Perry (Commodore)

Matthew Calbraith Perry, Commodore in the United States Navy, was born at Newport, Rhode Island, in the year 1794, and died at New York in 1858. In the naval circles of his day, Perry's name was well-known as that of an upright and energetic officer; but his title to lasting fame rests on his having been the man who opened Japan to the world. Various attempts, American and others, had been previously made in order to attain an end so desirable on commercial grounds, so necessary for the protection of shipwrecked mariners. Liberalism, too, was then in the air. Unrestricted international intercourse was at that time regarded by all Christian nations as an indisputable right, a sacred duty. Americans could with some good grace, or at least without breach of logic, insist on the door of Eastern Asia being flung open to them; for they had not yet begun to barricade themselves behind a Chinese wall of exclusiveness.

In July, 1853, Commodore Perry's fleet anchored off Uraga, a port at the entrance of Yedo Bay. Setting aside all the obstacles which Japanese astuteness sought to place in his way, Perry delivered to the representatives of the Shōgun the letter of President Fillimore demanding the establishment of international relations. Then he steamed away to Luchu and China. Next spring he returned for an answer. The answer took the shape of Japan's first foreign treaty, which was signed at Kanagawa on the 31st March, 1854. By this treaty the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate were opened to American trade, and good treatment promised to shipwrecked American mariners. Such were the firstfruits of the triumph over Japan's stubborn refusal to recognise the existence of the outside world. Treaties with the other nations of Christendom, and a revolution which, after plunging Japan into confusion and bloodshed, has regenerated on Western lines all her institutions, ideas, and aims,-this, which it takes so few words to say, but which implies so much, is the result of what Perry was instrumental in doing. Many things precious to the lover of art and antiquity perished in the process. For Old Japan was like an oyster:-to open it was to kill it.

Perry being thus a hero, fancy and myth have already begun to gather round his name. Patriotic writers have discoursed on "the moral grandeur of his peaceful triumph," and have even gone so far as to try to get people to believe that the Japanese actually enjoyed knuckling under to him. The erection in 1901, amid international rejoicings, of a memorial on the spot where the Commodore landed, will assist the mythopœic process, if memory lets slip the circumstance that this memorial was proposed, not by the Japanese, but by an American survivor of Perry's expedition, and that the Japanese government's share in the matter was but a courteous following of American official lead. Perry's was a peaceful triumph only in a catachrestical sense, analogous to that of Napoleon's maxim that "Providence is on the side of the big battalions." To speak plainly, Perry triumphed by frightening the weak, ignorant, utterly unprepared, and insufficiently armed Japanese out of their senses. If he did not use his cannon, it was only because his preparations for using them and his threats of using them were too evidently genuine to be safely disregarded by those who lay at his mercy. His own Narrative is explicit on this point. Nor shall we, at least, blame him. Perry was a naval officer, and he acted with the vigour of a naval officer, carrying out the orders of his superiors, and at the same time bringing to bear on the situation the tact of a born diplomatist. The event shows that the "gunboat policy," so often decried by amiable but misinformed persons, is really and truly a policy well-suited to certain times and places,-to circumstances in which any other method of action is liable to be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Might is right in many cases. The "gunboat policy" is the only one which is understood by a semi-civilised Oriental power, such as Japan then was and remained for several years after. We therefore give Perry all honour. As for the sentimental gloss which has been laid over his actions, few will probably be found to pay any heed to it.

Books recommended - Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron under Commodore Perry, by Perry and Hawks, Vol. I.- Matthew Calbraith Perry, by Rev W. E. Griffis.