Matthew Calbraith Perry


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American naval officer and diplomat, born at Newport, RI. He joined the navy in 1809, seeing action in the war of 1812. However, his chief claim to fame rests on his success in ‘opening’ Japan to the rest of the world after he was selected to command the US Navy's East India Squadron specially to make overtures to that isolated country. In 1852 he made his first visit there to persuade the Japanese to permit limited foreign trade and to repatriate shipwrecked seamen. With the steam frigates Mississippi and Susquehanna he called first at Okinawa where, much against the will of the local authorities, he made a state visit to the regent. He reached Sagami Bay, Japan, in June 1853 bearing a letter from the American president to the emperor, and refused to leave until the letter had been properly received and acknowledged.

After five weeks of discussion, it was agreed that two high officials would receive the letter in a specially erected building near the village of Kurihama. On 14 July the two frigates anchored off the beach and trained their guns ashore, while Perry with some 250 marines and sailors landed from the ships' boats. They were outnumbered on the spot by about forty to one, as the shogun had ordered mobilization, and the Americans were confronted by archers, pikemen, cavalry, musketeers, and earthworks armed with Dutch cannon. Excellent discipline on both sides prevented an outbreak of fighting which might have touched off a war instead of a treaty. In silence Perry presented the engrossed presidential letter in its gold casket and remarked that he would be back the following year.

On his return in February 1854, Perry anchored his squadron off Yokosuka. This time, satisfied that Perry's declarations of peaceable intentions were sincere, the shogunate did not mobilize. It persuaded Perry to negotiate at the village of Yokohama instead of at the capital and after a ceremonious landing the negotiations began through a Dutch interpreter. In the meantime the Americans set up and operated their presents for the emperor, of which a quarter-size steam railway and a telegraph instrument made the greatest impression.

On 31 March the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed. It opened Shimoda and Hakodate to the reciprocal return of shipwrecked seamen, and gave permission to set up an American consulate. Perry was careful to insist on nothing which might humiliate Japan, the commissioners felt that they had preserved national honour, and the proceedings concluded with banquets on board and ashore.

The rest of Perry's life was largely devoted to preparing the official narrative of the expedition in three volumes, edited by F. L. Hawks, which became a classic.

Schroder, J., Mathew Calbraith Perry: Antebellum Sailor and Diplomat (2001).

Subjects: Maritime History.

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