The American naval officer Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) is best known for the treaty he negotiated with Japan, which first opened that country to the Western world.
Matthew C. Perry was born on April 10, 1794, in Newport, R.I. After being educated in local schools, he entered the navy as a midshipman in 1809. His first duty was aboard a vessel commanded by his elder brother, Oliver Hazard Perry. He next served aboard a powerful 44-gun frigate, taking part in encounters with two British ships and in a commerce-raiding expedition in northern European waters. In 1813 he was transferred to the frigate United States, which was marooned in New London, Conn., then under blockade by the British navy. He took advantage of the period of inactivity by journeying to New York, where he courted and married Jane Slidell in 1814.
Years of Varied Activity
For the next 17 years Perry was engaged in duties at sea of the widest variety: fighting Algerian pirates in the Mediterranean; carrying American Negroes to Liberia, where a colony of repatriated slaves was being established; transporting (in the schooner Shark, his first command) the American commissioner to the new colony; and hunting down slave traders and pirates. In 1830 he was given command of the sloop Concord and charged with carrying to Russia the new American minister, John Randolph. There Perry was received by the Czar, who offered him the rank of flag officer if he would join the Russian navy. That offer, in the words of Perry's biographer, he "politely but firmly declined."
In 1833 Perry began a decade of shore duty in the New York Navy Yard as second officer, later becoming commander. During those years he made significant contributions to the technological and educational development of the Navy. In 1833 he led in establishing the Naval Lyceum at the yard, which included a museum, reading room, and lectures "to promote the diffusion of useful knowledge" among the officers. He also helped found the Naval Magazine. Some years later he was a member of a board of examiners that prepared the first course for the soon to be established Naval Academy at Annapolis.
If he deserved the title "chief educator of the navy, " Perry also earned the appelation "father of the steam navy, " for it was he who pushed the replacement of sail by steam in the propulsion of war vessels, who helped design both hulls and engine of the new steamships, and who was given command of the first of the Navy's steam warships, Fulton II. It was in that ship that he set up the first naval school of gun practice.
In 1843 Perry took command of the Africa Squadron, newly organized to hunt for slave traders. Three years later, in the war with Mexico, Perry played an important role, leading an expedition in the capture of several coastal cities (using sailors as infantry) and, as commander of the Gulf Squadron, supporting Gen. Winfield Scott's storming of Veracruz. When the war ended in 1848, Perry was put on special duty in New York supervising the construction of ocean mail steamships. Then came the capstone of his career: the mission to Japan.
Americans had been trading with China since 1844, so a way station in the Japanese islands for purchasing coal and supplies now became imperative. Protection for American seamen engaged in whaling in the northern Pacific Ocean was also needed. Perry carried a letter to the Japanese emperor from the American president requesting a treaty covering those matters as well as the right of Americans to trade in Japanese ports.
Perry set out from Norfolk, Va., on Nov. 24, 1852, with four ships and arrived at Edo (modern Tokyo) on July 2, 1853. He demanded of the Japanese officers who came out to meet his vessel the right to take the President's letter to the Emperor, but he was told he must go to Nagasaki, the only place open to foreigners. Perry refused, and when the Japanese saw his decks cleared for action, they relented. So Perry went onshore and, in an elaborate ceremony, delivered the letter to two princes representing the Emperor and promised to return in 12 months for the answer.
Rumors of French and Russian naval activity in Japanese waters brought Perry back in February 1854 (he had gone only to Hong Kong). This time, his reception was friendly (chiefly because he had seven well-armed ships in his squadron), and the Emperor appointed five commissioners to treat with him. At Yokohama the representatives of the two nations began negotiations and, on March 31, 1854, concluded a treaty which opened two ports, Hakodate and Shimoda, for trade and supplies and guaranteed fair treatment for shipwrecked American sailors.
His mission completed, Perry returned to New York in January 1855, a hero receiving "warm congratulations" from the secretary of the Navy, $20, 000 from Congress, gifts from several cities, and acclaim on all sides. The parties and receptions over, Perry turned his attention to preparing the report of his expedition, which he completed in late December 1857. He died on March 4, 1858.
Further Reading on Matthew Calbraith Perry
Samuel Eliot Morison, "Old Bruin": Commodore Matthew C. Perry, 1794-1858 (1967), is the best biography. Arthur Walworth, Black Ships off Japan: The Story of Commodore Perry's Expedition (1946; rev. ed. 1966), is excellent on the Japanese phase.