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A Japanese six-fold screen depicting Commodore Matthew Perry’s flagship, the USS Mississippi

Bakumatsu-period, 2nd half 19th century

The large screen, decorated with gold leaf and paint on paper, was made by an artist who never saw the ship in real life and based his image on stories, a woodblock print, and legends.

H. 61 x W. 183 cm

Private collection, United States

On July 8th, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry arrived for the first time in the harbour of Shimoda in the Bay of Edo, with his paddle-wheel warships USS Mississippi and Susquehanna and two sloops, with a total of 65 guns and a little less than one thousand men. In his own words: “to open doors of commerce, and spread civilization to a backward people, and also to spread the Gospel of God to the heathen.” In Japanese parlance, the American ships quickly became known as ‘black ships’, depicted as demonic monsters. These huge coal-burning ships with black hulls and belching black smoke out of their funnels probably were Darkness Incarnate for the Japanese. In the present Japanese depiction of Perry’s ship, not only the hull and the smoke is pitch black, but also the figurehead on the bow is a leering monster. The portholes high in the stern glow like eyes of an apparition, the ship’s sides bristle with rows of cannon, and gunfire streaks like without remorse from guns at both sides of the vessel.

Perry remained in the Edo Bay until the Japanese accepted an official letter by President Millard Fillmore. In 1854 the commodore returned with a fleet of nine ships on his flagship Mississippi and remained in Edo Bay as part of his show of force until the Convention of Kanagawa was signed on March 31st, 1854.

In 1841 the USS Mississippi, built under the personal supervision of Perry, became his first steam-driven frigate and flagship. She was involved in many US Navy operations until she ran aground and was destroyed in 1863 at an attack against Port Hudson, Louisiana, during the American Civil War.


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