BOOK REVIEW – Far China Station: The U.S. Navy in Asian Waters, 1800-1898

Robert Erwin Johnson, Far China Station: The U.S. Navy in Asian Waters, 1800-1898. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013. 307 pp. Paperback edition. B & W illustrations and photographs; maps; notes; bibliography; index.

Review by John M. Jennings
United States Air Force Academy

Far China Station: The U.S. Navy in Asian Waters, 1800-1898 is a 2013 paperback reprint edition of the late Robert Erwin Johnson’s 1979 work. Although the US naval presence in Asia dates back to the voyage of the frigate Essex to Java in 1800, Johnson’s narrative commences with the establishment of the East Indian Squadron 1835, which marks the beginning of a permanent naval presence in the region. The book concludes with the Spanish-American War and Commodore George Dewey’s victory at the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898.

As Johnson’s narrative reveals, the US Navy played a largely passive and reactive role in Asia during the nineteenth century. With the exception of the occasional minor punitive action against pirates or other recalcitrants, US warships were for the most part confined to observing major conflicts such as the Opium War, the Sino-French War of 1884-1885, and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, or to merely “showing the flag” at various ports of call throughout the region. The greatest risks faced by the sailors seem to have been posed by the myriad of tropical diseases and, one suspects, the monotony of long and largely uneventful cruises.

Nevertheless, as Johnson rightly points out, the US Navy was also responsible for some significant diplomatic achievements in Asia. In 1854, Commodore Matthew C. Perry commanded an impressive naval squadron, including some new steam-driven warships, on a voyage to Japan and concluded the Treaty of Kanagawa, which ended the island empire’s centuries-old policy of isolation. Similarly, Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt was the first western representative to conclude a trade and diplomatic agreement with the previously-isolationist Kingdom of Korea in 1882.

While Johnson describes, often in great detail, what the US Navy accomplished in Asia, Far China Station does little to elucidate the reasons for the almost-continual American naval presence in Asia throughout the nineteenth century. Due to the narrow naval focus, the reader is left without a sense of the larger American political and economic aims in Asia, and how the navy supported those aims. For example, the chapter on Perry’s voyage is titled “The Most Important Cruise,” but the chapter itself does not explain why it was the “most important.” Nor is there any attempt to differentiate the foreign policy and naval priorities of the many administrations during the period under examination.

Far China Station is still useful for readers interested in a traditional narrative account of the history of the US Navy in Asia during the nineteenth century. However, its emphasis on the more quotidian aspects of US naval activities at the expense of placing those activities within a broader contextual framework of American political and economic aims in Asia prevents Far China Station from being the definitive work on this subject. That work is yet to be written.

(Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)

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