A Japanese painting depicting Commodore Matthew Perry’s flagship USS Mississippi bringing the coffin with the remains of US marine private Robert Williams who died while serving on the USS Mississippi in Japan, March 6, 1854, aged 21, to the cemetery of the Buddhist Gyokusen-Ji temple in the city of Shimoda
Late Edo period, Bakumatsu, circa 1854
H. 57.2 x W. 47.8 cm (formerly mounted on a scroll)
In the painting is depicted, the USS steamship Mississippi belching black smoke out of her funnel and showing her figurehead. On the front deck, an American sailor is pointing forwards, and behind him, a coffin is covered under a blue flag. The Stars and Stripes has three colours:
“The red of our country’s flag was made redder still by his (her) heroism; the white more stainless pure by the motives which impelled him (her); and, in the starry field of our nation’s glorious banner, the blue has been glorified by the service he (she) has given for America’s ideals”.
In the middle of the ship is a Buddhist monk in a red coat pointing toward the temple on the hill, and behind him, four more monks in brown coats, apparently praying. In his description of the funeral, Wilhelm Heine, the official artist on board the Mississippi, mentions the presence of a Japanese Buddhist monk and Japanese officials on board to accompany the funeral party. On the afterdeck a saluting American
sailor and the helmsman below the ceremonial banner of the Gyokusen-ji temple. On top are the American and Japanese flags. On the hill are shown various Gyokusen-ji temple buildings and the graveyard. Gyokusen-Ji is a Buddhist temple located in the city of Shimoda, which later served as the first American consulate in Japan, where the Japanese authorities allowed the bodies of American, and also of Russian sailors to be buried in a Christian ceremony in the graveyard of the temple. Now the temple hosts the Townsend Harris Museum with documents, ukiyo-e, some personal effects of Townsend Harris, the first American Consul General to Japan in 1856, and other items describing the temple during the Bakumatsu period.
In July 1853, the Americans under Commodore Matthew Perry for the first time arrived with his flagship USS Mississippi, the Susquehanna and two sloops in the harbour of Shimoda. Perry remained in Edo Bay until the Shogun accepted an official letter by President Millard Fillmore. In February 1854, Perry returned with a larger fleet of nine ships and remained in Edo Bay as part of a show of force until the signing of the Convention of Kanawaga on 31 March 1854, opening several Japanese harbours for American ships. During the negotiations, the Gyokusen-ji temple hosted the American officers of this flotilla.
Marine private Robert Williams, while serving on the USS Mississippi, died on 6 March 1854 of the ill effects of an earlier received blow to his head given by a Chinese, while Williams was on liberty in China at Cumsing Moon. His body had initially been interred in Yokohama in a Christian burial service conducted by Reverend George Jones on 9 March 1854. After the signing of the Convention of Kanawaga on 31 March, a decision was made to relocate his grave to the grounds of the Gyokusen-Ji temple in Shimoda, prior to the fleet’s departure in June 1854. The funeral of Robert Williams can be seen as the first Christian burial ceremony allowed to take place on Japanese soil since the sakoku edict of 1639 and is the symbolic end to the sakoku policy of the ‘closed country’.