Matthew Perry (naval officer)

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Photograph of Perry
Photograph of Perry

Matthew Calbraith Perry (April 10, 1794March 4, 1858) was the Commodore of the U.S. Navy who forced the opening of Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, under the threat of military force.


Early Life and Naval Career

Born in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, he was the son of Captain Christopher R. Perry and the younger brother of Oliver Hazard Perry. Matthew Perry obtained a midshipman's commission in the Navy in 1809, and was initially assigned to Revenge, under the command of his elder brother.

Perry's early career saw him assigned to several different ships, including the President, where he was aide to Commodore John Rodgers, which was in a victorious engagement over a British vessel, HMS Little Belt, shortly before the War of 1812 was officially declared. During that war Perry was transferred to USS United States, and consequently saw little fighting in that war afterward since the ship was trapped at New London, Connecticut. After the war he served on various vessels in the Mediterranean and Africa (notably aboard USS Cyane during its patrol off Liberia in 1819-1820), sent to suppress piracy and the slave trade in the West Indies. Later during this period, while in port in Russia, Perry was offered a commission in the Russian navy, which he declined.

Command Assignments, 1820s-1840s

Perry commanded Shark from 1821-1825, and from 1826-1827 acted as fleet captain for Commodore Rodgers. Perry returned for shore duty to Charleston, South Carolina in 1828, and in 1830 took command of USS Concord. He spent the years of 1833-1837 as second officer of the New York Navy Yard (later the Brooklyn Navy Yard), gaining promotion to captain at the end of this tour.

Support for Naval Education and Modernization

Perry had a considerable interest in naval education, supporting an apprentice system to train new seamen, and helped establish the curriculum for the United States Naval Academy. Additionally, he was a vocal proponent of modernization of the Navy. Once promoted to captain, he oversaw construction of the Navy's second steam frigate, USS Fulton, which he commanded after its completion. He was called "The Father of the Steam Navy." He organized America's first corps of naval engineers, and conducted the first U.S. naval gunnery school while commanding Fulton in 1839-1840 off Sandy Hook on the coast of New Jersey.

Promotion to Commodore

Perry acquired the courtesy title of commodore in 1841, and was made chief of the New York Navy Yard in the same year. In 1843 he took command of the African Squadron, whose duty was to interdict the slave trade under the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, and continued in this endeavor through 1844.

The Mexican-American War

During the Mexican-American War Perry was in charge of the Gulf Fleet, and commanded the force that captured Frontera, Tabasco and Laguna in 1846. In 1847 the forces under Perry's command supported the siege of Veracruz.

The "Opening of Japan": 1852-1854


Perry's expedition to Japan was preceded by several naval expeditions by American ships:

  • From 1797 to 1809, several American ships traded in Nagasaki under the Dutch flag, upon the request of the Dutch who were not able to send their own ships because of their conflict against Britain during the Napoleonic Wars.
  • In 1837, an American businessman in Canton, named Charles W. King saw an opportunity to open trade by trying to return to Japan three Japanese sailors (among them, Otokichi) who had been shipwrecked a few years before on the coast of Oregon. He went to Uraga Channel with Morrison, an unarmed American merchant ship. The ship was fired upon several times, and finally sailed back unsuccessfully.
  • In 1846, Commander James Biddle, sent by the United States Government to open trade, anchored in Tokyo Bay with two ships, including one warship with 72 canons, but his demands for a trade agreement remained unsuccessful.
  • In 1848, Captain James Glynn sailed to Nagasaki, leading at last to the first successfull negotiation by an American with "Closed Country" Japan. James Glynn recommended to the United States Congress that negotiations to open Japan should be backed up by a demonstration of force, thus paving the way to Perry's expedition.

First Visit, 1852-1853

Missing image
Japanese 1854 print relating Perry's visit.

In 1852, Perry embarked from Norfolk, Virginia for Japan, in command of a squadron in search of a Japanese trade treaty. Aboard a black-hulled steam frigate, he ported Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna at Uraga Harbor near Edo (modern Tokyo) on July 8, 1853, and was met by representatives of the Tokugawa Shogunate who told him to proceed to Nagasaki, where there was limited trade with the Netherlands and which was the only Japanese port open to foreigners at that time (see Sakoku). Perry refused to leave and demanded permission to present a letter from President Millard Fillmore, threatening force if he was denied. Japan had been living reclusely apart from modern technology, and the Japanese military forces could not resist Perry's modern weaponry; the "black ships" would then become, in Japan, a symbol of threatening Western technology and colonialism.

The Japanese government, so as to avoid naval bombardment, had to accept Perry's coming ashore. Perry proceeded ashore at Kurihama, (near present Yokosuka) on July 14, presented the letter to delegates present and left for the China coast, promising to return for a reply.

Second Visit, 1854

Missing image
Commodore Perry's fleet for his second visit to Japan in 1854.

Perry returned in February, 1854 with twice as many ships, finding that the delegates had prepared a treaty embodying virtually all the demands in Fillmore's letter. Perry signed the Convention of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854 and departed, mistakenly believing the agreement had been made with imperial representatives.

On his way to Japan, Perry anchored off of Keelung in Formosa, known today as Taiwan, for ten days. Perry and crew members landed on Formosa and investigated the potential of mining the coal deposits in that area. He emphasized in his reports that Formosa provided a convenient, mid-way trade location. The island was also very defensible. It could serve as a base for exploration in a similar way as Cuba had done for the Spanish in the Americas. Occupying Formosa could help the US counter European monopolization of the major trade routes. The United States government failed to respond to Perry's proposal to claim sovereignty over Formosa.

Return to the United States, 1855

Missing image
A map of Coal Mines distribution on Formosa Island in the Narrative of the Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry's Expedition to Japan.

Upon Perry's return to the United States in 1855, Congress voted to grant him a reward of $20,000 in appreciation of his work in Japan. Perry used part of this money to prepare and publish a report on the expedition in three volumes, titled Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan.

Last Years

Perry died three years later on March 4, 1858 in New York City. His remains were removed to the Island Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island on March 21, 1866, along with those of his daughter, Anna, who died in 1839.


Perry's middle name is often misspelled as Galbraith.

Among other mementos, Perry presented Queen Victoria with a breeding pair of Japanese Chin dogs, previously owned only by Japanese nobility.

Fictional depictions

The story of the opening of Japan was the basis of Stephen Sondheim & John Weidman's Pacific Overtures.

See also: History of Japan

External link

fr:Matthew Perry (militaire) ja:マシュー・ペリー


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