The Perry Expedition to Japan: Always a Good Story

- by Susan Halas

As a dealer specializing in the Pacific I have handled and sold many voyages over the last 40 years: Cook, Vancouver, Wilkes and Harriman, to name a few. They all ventured out into the Pacific and came home to tell the tale. But my hands-down favorite is Matthew Perry’s mid-19th century expedition to Japan done under the auspices of the US Navy and published in congressional editions in 1856.


The reasons to like Perry are numerous: it’s a great story; Perry’s diplomacy opened up a country previously closed to Western contact for more than 200 years to international trade. The narrative of the expedition has wonderful pictures and maps. It’s still possible to find it in whole or in part at inexpensive prices. It has a colorful side note in the history of photography.


Additionally, unlike so many other Pacific voyages, where the narrative is one sided, there’s an equally detailed version of the interaction as drawn and told by the Japanese. The Japanese portraits of the Americans are extremely unflattering and their artists never did get the hang of the Caucasian noses, which are stuck on the faces in various rakish angles with an entertaining effect.


The Perry voyage had it all: marching bands and sumo wrestlers. It has drunken parties on board ship where the Americans served the Japanese cherry brandy until they were blotto and entertained them with minstrel music performed by sailors in blackface. Following the shindig Japanese pilfered everything that wasn’t nailed down and deposited the swag in the copious folds of their kimono sleeves before departing.


Right from the start it’s the story of two nations determined to pursue their own path and one-up each other at all costs. The American mission was to open up diplomatic relations and establish coaling ports for their whaling and merchant fleets, and after a series of embarrassing US failures Perry was sent out to: “By God get it done!” The Japanese, were just as determined to keep the Americans (and everybody else) out by any means necessary; and in fact their first words to the Americans on arrival loosely translated were, “You are free to leave now.”


The fact that the only common language between the two countries was Dutch makes it all the more interesting. On the spicy side at least some of the original three volume sets contain the suppressed nude bathing scene depicting the American sailors' visit to a coed Japanese bath house. The image of generously endowed topless Japanese ladies and bare bottomed gents taking the waters together scandalized and titillated the folks back home. So much so that the remaining plates in uncirculated copies were excised, and have ever afterwards made this the most famous, expensive and sought after image of all the Perry prints.


It’s a really good story and it’s packed with detail, not only diplomacy and excursions into the countryside under the suspicious gaze of their unwilling hosts, but also fish, birds, shells, winds, tides and currents, natural history, astronomy, a detailed list of presents exchanged, and large early maps of Tokyo bay and other ports too. Not to mention that while the expedition is best remembered for its interaction with the Japanese, it also visited and included images from other stops along the way including of Madeira, South Africa, Hong Kong, China, Lew Chew (Okinawa). Most of the prints are contained in Volume 1. They usually number about 90 full page stone lithographic images printed by some of the best companies of the day, as well as hundreds of detailed and intricately drawn wood engravings that run with the text. In short, what’s not to like?


The voyages of Commodore Mathethew C. Perry and his ships are most commonly referred to as the “Perry Expedition” but it was published under the far more impressive title of: 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, BY ORDER OF THE GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES by Francis L. Hawks and issued in 1856 in both House and Senate Congressional editions in three volumes.


The first contains the plates by artist William (Wilhelm) Heine, an artist of considerable enterprise and ability who was just 25 when he signed on for the voyage. Of lithographs, Heine was the artist credited on 63 of the plates. Most of the remaining images are redrawn from daguerreotypes by Eliphalet Brown, Jr. Brown was the first photographer to accompany a US Navy expedition, and the first to record datable photos of Japan. The second volume was primarily devoted to natural history and contains some pretty amazing fish prints, while the third is filled with charts of the sky and various interpretations. It is much more specialized in appeal, and has yet to find a broad audience. Printers for the early editions include: Beverley Tucker, Senate Printer, 1856-1858, Washington; A.O.P. Nicholson, House Printer, 1856-1858, Washington and D. Appleton & Company, private printing, 1857, New York (only Volume 1 confirmed).


The prices for the three volumes as a set are all over the map. I’ve seen it intact but beat up for as little as $400 (usually without the nude plate) and conversely expensively rebound in red morocco for closer to $5,000. There are also assorted later abridged editions (somewhat smaller in size) and modern reprints and facsimiles. Though it’s wonderful (and sometimes profitable) to find all three volumes intact, it is much more common to encounter Perry material in bits and pieces, usually the plates, sometimes singly, sometimes in lots and again with a wide range in prices, usually sold by people with a pretty thin knowledge of the merchandise.


Perhaps the best synopsis Perry’s life and career is Samuel Eliot Morrison’s Old Bruin” - Commodore Matthew C. Perry, (Little Brown 1967, contains 482 pages + extensive index with many plates and maps. The chapters on the Japan expedition run from pages 261-432.)


While there’s a decent amount of information on the career and work of artist Heine, unfortunately there is, so far, scant scholarship on Brown, the intrepid photographer who accompanied the expedition. The best I’ve been able to find is passing references in the notes section of Japan Photographs:1854-1905by Clark Worswick,(Knopf, 1979).


According to Worswick, “Brown made a series of daguerreotypes which were the first datable photographs done in Japan. Officially sanctioned, this work documented village and town scenes and a variety of Japanese types and the personae of the Japanese-American diplomatic gatherings. Upon the return of the expedition, these daguerreotypes were used as models for wood engravings and lithographic plates published in the official report. Unfortunately, in the course of producing the plates for this work, the Philadelphia lithographic establishment which undertook the printing burned down and Brown’s daguerreotypes were destroyed. As a small solace the engravings and lithographs remain to give some indication of what Japan was like in the time of Perry.” Brown reportedly took more than 400 photographic images during the two-year expedition.


The bad news is we don’t have the original glass plates, the good news is that Brown’s images, including multiple striking portraits, are some of the most interesting of all the plates, more so because in composition and style they anticipate the flat silk screen style made popular a century later by Andy Warhol. The most desirable one photo related print, and in my opinion, ranking right behind the nude bathing plate, is the image drawn by Heine showing Brown and his camera shooting on location in Okinawa. It’s titled Temple at Tumai, Lew Chew.”The image shows the cameraset on a crude tripod, the photographer’s hand is pointing in the air as he gives instruction to a group a little in the distance on how he wants them to stand. Just as in modern times there is a bystander looking over the photographer's shoulder while US sailors, Japanese natives and even a pet monkey complete the composition.


Besides the nude and photographer plates, the images to seek out are the Brown portraits, the wrestling plate, the harbor at Hong Kong, the American Presents,various images showing American and Japanese vessels large and small, and any of the impressive diplomatic scenes. In the natural history volume it’s the fish that are exceptionally beautiful. I’ve never had a set of fish that didn’t find a buyer.


As for the maps, which are large and folding, so far they have yet to find their place in the market. The smaller maps are sometimes offered, but in my experience the larger maps seldom show up. One reason is that while they are big, the details are drawn with an extremely fine line and printed on thin paper that became brittle with the passing of time. In the book they are difficult to open. Out of the book they tend to chip and have frequent losses at the folds. Though historically interesting as the first American maps of Japanese ports they have so far found few takers. Perhaps the 21st century will finally take a well deserved second look at them.


As with the sets, the prices for individual pieces or parts show little consistency. Except for the notorious bathing scene the prices are all over the board, from as cheap as $10 for an individual plate to as much as several hundred for some of the more sought after images.


On the sell side it helps to be able to tell the story, and each picture does indeed have a story. The plate showing the American Presents is particularly revealing of the era. The two countries exchanged gifts. The Japanese gave the Americans beautiful textiles and silks, exceptional swords, exquisite calligraphy, all symbols of the cultural values of Japan. The Americans gifted the Japanese with a working telegraph (and they brought along the poles to string the demo line); a ¼ scale working locomotive plus cars and tracks, agricultural tools and other examples of what were, at the time, the leading edge of mid-19th century American technology.


It is interesting to note that the Japanese took to the American gifts with alacrity especially the train. It is also amazing that Japan, a country cut off from the world in 1852 and with no modern technology of any kind, was by WWI a country of enough international stature to have participated in the conflict and received a number of Pacific islands as the spoils of war. As the 20th century progressed the Japanese moved up the technology food chain so fast that by December 1941 they staged surprise air attacks on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, Manila, Guam, Hong Kong and Singapore in a single sweep. By the 21st century Japan, once astonished by a miniature steam locomotive, had built one of the world’s leading economies based extensively on their own extensive technology skills.


I am not able to give as informed an opinion on the Japanese views of the Americans, only to note that there is a considerable body of work showing pictures the Japanese made of their unwelcome visitors (hairy and with big sideways Picasso-like noses). They were particularly taken with the American ships and made a wide variety of drawings and paintings of them collectively referred to as the “Black Ships.” Perry originally went over with four vessels, went away and later came back with eight ships and an “or else” tone of voice to seal the deal. Any of the Perry prints showing the American “Black” ships are collectible. Should you find yourself interested in the Japanese view of things, The Black Ship Scroll by Oliver Statler is a good (though not inexpensive) place to start.


One final note, there are three color plates in the first volume. They don’t bring a very fancy price but they are attractive. To me the most remarkable one is the folding sheet titled a Fac-Simile of a Japanese Drawing. I have forgotten the name of the famous Japanese artist who drew the original, but what is interesting about the reproduction is that it is a stone litho made to imitate a wood block print. I can’t say for certain it is the first attempt to translate the printing technique, but it is certainly bold and effective and notable for the fact that the colors are as bright and strong as the day it came off the stone in 1856. It’s not expensive, the people selling it seldom know what it is or where it comes from and it’s a wonderful example of how America, as its part of the deal, was quick to adopt the look, if not the method of things Japanese.


In the end Perry did get his treaty (a copy of which in Japanese and English is also included in the first volume) and Japan reluctantly started on the path of a modern nation, and a long complicated relationship with America and the rest of the Pacific.