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On April 10th, 1794, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry was born in Rhode Island. A member of the Perry family naval dynasty and often called the ‘Father of the Steam Navy,’ Perry is best known for leading two expeditions to Japan in 1853 and 1854.
In 1853, U.S. President Millard Fillmore sent a fleet of warships under Perry’s command to force the opening of Japanese ports to American trade through the use of gunboat diplomacy if necessary. Perry arrived with four warships at at the mouth of Tokyo Bay on July 8th, 1853. He refused Japanese demands that he proceed to Nagasaki, which was the designated port for foreign contact. After threatening to continue directly on to Edo, the nation’s capital, and to burn it to the ground if necessary, he was allowed to land at nearby Kurihama. On his second expedition the following year, he arrived with a larger squadron of eight warships and refused to leave until a treaty was signed. On March 31, 1854, the Kanagawa Treaty was signed between the United States and the Tokugawa Shogunate under the threat of force. The treaty effectively ended Japan’s 220-year-old policy of national seclusion by opening the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to American vessels. It also established the position of an American consul in Japan and precipitated the signing of similar treaties establishing diplomatic relations with other Western powers.
Prior to his exploits in Japan, Perry had served as commanding officer (1837–40) of the first U.S. steamship, the “Fulton”; led a naval squadron to Africa to help suppress the slave trade (1843); and successfully commanded naval forces during the Mexican War (1846–48). Perry was interested in the education of naval officers and assisted in the development of an apprentice system that helped establish the curriculum at the United States Naval Academy. With the advent of the steam engine, he became a leading advocate of modernizing the U.S. Navy which earned him the moniker “The Father of the Steam Navy” in the United States. He organized America’s first corps of naval engineers, and conducted the first U.S. naval gunnery school while commanding Fulton from 1839 to 1841 off Sandy Hook on the coast of New Jersey.
Perry was buried in Newport’s Island Cemetery, near his parents and brother, naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry. There are also exhibits and research collections concerning his life at the Naval War College Museum and at the Newport Historical Society.
You can find a commemorative statue of Perry in Touro Park facing Bellevue Avenue. The circular base pedestal, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, has bronze bas-reliefs that represent events in Perry’s life: Africa (1843), Mexico (1846) and the Treaty with Japan (1854).