Today is the birthday (1794) of Matthew Calbraith Perry), a commodore of the United States Navy and commander of a number of ships. He served in several wars, most notably in the Mexican–American War and the War of 1812. He played a leading role in the opening of Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854.
Matthew Perry was the son of Sarah Wallace (Alexander) and Navy Captain Christopher R. Perry, and the younger brother of Oliver Hazard Perry. Perry received a midshipman’s commission in the U.S.Navy in 1809, and was initially assigned to the USS Revenge, under the command of his elder brother. Under his brother’s command, Matthew was a combatant in The Battle of Lake Erie aboard the flagship Lawrence and the replacement flagship, the brig Niagara.
Perry’s early career saw him assigned to several ships, including the USS President (where he served as an aid to Commodore John Rodgers (1772–1838)) which had been in a victorious engagement over a British vessel, HMS Little Belt, shortly before the War of 1812 was officially declared. He continued in this capacity during the War of 1812. Perry was also aboard the President when it engaged HMS Belvidera when Rodgers himself fired the first shot of the war at this vessel with a following shot that resulted in a cannon bursting, wounding Rodgers and Perry and killing and wounding others. Perry transferred to the USS United States, and saw little fighting in the war after that, since the ship was trapped in port at New London, Connecticut. Following the signing of the Treaty of Ghent which ended the conflict, he served on various vessels in the Mediterranean. Perry served under Commodore William Bainbridge during the Second Barbary War. He then served in African waters aboard USS Cyane during its patrol off Liberia from 1819–1820. After that cruise, Perry was 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 Imperial Russian Navy, which he declined.
Perry commanded the USS Shark, a schooner with 12 guns, in 1821–1825. In 1763, when Britain possessed Florida, the Spanish contended that the Florida Keys were part of Cuba and North Havana. Certain elements within the United States felt that Key West (which was then named Cayo Hueso, meaning “Bone Key”) could potentially be the “Gibraltar of the West” because it guarded the northern edge of the 90 mile (145 km) wide Straits of Florida—the deep water route between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1815 the Spanish governor in Havana deeded the island of Key West to Juan Pablo Salas of Saint Augustine. After Florida was transferred to the United States, Salas sold Key West to U.S. businessman John W. Simonton for $2,000 in 1821. Simonton lobbied the U.S. Government to establish a naval base on Key West, both to take advantage of its strategic location and to bring law and order to the area. On March 25, 1822, Perry sailed the Shark to Key West and planted the U.S. flag, physically claiming the Keys as United States property. Perry renamed Cayo Hueso “Thompson’s Island” for the Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson and the harbor “Port Rodgers” for the president of the Board of Navy Commissioners. Neither name stuck.
From 1826 to 1827 Perry acted as fleet captain for Commodore Rodgers. Perry returned to Charleston, South Carolina for shore duty in 1828, and in 1830 took command of a sloop-of-war, the USS Concord. He spent the years 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.
Perry had an ardent interest and saw the need for the naval education, supporting an apprentice system to train new seamen, and helped establish the curriculum for the United States Naval Academy. He was a vocal proponent of modernizing the Navy. Once promoted to captain, he oversaw construction of the Navy’s second steam frigate the USS Fulton, which he commanded after its completion. He was called “The Father of the Steam Navy,” and he organized America’s first corps of naval engineers, and conducted the first U.S. naval gunnery school while commanding Fulton in 1839–1841 off Sandy Hook on the coast of New Jersey.
Perry received the title of Commodore in June 1840, when the Secretary of the Navy appointed him commandant of New York Navy Yard. The United States Navy did not have ranks higher than captain until 1862, so the title of commodore carried considerable importance. Officially, an officer would revert to his permanent rank after the squadron command assignment had ended, although in practice officers who received the title of commodore retained the title for life, and Perry was no exception.
During his tenure in Brooklyn, he lived in Quarters A in Vinegar Hill, a building which still stands today. In 1843, Perry 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.
In 1845, Commodore David Conner’s length of service in command of the Home Squadron had come to an end. However, the coming of the Mexican-American War persuaded the authorities not to change commanders in the face of the war. Perry, who would eventually succeed Conner, was made second-in-command and captained the USS Mississippi. Perry captured the Mexican city of Frontera, demonstrated against Tabasco and took part in the capture of Tampico. On November 14, 1846. He had to return to Norfolk, Virginia to make repairs and was still there when the amphibious landings at Veracruz took place. His return to the U.S. gave his superiors the chance to finally give him orders to succeed Commodore Conner in command of the Home Squadron. Perry returned to the fleet during the siege of Veracruz and his ship supported the siege from the sea. After the fall of Veracruz, Winfield Scott moved inland and Perry moved against the remaining Mexican port cities. Perry assembled the Mosquito Fleet and captured Tuxpan in April, 1847. In July 1847 he attacked Tabasco personally, leading a 1,173-man landing force ashore and attacking the city of San Juan Bautista (Villahermosa today) from land.
In advance of his voyage to the Far East, Commodore Perry read widely among available books about Tokugawa-era Japan. His research even included consultation with the increasingly well-known German Japanologist Philipp Franz von Siebold, who had lived in Japan at the Dutch trading post of Dejima for eight years before retiring to Leiden in the Netherlands.
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. Japan limited foreign trade to the Dutch and Chinese at that time, under the policy of sakoku (closed country).
- In 1837, an American businessman in Canton named Charles W. King saw an opportunity to close 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 Washington. He went to Uraga Channel, near Edo, with Morrison, an unarmed American merchant ship. The ship was attacked several times, and sailed back without completing its mission.
- In 1846, Commander James Biddle, sent by the United States Government to open trade, anchored in Edo Bay with two ships, including one warship armed with 72 cannons, but his requests for a trade agreement remained unsuccessful.
- In 1849, Captain James Glynn sailed to Nagasaki, leading at last to a successful negotiation by an American with “Closed Country” Japan. James Glynn recommended to the United States Congress that negotiations to open Japan be backed up by a demonstration of force, thus paving the way for Perry’s expedition.
In 1852, Perry embarked from Norfolk, Virginia for Japan, in command of the East India Squadron in pursuit of a Japanese trade treaty. Aboard a black-hulled steam frigate, he ported Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna at Uraga Harbor near Edo (early Tokyo) on July 8, 1853. His actions at this crucial juncture were informed by a careful study of Japan’s previous contacts with Western ships and what could be known about the Japanese hierarchical culture. He was met by representatives of the Tokugawa Shogunate who told him to proceed to Nagasaki, the only Japanese port open to foreigners at that time where there was limited trade with the Netherlands.
As he arrived, Perry ordered his ships to steam past Japanese lines towards the capital of Edo, and turn their guns towards the town of Uraga. Perry refused Japanese demands to leave. He then demanded permission to present a letter from President Millard Fillmore, and threatened to use force if the Japanese boats around the American squadron did not disperse.
Perry attempted to intimidate the Japanese by presenting them a white flag and a letter which told them that in case they chose to fight, the Americans would destroy them. Perry ordered some buildings in the harbor shelled. Perry’s ships were equipped with new Paixhans shell guns, cannons capable of wreaking great explosive destruction with every shell. In Japan, the term “Black Ships,” used for centuries to refer to foreign trade vessels, would later come to symbolize a threat imposed by Western technology.
After the Japanese agreed to receive the letter from the American President, Perry landed at Kurihama (in modern-day Yokosuka) on July 14, 1853, presented the letter to attending delegates, and left for the Chinese coast, promising to return for a reply. After Perry’s departure, fortifications were built on Tokyo Bay at Odaiba in order to protect Edo from possible future American naval incursion.
Perry returned in February 1854 with twice as many ships, to find that the Japanese had prepared a treaty accepting 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. The agreement was made with the Shogun, the de facto ruler of Japan.
On his way to Japan, Perry anchored off Keelung in Formosa (modern day 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. Formosa was also very defensible. It could serve as a base for exploration as Cuba had done for the Spanish in the Americas. Occupying Formosa could help the US to counter European monopolization of major trade routes. President Franklin Pierce declined the suggestion, remarking such a remote possession would be an unnecessary drain of resources and that he would be unlikely to receive the consent of Congress.
When Perry returned to the United States in 1855, Congress voted to grant him a reward of $20,000 (US$ 506,000 in 2015) 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. He was also promoted to the grade of rear-admiral on the retired list (when his health began to fail) as a reward for his service in the Far East. Perry was known to have suffered severe arthritis that left him in frequent pain, and on occasion precluded him from his duties.
Perry spent his last years preparing for publication his account of the Japan expedition, announcing its completion on December 28, 1857. Two days later he was detached from his last post, an assignment to the Naval Efficiency Board. He died awaiting further orders on March 4, 1858, in New York City, of rheumatism that had spread to the heart, compounded by complications of gout and alcoholism.
Initially interred in a vault on the grounds of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, in New York City, his remains were moved to the Island Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island on March 21, 1866, along with those of his daughter, Anna, who died in 1839. In 1873, an elaborate monument was placed by his widow over his grave in Newport.
After Japan was opened to the West, a style of cooking developed called yōshoku (essentially Western cuisine with a Japanese slant). Common examples are curry and rice, fried meat cutlet, and hayashi rice (a rich beef stew with rice) – all made possible by the prohibition on red meat being lifted under the Meiji restoration following Perry’s visit. I don’t care that much for yōshoku, partly because when I am in Japan I am not interested in fake Western food. But the Japanese love it. They are popular dishes whether cooked at home or found in western style diners. Children, in particular, enjoy it as family/comfort food, and it is often featured in okosama-ranchi or kids’ meals. I have had a few of these dishes and do like omurice at a pinch.
Omurice is said to have originated around the turn of the 20th century at a western style restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district called Renga-tei, inspired by chakin-zushi. The dish typically consists of chikin raisu (chicken rice: rice pan-fried with ketchup and chicken) wrapped in a thin sheet of fried egg. The ingredients flavoring the rice vary. Often, the rice is fried with various meats (but typically chicken) and/or vegetables, and can be flavored with beef stock, ketchup, demi-glace, white sauce or simply salt and pepper. Sometimes, rice is replaced with fried noodles (yakisoba) to make omusoba. A variant in Okinawa is omutako, consisting of an omelet over taco rice. Fried hotdog and Spam are also two popular meats to include in the dish courtesy of the U.S. occupation.
Here is a simple recipe; at the end I have appended a link to a very good video.
1 cup cooked rice
½ small onion, finely chopped
½ cup chicken breast cut into small pieces
ketchup (in a squeeze bottle)
2 large eggs
salt and pepper
Sauté the chopped onion in butter over medium-high heat until transparent. Add the chicken and sauté until barely done. Add the rice and toss over high heat until heated through. Add about 2 tablespoons of ketchup and toss rapidly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm.
Make an omelet in the usual way, that is, whisk up the eggs, melt a little butter in an omelet pain over medium heat, pour the eggs in gently stir then until they begin to set, and then let settle, perhaps still slightly runny on top.
Add the rice mix in the middle and fold the omelet around it. Turn it out on a plate seam side down.
Shape into a package and squirt ketchup on top. Add some salad greens if you wish.
Variations are cook’s choice. For example, use demi-glace instead of ketchup, use different meats etc. This video is very helpful:
As you may know, many Japanese restaurants advertize their menus with plastic replicas of their dishes in the window — very lifelike. Here’s a restaurant that specializes in omurice showing an array of varieties.