By Jim Marquardt
In 1825, the Japanese government reaffirmed its National Seclusion Policy originally enacted in 1639. Simply stated, “Don’t dare come here.” Except for the Dutch who enjoyed a commercial treaty with them, the Japanese warned all ships from western nations, especially whalers whom they felt sailed too close to their shores. In Moby Dick, Ishmael commented, “If that double-bolted land…is ever to become hospitable, it is the whaleship alone to which the credit will be due…” Commodore Matthew Perry’s entry to Japanese waters in 1853 with an American naval fleet earned him a place in history books. Yet eight years earlier, the Sag Harbor whaleship Manhattan, commanded by Captain Mercator Cooper, entered Jeddo (later Tokyo) Harbor and spent several days in sometimes friendly, sometimes threatening contact with the Japanese.
The incident is wonderfully detailed in an article by C.F. Winslow in The Friend, a newspaper published in Honolulu in February, 1846. Dr. Winslow, a missionary, interviewed Captain Cooper when Manhattan stopped in Hawaii.
In April 1845, Manhattan was sailing towards the whaling regions of the northern Pacific Ocean when it passed uninhabited St. Peter’s Island southwest of Japan. Captain Cooper decided to go ashore to look for turtles to provide fresh meat for his crew. Walking inland, he discovered eleven, shipwrecked Japanese fishermen and, seeing their bedraggled state, offered to take them back to their homeland. On the voyage there, Cooper came upon a sinking fishing junk and rescued eleven more seamen. Reaching the Japanese coast, he sent ashore a couple of the castaways to explain to the Emperor his peaceful intentions. As he neared Jeddo Bay, he was met by a barge carrying an officer of “rank and consequence” who told him he had the Emperor’s permission to enter the harbor. Intensely curious about the Americans, a number of Japanese of all ranks, including the Governor of Jeddo and officers of the Emperor “arrayed in golden and gorgeous tunics” came aboard. They were especially fascinated by the Black crewmen aboard Manhattan, including Pyrrhus Concer and Gad Williams. Using a little English and many gestures, an interpreter told Cooper that no one was allowed off the ship under pain of death, “drawing a naked sword across the throat.” Guards were posted and the Manhattan’s weapons confiscated while in the harbor.
“Nearly a thousand” boats armed with lances and “steel weapons” ringed the Manhattan as the rescued Japanese seamen bade a tearful farewell to their American saviors. Later, intending to repair one of his whaleboats, Cooper started lowering it from davits into the water alongside the ship. Thinking the Americans were planning to go ashore, the Japanese guards immediately drew swords, their officer declaring they would be slain and his own head would be in danger. But once he understood Cooper’s ordinary purpose, he ordered his men to help with the work. The Emperor sent the Sag Harbor captain “wood, water, rice, rye in the grain, vegetables…and some crockery of the lacquered ware of the country.”
A 1912 edition of Southampton Magazine said the Japanese also sent aboard a quantity of giant radishes. Emissaries told Cooper that the Emperor thought well of his “heart” and wanted him treated kindly, but added he “must not come again.”
It was early spring and Cooper admired what he could see of the Japanese mainland, every acre highly cultivated, the steeper areas terraced, presenting the appearance of hanging gardens. Cooper described the people as “short, square-built and solid…of a light, olive complexion…intelligent, polite and educated.” Common citizens wore wide trousers and loose, blue cotton shirts, while dignitaries “were clothed in rich silks, embroidered with gold and silken threads of various colors.” The Japanese were particularly curious about the woolen garments of the Americans and requested small samples to take ashore.
The Governor of Jeddo and other officers asked about America and Cooper described his country’s honorable character and its interest in trade. After four days, the Governor ordered hundreds of sculling boats to tow the Manhattan out to sea where Cooper spread his sails and continued the hunt for whales in the northern ocean. Months later, homeward bound, Manhattan sold her cargo of oil and whalebone in Amsterdam, Holland. The last entry in the ship’s log read, “Cruise 2 yrs, 11 mos, 5 days.”
The Japanese sailors inadvertently left aboard the Manhattan a detailed chart of Japan and a notebook depicting the Empire’s heraldry, an error if discovered that could have cost them their heads. The indefatigable Mercator Cooper brought these priceless mementos home and some years later his descendants donated them to the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. Cooper’s Southampton residence still stands, serving now as an annex to The Rogers Memorial Library.