This is “The Shove Heard ‘Round the World,” Part 2 of an extarordinary story (here’s part 1) of an American naval officer who thought he could “wing it” in international diplomacy with isolationist Japan. Last week, in the summer of 1846, having scored an unequal treaty with China, and hearing of the outbreak of war with Mexico, Commodore James 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?
Here’s the thing: Japan was no stranger to the increasing presence of international ships in its waters, especially whalers. With the development and expansion of steam vessels, this only increased: Dutch, French, British, Russian, and American vessels all wound up in Japanese waters with increasing frequency. The isolation policy hadn’t fundamentally changed since the 17th century, although there had been some relaxing of restrictions pertaining to the import of European books. Even if they came from the countries whose entry into Japan was barred, the knowledge within was still of use. This became the backbone of what was called rangaku, Dutch studies– although despite the name, “Dutch Studies” could refer to the study of any European language, technology, medicine, or discipline.
All the same, by the early to mid 19th century, the ships weren’t going away, and there were a range of opinions as to how to deal with them. Some, like the powerful Mito domain of eastern Japan, advocated for the armed repulsion of any foreign vessel on sight. Others, like the Ōtsuki family– powerful scholars and doctors serving the house of Date in northern Japan– argued for a limited opening of Japan to foreign trade, particularly in the north, with an eye toward better understanding Russia. Indeed, eventually, Sendai under the house of Date became the first clan in Japan to include a Russian studies curriculum in its domain school, the school where its samurai were trained.
So with all of this understood, what it boils down to is that foreign vessels, foreign ideas, foreign weapons of the 1840s were not strange otherworldy magical things to Japan. And this informed how the Shogunate responded, shortly after Biddle’s little flotilla– the warships Columbus and Vincennes– arrived at Uraga, at the entrance of what’s now Tokyo Bay, on 20 July 1846.
And by “shortly,” I mean they saw these ships coming, and there was an officer who came aboard before the American warships even reached their anchorage.
As Biddle reported to SECNAV Bancroft:
“Before reaching the anchorage an officer, with a Dutch interpreter, came on board. He inquired what was my object in coming to Japan. I answered that I came as a friend, to ascertain whether Japan had, like China, opened her ports to foreign trade and, if she had, to fix by treaty the conditions on which American vessels should trade with Japan. He requested me to commit this answer to writing, and I gave him a written paper, a copy of which is herewith transmitted. He informed me that any supplies I might require would be furnished by the Government. To my inquiry whether I would be allowed to go on shore, he replied in the negative. He objected to our boats passing between this ship and the Vincennes; but, as I insisted upon it, he yielded.”
Quite the entrance.
The week that followed saw the American sailors receiving Japanese visitors aboard both vessels. Both crews took soundings of the waters around their anchorage, and passed unrestricted from one ship to the other, but were shadowed by Shogunate patrol craft that kept a tight cordon, as well as troops of Oshi and Kawagoe domains, which kept watch from the adjoining shoreline.
Both Biddle’s official report and Charles Nordhoff’s later memoir note that quite a few Japanese regularly visited the two American warships, and that the interactions were on the whole, amicable. Shogunate officials also regularly visited, continuing discussions with Biddle while the latter’s letter traveled up Shogunate channels; despite their firm refusal to let the Americans actually land, they were amenable to supplying the ships with fresh water and other needed provisions.
On the 27th, an answer finally arrived from what Biddle calls “the Emperor,” but was in fact the Shogun. The emissary came with an entourage of eight people including an interpreter. Initially, he wanted them to come aboard, but eventually agreed to come aboard the Shogunate vessel that had drawn up alongside Columbus. But on trying to board, one of the guards on the Japanese vessel misinterpreted Biddle’s intentions, and shoved him back into the Columbus’ launch , drawing his own sword.
A short, sharp crisis ensued. Biddle returned to Columbus, calling for the man to be punished. Japanese officials followed, working out the nature of the misunderstanding and how to punish the man who’d drawn his sword. Ultimately, the problem at its root was exacerbated by neither side having a language in common other than a mutually tenuous grasp of Dutch. With this in mind, Ranald MacDonald’s work in English language instruction had an outsized influence in smoothing future US-Japanese diplomatic interactions.
The shove aside, the Shogunate’s message (as quoted by Biddle) was this:
“According to the Japanese laws, the Japanese may not trade, except with the Dutch and Chinese. It will not be allowed that America make a treaty with Japan or trade with her, as the same is not allowed with any other nation. Concerning strange lands, all things are fixed at Nagasaki, but not here in the bay; therefore you must depart as quick as possible and not come any more in Japan.”
Chastened, Biddle told the Shogunate officials that having ascertained that Japan was not interested in trade, he would withdraw as soon as he could make sail. So, having taken on fresh provisions, and with a tow from Japanese rowboats, the flotilla sailed from Edo Bay on the 29th. Charles Nordhoff recollects that
“Accordingly the anchor was weighed, the sails set, and two long hawsers passed over the bows to the waiting boatmen, who, fastening to these, and to each others’ craft when the hawsers would no longer reach them, soon towed us to the entrance of the bay, when, taking the breeze, the boats cast off, and, amid waving of fans and hats, we bade good-by to Japan.”
Vincennes remained on station in East Asia with Columbus, with Biddle aboard, headed east to join the war. There was no treaty, but there were plenty of reports, first of which was Biddle’s official account sent to Secretary of the Navy Bancroft is dated 31 July. Accounts of this abortive, slapdash attempt at gunboat diplomacy that ended with a shove would influence later US attempts: I talked recently about James Glynn’s 1849 mission to Japan, and the 1853 mission of Matthew C. Perry is renowned worldwide, for better and worse. Both men benefited from the unlikely influenece of Ranald MacDonald, and both were aware of the events of the Biddle mission, seeking to scrupulously avoid the same mistakes (neither commander let himself be in a position where he could get shoved), and especially by use of increasing amounts of naval firepower to compel compliance.
But Biddle’s visit had an impact in Japan, too, in ways he likely didn’t anticipate. And for that, you’ll have to wait until next week’s episode.
I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory. Now– questions?
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- Biddle, James, and George Bancroft. “Commodore Biddle’s Official Account of His Visit to Japan.” National Intelligencer, March 15, 1847. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers (accessed October 11, 2020). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/GT3017707156/NCNP?u=carnegielib&sid=NCNP&xid=584cb895.
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- Henson, Curtis. Commissioners and Commodores: The East India Squadron and American Diplomacy in China. (University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1982).
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- Long, David F. Sailor-Diplomat: A Biography of Commodore James Biddle, 1783-1848. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983)
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- “Nihon wo Kaikoku e to Michibiita Tatsuyakusha! ‘Uraga Bugyosho'” 日本を開国へと導いた立役者！「浦賀奉行所」 Yokosuka City Homepage (accessed October 11, 2020) https://www.city.yokosuka.kanagawa.jp/2110/bugyousyo/top.html
- Nordhoff, Charles. Man-of-war life; a boy’s experience in the United States navy, during a voyage around the world, in a ship of the line (Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach, Keyes, & Co., 1856), pp. 192-210. Archived at Archive.org (accessed October 11, 2020) https://archive.org/details/manofwarlifeboys00nordrich
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- Wainwright, Nicholas B. Commodore James Biddle and his sketch book. (Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1966), pp. 39-43. Archived at https://archive.org/details/commodorejamesbi00wain Accessed October 11, 2020.