(Friday Night History) The Shove Heard ‘Round the World, Part 1

(Pictured: USS Vincennes and USS Columbus in Japan, July 1846. Print by John Eastley. PD)

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at the mission of Captain James Glynn and the USS Preble, as it factored into the Japanese sojourn of Ranald MacDonald. Glynn’s mission was ostensibly to rescue castaways in Japanese custody but also to press the issue of initiating US-Japan trade and diplomatic relations. This was in 1849, and was the imediate antecedent to the Perry mission of 1853-1854. Glynn, however, was not the first US naval officer to attempt to singlehandedly open US-Japanese relations before Commodore Perry. Enter the mission of the lesser known Commodore James Biddle (1783-1848). He’s certainly not as well known as Perry or Glynn, but his visit to Japan has an important place in history all the same, particularly with regard to the growth of Japanese naval technology.

Commodore James Biddle. Image in PD.

Now, speaking as a Philadelphian, I sighed knowingly when I first encountered his name. Biddle, like Logan, Callowhill, Bond, Norris, and Sellers, is a very old Philadelphia family. That a Biddle was a commodore in the antebellum Navy does not come as a surprise to me at all. He was the nephew of Captain Nicholas Biddle, one of the first five captains in the US Navy, and the younger Biddle had a very eventful career, both as a naval officer as well as a diplomat. During the War against the Barbary Pirates (1801-1805) he was assigned to USS Philadelphia under the command of Captain William Bainbridge when the crew was captured following the ship’s running aground off Tripoli Harbor. He spent the war in captivity in Tripoli. Later, he took part in the War of 1812.

Later still, served on various American fleets throughout the world, in both a military and a diplomatic capacity. Biddle was in the Mediterranean in 1830 when he and consul David Offly negotiated and concluded a treaty with the Sublime Porte (the government of the Ottoman sultan) which established trade relations with the Ottoman Empire and guaranteed American extraterritoriality in the Empire. Long story short, by the time he was commander of the East India Squadron (the US Navy’s main formation operating in East Asian waters) he was an accomplished commander and diplomat.

Shortly after his arrival in China, Biddle added another success to that lengthy career when he exchanged ratifications of the Treaty of Wangxia in December of 1845, the first treaty signed between the US and the Qing Dynasty. China under the Qing had recently been defeated by the United Kingdom, and the other Euro-American powers were quickly lining up to make their own unequal treaties with the vanquished empire. But Biddle and the American diplomats in China were also aware that Japan was nearby and might, at this juncture, also be militarily unable to resist overtures by a western power. Indeed, Biddle carried a letter from then-Secretary of State John C. Calhoun which authorized Caleb Cushing, US agent in China, to open diplomatic negotiations with Japan. At the time, Biddle’s flagship was the 90-gun ship of the line USS Columbus, Captain Thomas Wyman commanding, which was accompanied by the Boston-class sloop of war USS Vincennes, under the command of Captain Hiram Paulding.

Word reached the squadron on 5 July 1846 of war with Mexico. Charles Nordhoff, who was a sailor aboard USS Columbus, writes that

“On the fifth of July, our consort vessel returned from Shanghai, with the commodore, who brought with him an official report of the declaration of war between the United States and Mexico, news which we had been for some time expecting. We immediately proceeded to sea, bound for Japan, our commodore having been intrusted by government with the delivery of a letter from the President of the United States to the Emperor of Japan, expressing a desire to open negotiations for a treaty of trade.” 

(Charles Nordhoff, later in life. Image in PD.)

In his later report to Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, Biddle reported:

The Japanese, as you know, have always been more rigid in the exclusion of foreigners than even the Chinese. The only Europeans admitted to trade are the Dutch from Batavia; and their trade is confined to a single port, and limited to one annual ship. By the laws of Japan foreign ships are not permitted to anchor in any port of the empire, except that of Nagasaki. Any attempt to penetrate Japan made at that port would be sure to encounter the hostility of the Dutch, whose exertions have hitherto been successful against every attempt to disturb their monopoly. The Japanese officers at Nagasaki are without authority to treat foreign officers; they could not accede to any propositions; they could only transmit them to the seat of Government at Yeddo. The distance between Yeddo and Nagasaki is three hundred and forty-five leagues, and the journey between them is “usually performed in seven weeks,” according to a work on Japan published at New York in 1841. I concluded, therefore, to proceed direct to the bay of Yeddo, where I anchored on the 20th instant, the Vincennes in company.

In other words: having scored an unequal treaty with China, and hearing of the outbreak of war with Mexico, Biddle thought he could go to Japan (and go straight to Edo to avoid attracting the ire from the Dutch), snag a *different* treaty with Japan, and then smoothly pivot and head across the Pacific to join the war.

Easy, right?

We’ll see.

Sources (All Parts)


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