Perry

This reveals the great confidence and determination with which Perry pursued his mission and which was necessary for the defeat of the Japanese in WWII. On arrival he was swarmed by small vessels which he dispersed with the threat of force and refused to proceed to Nagasaki as directed and continued to take soundings against Japanese wishes. That same day, 14 July, Perry moved the steam frigates Susquehanna and Mississippi closer to shore and landed four hundred sailors and marines.

He presented a letter from President Millard Fillmore; the following excerpts encapsulate the objectives and principles which guided Fillmore and Perry:

“I have directed Commodore Perry to mention another thing to your imperial majesty. Many of our ships pass every year from California to China; and great numbers of our people pursue the whale fishery near the shores of Japan. It sometimes happens, in stormy weather, that one of our ships is wrecked on your imperial majesty’s shore. In all such cases we ask, and expect, that our unfortunate people should be treated with kindness, and that their property should be protected, till we can send a vessel and bring them away. We are very much in earnest in this.

Commodore Perry is also directed by me to represent to your imperial majesty that we understand there is a great abundance of coal and provisions in the Empire of Japan. Our steamships, in crossing the great ocean, burn a great deal of coal, and it is not convenient to bring it all the way from America. We wish that our steamships and other vessels should be allowed to stop in Japan and supply themselves with coal, provisions and water. They will pay for them in money, or anything else your imperial majesty’s subjects may prefer; and we request your imperial majesty to appoint a convenient port, in the southern part of the empire, where our vessels may stop for this purpose. We are very desirous of this. These are the only objects for which I have sent Commodore Perry, with a powerful squadron, to pay a visit to your imperial majesty’s renowned city of Edo: friendship, commerce, a supply of coal and provisions, and protection for our shipwrecked people.”

Three days later Perry sailed out of Edo, later renamed Tokyo in 1868 with the Meiji restoration which saw the emperor move there from the ancient capital of Kyoto. Perry told the Japanese he would return the next year for an answer and he did so but sooner than they expected.

One of Perry's barbaric black ships.

February 13, 1854 Perry sailed back into Edo harbor with a fleet of ten vessels and 1600 men. He was hastened back by the knowledge that Russian Vice Admiral Putyatin had spent a month in Nagasaki successfully attempting to reach a similar deal as Perry, the result was the Treaty of Shimoda in 1855, opening three ports to Russia.

Perry received a much friendlier reception this time although the Japanese initially balked at negotiating on Edo and eventually settled on Yokohama where a custom-built hall was constructed. On March 8, Perry landed there with five hundred sailors and Marines with three bands playing the Star-Spangled Banner. After many dinners and receptions Perry’s efforts at diplomacy resulted in the Convention of Kanagawa which gave American vessels access to the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate; guaranteed protection for shipwrecked sailors and allowed for an American consulate in Shimoda.

Perry’s description of his official visitors to his flagship USS Powhatan while at anchor in Edo bay are fascinating for their cultural generalizations:

“I was convinced that if I receded in the least from the position first assumed by me, it would be considered by the Japanese an advantage gained. Finding that I could be induced to change a predetermined intention in one instance, they might rely on prevailing on me by dint of perseverance to waver in most other cases pending the negotiations. Therefore, it seemed to be the true policy to hold out at all hazards, and rather to establish for myself a character of unreasonable obstinacy than that of a yielding disposition. I knew that upon the impression thus formed by them would in a measure hinge the tenor of our future negotiations, and the sequel will show that I was right in my conclusions. Indeed, in conducting all my business with these very sagacious and deceitful people, I have found it profitable to bring to my aid the experience gained in former and by no means limited intercourse with the inhabitants of strange lands-civilized and barbarian-and this experience has admonished me that with people of forms it is necessary to either set all ceremony aside, or out-Herod Herod in assumed personal consequence and ostentation.”

Although this attitude would hardly be acceptable today, the Japanese would also fail miserably in that regard. In the 1825 work Shinron by leading Confucian scholar Aizawa Seishisai, the common sentiment about Westerners is laid out: “The barbarians coming to spy on our Middle Kingdom during the past three hundred years arrived one after another from various nations. Though their homelands differ, they all revere the same god. This means that Christianity has had designs on our Middle Kingdom for the past three hundred years. In dealing with this sustained threat, our Middle Kingdom has on each occasion adopted a different policy based on the then-prevalent opinion. The predators have a firm, fixed objective and steadfastly try to achieve it; the prey intermittently changes its defense posture, at times assuming the hardline, at times, the soft line, always vacillating between the two. Who can guarantee that the predators will forever meet frustration trying to discover our weaknesses? To turn our vacillation into constancy of purpose and eliminate the weaknesses we possess, we must first fully understand the barbarians’ nature.”

Lt. John Bremyer with Perry's flag.

On September 2, 1945 it was the barbarians standing in triumph on the deck of USS Missouri in virtually the same position as where Perry penned these words on his flagship USS Powhatan. This day saw the formal surrender of Japan at the end of WWII and General Macarthur had asked Admiral Nimitz to deliver Perry’s flag which had been on the Powhatan and thus carried substantial symbolic weight. Perry’s flag was carried all the way to USS Missouri from the Naval Academy museum in Annapolis just for this ceremony by Lt. John Bremyer, USN and hung in a position overlooking the tables where the surrender was signed. General MacArthur honored Perry with these words: “We stand in Tokyo today, reminiscent of our countryman Commodore Perry, 92 years ago. His purpose was to bring Japan an era of enlightenment and progress by lifting the veil of isolation to friendship, trade and commerce of the world. But alas the knowledge thereby gained of Western science was forged into an instrument of oppression and human enslavement."

General Macarthur on the deck of USS Missouri with the Perry flag in full view.

                                                              General Macarthur on the deck of USS Missouri with the Perry flag in full view.

Today Japan is one of our staunchest allies and Perry’s hometown of Newport honors his legacy with monuments and the annual Black Ships festival demonstrating Japanese music and martial arts and calls Shimoda a sister city. Japan also honors Perry with numerous monuments and sends naval officers to study at the Naval War College every year. Matthew Perry must surely be pleased with the fruits of his determined diplomacy; the world is a far better place thanks to him and his intrepid crew.

Perry monument in Shimoda Japan, 

Perry monument in Shimoda Japan, Perry monument in Newport, R.I.    

Bob Cembrola

Exhibitions Manager

Naval War College Museum 

#Navy #USNavy #History #NavalHistory #NavalWarCollege #Newport #Museum #USNWCM #NavyReadiness


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