BOOK REVIEW – With Commodore Perry to Japan: The Journal of William Speiden, Jr., 1852-1855

John A. Wolter, David A. Ranzan, and John J. McDonough, eds., With Commodore Perry to Japan: The Journal of William Speiden, Jr., 1852-1855. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013. B & W illustrations; maps; appendices; notes; bibliography, 256 pp.

Review by John M. Jennings
United States Air Force Academy

The 1852-1855 voyage of the US Navy’s East India Squadron to Asia has long been recognized as a watershed moment in history. Not only did it signal the emergence of the United States as a major power in Asia and the Pacific, but it also resulted in re-opening Japan to trade and diplomatic relations after over two centuries of self-imposed near-isolation from the outside world. As a result, this voyage has been the subject of numerous books, including narrative histories and first-hand accounts. Notable examples of the former are Samuel Eliot Morison’s biography of the Squadron’s commander Commodore Matthew C. Perry, “Old Bruin:” Commodore Matthew C. Perry 1794-1858, Arthur Walworth’s Black Ships Off Japan: The Story of Commodore Perry’s Expedition, and George Feifer’s Breaking Open Japan: Commodore Perry, Lord Abe, and American Imperialism in 1853, while the latter include Perry’s own account as well as the diaries of other participants such William Heine, Dr. James Morrow, and Edward Yorke McCauley. Editors John A. Wolter, David A. Ranzan, and the late John J. McDonough add to the latter with their publication With Commodore Perry to Japan: The Journal of William Speiden, Jr., 1852-1855.

William Speiden, Jr. (1835-1920) was a teenaged purser’s clerk who served on the steam frigate Mississippi, so he was not in a position to observe or comment knowledgably on the higher politics of Perry’s negotiations with the Japanese. Therefore, his journal of the voyage is frequently confined to rather mundane shipboard life. Nevertheless, it occasionally provides keen insights into the unforeseen practical ramifications of the opening of relations between the US and Japan. For example, he describes with great sensitivity the arrangements made with local Japanese authorities to inter the remains of deceased shipmates. While this may seem to have been a routine matter, the issue of the funeral service in fact required quite delicate handling because Christianity was still officially proscribed in Japan. Speiden’s journal also serves as a reminder that Perry’s voyage also included significant stopovers to and from Japan, including South America, Africa, China, and the Kingdom of the Ryukyu (Liu Chiu) Islands. His description of the last is especially interesting as it provides insights into its political structure, society, and culture before its annexation by Japan in 1873, when it became Okinawa Prefecture.

The editors have done a commendable job of restoring Speiden’s journal in a handsome format. They have reprinted a number of illustrations from that source, including several from Speiden’s own hand. The editing has preserved the essence of the original writing, while removing some of the grammatical and stylistic infelicities. The notes are impressively-researched, and frequently quite helpful, especially in identifying personnel mentioned by Speiden. One slight weakness is the failure of the authors to update the spellings of some of the Asian place names: most notably, the editors retain Speiden’s archaic spelling of the Ryukyu Islands as “Lew Chew.”

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

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