- Historic Sites
Castaways On Forbidden Shores
The fearless sailors who manned America’s whaling fleet in the nineteenth century were no strangers to danger, but even the bravest trembled at the unknown prospects of becoming castaways on forbidden shores
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
It was. When Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed his black-hulled fleet on its famous mission to Japan in 1853, he carried with him elaborate instructions from the Secretary of the Navy that specifically cited the wreck of the Lawrence and the “great barbarity” her crew had suffered. Perry was sent to conclude a treaty with Japan that would insure, in President Millard Fillmore’s phrase, “friendship, amity, and intercourse” between the two nations—meaning coaling stations for U.S. ships and trade agreements for U.S. merchants. But the first stated aim of the proposed treaty was to provide humane treatment for shipwrecked Americans. And should persuasion fail, the State Department told Perry, he was to inform the Japanese “that if any acts of cruelty should hereafter be practised upon citixcns of this country, whether by the government or by the inhabitants of Japan, they will be severely chastised.” Perry found that the intimation of force was enough; forts painted on silk curtains were no match for Yankee armament. The treaty he concluded in 1854 assured decent treatment for shipwrecked sailors; the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate were designated for provisioning American ships; and, within a few years, Japan was at last opened for commercial exploitation.