When Perry Unlocked The “gate Of The Sun”

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Throughout the mid-1830’s there raged in American naval circles, as veil as in Congress when defense appropriations came up, a debate on the wisdom of introducing into our sail-driven frigate fleet a revolutionary new method of propulsion—steam. Most captains as well as congressmen were opposed to the innovation. It was costly. It was uncertain. Sailors knew nothing about machinery and did not want to learn. There had even been a near-mutiny when a Navy crew refused to hoist out firebox clinkers from an experimental floating battery designed by Fulton.

 
 

Throughout the mid-1830’s there raged in American naval circles, as veil as in Congress when defense appropriations came up, a debate on the wisdom of introducing into our sail-driven frigate fleet a revolutionary new method of propulsion—steam. Most captains as well as congressmen were opposed to the innovation. It was costly. It was uncertain. Sailors knew nothing about machinery and did not want to learn. There had even been a near-mutiny when a Navy crew refused to hoist out firebox clinkers from an experimental floating battery designed by Fulton.

Finally an aggressive four-striper, respected as the younger brother of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry of 1812 fame and as a tough quarter-deck sundowner and innovator in his own right, used the influence of his name and family to help persuade Congress to authorize two experimental vessels. One of these was launched as U.S.S. Mississippi, a hybrid sail-and-steam frigate one-third larger than the hallowed Constitution and mounting, under her canvas and above her thrashing paddle wheels, ten huge pivot guns. The ship and her promoter and first commander, Matthew Calbraith Perry, were destined together tor a unique place in world history.

Broad-beamed, she was fast and steady in all weathers-a deep-sea cruiser of a range and power phenomenal in those days. At Vera Cruz in the Mexican War her guns, firing new-style explosive shells rather than conventional ball, silenced the harbor forts in short order when Perry took her in close. She became the showpiece of the United States Navy, presenting her black topsides at ports around the world in over a quarter-million miles of cruising. For his part the formidable Perry—now a commodore as his brother had been—became the Navy’s reigning hero. So it was fitting that just this ship and just this commander should set out together on still another mission, Ibr which this time there was no precedent—the effort of the U.S. government in 1853 to open by massive persuasion the gates ol Japan, hitherto hermetically sealed. Who could tell: the Mississippi’s big guns might again come in handy.

In the first days of that July, Nipponese fishermen working the mid-summer waters off Honshu in their bobbing junks met a startling sight. Four American men-of-war, two bearing sail and two making thick, ominous smoke, came plowing toward the forbidden coast at Cape Sagami, within sight of the mists that veiled sacred Mount Fuji. In the van, big wheels churning and guns run out, steered the Mississippi and the Susquehanna , the latter flying the Commodore’s broad pennant. The squadron was heavily freighted with two years’ provisions, a cargo of gifts (including even a miniature railway), interpreters, wines, liquors, ammunition, small arms, cutlasses, and an embossed letter of friendship from President Millard Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan.

Aboard the squadron, as it approached the gnarled shores where such things as buoys, lights, beacons, pilots, or reliable charts were unknown, everything was taut and ship-shape. This was to be expected under Old Matt Perry, for he was famed as the Navy’s leading disciplinarian. Bayard Taylor, a handsome young world traveler and roving reporter of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune , who had been taken aboard at Hong Kong and given the temporary rank of master’s mate in order to help write up the expedition’s story, told of the still drill required of the crews by their gravel-voiced commodore: the daily calls to general quarters amid empty seas; the drum rolls and fife calls summoning all hands to run out guns, repel imaginary boarders, and rig pumps to douse hypothetical fires; the roar of topside commands over nonexistent battle smoke; and the bands ordered to play “Yankee Doodle” alter simulated victories over Oriental attackers who had not materialized.

All that actually met the mighty expedition were those few frightened fishermen. “As the squadron sailed up the coast,” the official narrative has it, “eight or ten junks hove into sight, and two or three of them were observed soon to change their course and to turn back toward the shore, as if to announce the arrival of strangers. … The Mississippi , in spite of a wind, moved on with all sails furled at the rate of eight or nine knots, much to the astonishment of the crews of Japanese fishing junks … who stood up in their boats and were evidently expressing the liveliest surprise at the sight of the first steamer ever beheld in Japanese waters.”