Matthew Langford Perry

Matthew C. Perry


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

Early life and naval career

Perry was the son of Navy Captain Craig Christopher R. Perry and the younger brother of Oliver Hazard Perry. Matthew Perry got a midshipman's commission in the Navy in 1809, and was initially assigned to Revenge, under the command of his elder brother.

Commodore Perry's early career saw him assigned to several ships, including the President, which was in a victorious engagement over a British vessel, HMS Little Belt, shortly before the War of 1812 was officially declared. Aboard the USS President he served as aide to Commodore John Rodgers. During that war Perry was transferred to USS United States, and as a result saw little fighting in that war thereafter, since the ship was trapped at New London, Connecticut. After that war he served on various vessels in the Mediterranean and Africa (notably aboard USS Cyane during its patrol off Liberia in 1819-1820), and 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 Russian navy, which he declined.

Command assignments, 1820s-1840s

Opening of Key West

Perry commanded the Shark from 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, which means "Bone Island") 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, Florida to Juan Pablo Salas of Saint Augustine, Florida. 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 Key West town.

On March 25, 1822, Perry sailed the schooner 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 1826-1827 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 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.

Father of the Steam Navy

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. He was also a vocal proponent of modernizing 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", and 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 received the title of Commodore in June 1840, when the Secretary of the Navy appointed him commandant of New York Navy Yard in Brooklyn. During his tenure in Brooklyn, he lived in Quarters B at Admiral's Row, a building which still stands today, but is threatened with demolition by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation.

Despite the added responsibilities of his new posting, Perry's official naval rank remained unchanged. The title "Commodore" added nothing to his pay or to his permanent rank of captain. Until 1862, four years after Perry's death in 1858, the title Commodore would not come to signify a higher grade or an increased salary; but now, nearly a 150 years later, Commodore remains inextricably linked with the name of one of his nation's most well-known naval heroes.

In 1843, Commodore 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.

The Mexican-American War

In 1845, Commodore David Connor'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 Connor, 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 Tampico Expedition. 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 Connor 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 from land.

The Opening of Japan: 1852-1854

In advance of his voyage to the Far East, Commodore Perry read widely amongst available books about Tokugawa Japan. His research even including consultation with the increasingly well-known Japanologist Philipp Franz von Siebold who had lived on the Dutch island 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.
  • 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 Washington. He went to Uraga Channel 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 Tokyo Bay with two ships, including one warship armed with 72 cannons, but his requests for a trade agreement remained unsuccessful.
  • In 1848, Captain James Glynn sailed to Nagasaki, leading at last to the first successful 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

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 bay) 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, 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. The Japanese military forces could not resist Perry's modern weaponry; the "Black Ships" would then become, in Japan, a threatening symbol of Western technology.

The Japanese government were forced to let Perry come ashore to avoid a dangerous naval bombardment. Perry landed at Kurihama (in modern-day Yokosuka) on July 14, 1853 presented the letter to delegates present, and left for the Chinese coast, promising to return for a reply.

Second visit, 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 (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 the major trade routes. The United States government did not respond to Perry's proposal to claim sovereignty over Formosa.

Return to the United States, 1855

When Perry returned 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. He was also advanced to the grade of rear-admiral on the retired list (when his health began to fail) as a reward for his services in the Far East.

Last years

Perry died on March 4, 1858 in New York City, of liver cirrhosis due to alcoholism. 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.


  • His mother was a descendent of Scotland's hero William Wallace
  • His brother was Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.
  • His wife Jane Slidell was sister of John Slidell and aunt of Alexander Slidell MacKenzie.
  • His sister Anna Maria married Commodore George Washington Rodgers. Their son Rear Admiral Christopher Raymond Perry Rodgers married Julia Slidell. Raymond and Julia Slidell were the parents of Rear Admirials Thomas Slidell Rodgers and Raymond Perry Rodgers. Raymond Perry Rodgers was married to Gertrude Stuyvesant-who was descended from the Livingston family of New York. George Washington Rodgers was the brother of Commodore John Rodgers, an officer in the War of 1812 who was the father-in-law of Union General Montgomery C. Meigs and grandfather of Lt. John Rodgers Meigs. General Meigs was the great-grandson of Colonel Return J. Meigs, Sr., who was the father of Return J. Meigs, Governor of Ohio.
  • A daughter, Caroline Slidell, married August Belmont, a 19th century banker/businessman.
  • A granddaughter married Joseph Grew, Ambassador to Japan.
  • A great-granddaugther married Jay Pierrepont Moffat, Ambassador to Canada.
  • A great-grandson was aviation pioneer Cal Rodgers.
  • A great-grandson was John Rodgers (naval officer, World War I), who was also a great grandson of Commodore John Rodgers.
  • A great cousin was Jack M. Perry, the famous Landscape Architect of Miami-Dade County
  • As part of a Japanese TV program to find decedents of famous figures in Japanese History, the third great grandson was found, a Dr. Frederic Hone Nichols. He revealed in the program that a famous photograph used in japanese textbooks of Commodore Perry had a button painted on.

A diplomatic note

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

Perry's flag and legacy

A replica of Perry's US flag is on display on board the USS Missouri (BB-63) memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It is attached to the bulkhead just inboard of the Japanese surrender signing site on the port side of the ship. The original flag was brought to Japan for the Japan surrender ceremony and was displayed on that occasion at the request of Douglas MacArthur, who was himself a blood-relative of Perry. MacArthur had perhaps seen himself as a second benign "opener" of Japan. Some photographs of the signing ceremony show that this flag was actually displayed backward -- reverse side showing (stars in the upper right corner). The cloth of the historic flag was so fragile that the conservator at the Naval Academy Museum directed that a protective backing be sewn on it, leaving its "wrong side" visible; and this was how Perry's 31-star flag was presented on this unique occasion. Some sources insist the flag was flown from the Missouri's masthead, but this is demonstrably mistaken. Today, the flag is preserved at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The pattern for the Union canton on this flag is different from the standard 31-star flag then in use. Perry's flag had rows of six stars save the last row which had seven stars. Perry's US flag was unique when it was first flown in Tokyo Bay in 1853-1854, and unique when it was displayed on the Missouri in 1945. A replica of this historic flag can be seen today on the Surrender Deck of the Battleship Missouri Memorial in Pearl Harbor. This replica is also placed in the same location on the bulkhead of the veranda deck where it had been initially mounted on the morning of September 2, 1945 by Chief Carpenter Fred Miletich.


  • There is a Perry Park in Kurihama which has a monolith monument (dedicated July 14, 1901) to the landing of Perry's forces. Within the park there is a small museum dedicated to the events of 1854. Admission is free, and the museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week.
  • Matthew C. Perry Elementary School can be found on Marine Corps Air Station, Iwakuni, Japan.
  • The US Navy's Perry class frigates (purchased in the 1970s and 1980s) were named after Perry's brother, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.

Fictional depictions




  • Cullen, L.M. (2003). A History of Japan, 1582-1941: Internal and External Worlds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-82115-X (cloth) ISBN 0-521-529918-2 (paper)
  • Griffis, William Elliot. (1887). Matthew Calbraith Perry: A Typical American Naval Officer. Boston: Cupples and Hurd.
  • Hawks, Francis. (1856). Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan Performed in the Years 1852, 1853 and 1854 under the Command of Commodore M.C. Perry, United States Navy, Washington: A.O.P. Nicholson by order of Congress, 1856; originally published in Senate Executive Documents, No. 34 of 33rd Congress, 2nd Session. [reprinted by London: Trafalgar Square, 2005. ISBN 1-8458-8026-9 (paper)]
  • Sewall, John S. (1905). The Logbook of the Captain's Clerk: Adventures in the China Seas, Bangor, Maine: Chas H. Glass & Co. [reprint by Chicago: R.R. Donnelly & Sons, 1995] ISBN 0-5482-0912-X

See also

External links

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