PERRY, MATTHEW CALBRAITH (Western Colonialism)


Matthew Calbraith Perry was born on April 10, 1794, in South Kingston, Rhode Island. His older brother, Oliver Hazard Perry, won a great victory over the British in the War of 1812 on Lake Erie. Matthew also enlisted in the U.S. Navy, being commissioned in 1809 and initially serving on the USS Revenge, which his older brother commanded.

For the next thirty years, Perry held a typical series of assignments. He saw little action in the War of 1812, for the Royal Navy trapped his main ship, the USS United States, at New London, Connecticut. After the war, he served on ships mostly assigned to suppress trade in West African slaves. Perry commanded the Shark, rotated to shore duty in Charleston, South Carolina, and in 1830 gained command of the USS Concord.

Perry became a noted advocate for naval education and for naval modernization. He helped design the curriculum for the U.S. Naval Academy and an education/ apprentice system for new sailors. He was a leader in moving to steam propulsion from sail, and oversaw construction of the USS Fulton, the U.S. Navy’s second stream frigate, organized the first corps of naval engineers, and conducted the first navy gunnery school near Sandy Hook, New Jersey, while commanding the Fulton. During the Mexican War, he led the squadron that took Frontera, Tabasco, and Laguna in 1846 and that helped General Winfield Scott in besieging Vera Cruz in 1847.

Perry, however, is best known for his trips to Japan. In 1852, Perry led four ships from Norfolk, Virginia, to Japan, a useful coaling stop on the route to China. On arriving near Edo, modern Tokyo, on July 8, 1853, he refused to move to Nagasaki and the Dutch concession in far southwest Japan, and marching with some four hundred armed sailors and marines insisted on delivering a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Emperor. The Tokugawa Shogunate accepted the letter and Perry promised to return for a reply after a stop in China. Perry returned in February 1854 with eight steam ships— one-third of the U.S. Navy— belching their black smoke and once again impressing the Japanese (who called the men ”barbarians … in floating volcanoes”).

The United States and the Japanese soon signed an agreement, the Treaty of Kanagawa, on March 31, 1854, that reflected President Fillmore’s demands, which included humane treatment for shipwrecked sailors, permission for U.S. ships to purchase coal and supplies, and the opening of two distant ports, Shimoda and Hakodate, to U.S. trade. Perry did not understand the structure of Japanese politics, and he never reached the emperor, dealing strictly with officials of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate. On his return to the United States, Perry received an award of $20,000 voted by a grateful Congress.

Perry’s visit accelerated trends already present in Japan. The Tokugawa shogunate was tottering. Great lords (known as daimyos) in the southwest were aware of increasing Western encroachments on China, and feared for Japan. Perry’s visit and his demand to open relations called into question the two-centuries-old Tokugawa policy of isolation. Perry’s visit and the threat of European imperialism eventually caused the Tokugawa to ask the daimyos for advice, and the dai-myos wanted to strengthen the emperor and the nation. The result was the end of 250 years of Tokugawa rule, and the onset of the Meiji Restoration. Within forty years, Japan cast off its past, modernized the nation, and bested a European power, Russia, at war in 19041905, and seemingly became a significant regional power. Perry died on March 4, 1858, in New York City.

Next post:

Previous post: