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Commodore Matthew C. Perry & Japan: Biography

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Matthew C. Perry was an American naval officer known as the 'Father of the Steam Navy.' Perry is best known for his two trips to Japan in 1853-1854 to establish diplomatic relations.

Beginnings of a Naval Officer

Matthew C. Perry lived an extraordinary life in an age of extraordinary changes. His naval career took him around the world, and he is best known for his Japanese expeditions. He was born in 1794 in South Kingston, Rhode Island. He inherited his naval genes from his family. His father served in the Navy during the American Revolution, and the Quasi-War with France and his older brother Oliver Hazard Perry was a celebrated naval officer during the War of 1812. Matthew Perry was commissioned in the Navy in 1809 and first served aboard the USS Revenge with his brother. Perry was married to Sarah Wallace with whom he had a whopping ten children!

Commodore Matthew C. Perry
Photo of Commodore Matthew C. Perry

Perry in the War of 1812

During the War of 1812, Perry served aboard the USS President under Commodore John Rodgers. Perry was a fair but stern commander, and many argue that he copied this style from Rodgers. He later served with Rodgers in the Mediterranean Squadron on the USS Shark. His most notable venture in the war though was serving on the USS Lawrence and USS Niagara during the Battle of Lake Eerie against the British fleet. Both of these ships were commanded by his brother, and this experience gave him valuable wartime experience that he later put to good use.

African Adventures

Perry's naval career also took him to the coast of Africa. He served on the USS Cyane off the coast of Africa. Liberia had become a relocation point for former slaves, and his task was to patrol the coastline and keep raiders away. He also served two years in command of the African Squadron, which was charged with the similar task of intercepting illegal slave-runners into Africa.

Perry in Mexico

In addition to patrol work, Perry got more wartime experience during the U.S-Mexican War. In March 1847, Perry commanded the naval fleet that escorted General Winfield Scott's army during the Battle of Vera Cruz. From here, Scott launched his invasion into Mexico City.

The Landing at Vera Cruz
The Landing at Vera Cruz

Perry in New York

Perry returned home and was stationed at the New York Navy Yard. This was a productive time for him. He was quick to tap into new technologies, and he played a lead role in transitioning the Navy from sails to steam-power. One of the ships he had earlier commanded was the USS Fulton, which was one of the first steam-powered frigates. For these innovations, he earned the epithet 'Father of the Steam Navy.' He also founded a naval museum and developed a professional curriculum for U.S. naval students.

Preparing for Japan

Japan had voluntarily closed itself off to outside trade during the Tokugawa period. During this period, the country was run by the shogun warriors, rather than the emperors. The U.S. had long wanted Far East ports for purposes of trade, coaling stations, and repair stations for ships and sailors. Other expeditions had reached Japan, such as James Biddle (1846) and James Glynn (1848), but their visits were repulsed. Perry was chosen to head the East Indian Squadron as the best candidate given his broad experience and diplomatic skills. He had recently commanded the landing fleet in the Battle of Vera Cruz in the U.S.-Mexican War. In his interview, he stated: 'We will demand as a right, not solicit as a favor, those acts of courtesy due from one civilized nation to another.' He spent two years preparing for his trip, studying Japanese culture and protocol, and he handpicked his officers. President Millard Fillmore drafted a letter to the Japanese Emperor Komei requesting an audience, and Perry was asked to deliver it.

Japanese Woodblock Print of Matthew C. Perry
Japanese Woodblock Print of Perry Talks

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