New bedford, Massachusetts, had begun to send whaling vessels into the Pacific Ocean, and Japan was so conveniently situated to obtain provisions after the long passage over the Atlantic and Pacific, that the President decided to make an effort to enter into a treaty of friendship with that government. Accordingly President James K. Polk commissioned Commodore Biddle to go to Yedo with two ships, the Columbus, a line-of-battle ship, and the Vincennes, a sloop of war, to deliver a letter to His Imperial Majesty of Japan. This letter was in substance as follows:—
"I send you, by this letter, an envoy of my own appointment, an officer of high rank in his country, who is no missionary of religion. He goes by my command to bear to you my greeting and good wishes, and to promote friendship and commerce between the two countries.
"You know that the United States of America now extend from sea to sea; that the great countries of Oregon and California are parts of the United States; and that from these countries, which are rich in gold and silver and precious stones, our steamers can reach the shores of your happy land in less than twenty days.
"Many of our ships will now pass every year, and some, perhaps, every week, between California and China; these ships must pass along the coasts of your empire; storms and winds may cause them to be wrecked on your shores, and we ask and expect from your friendship and your greatness, kindness for our men and protection for our property. We wish that our people may be permitted to trade with your people; but we shall not authorize them to break any law of your empire.
"Our object is friendly commercial intercourse, and nothing more. You may have productions which we should be glad to buy, and we have productions which might suit your people.
"Your empire contains a great abundance of coal; this is an article which our steamers, in going from California to China, must use. They would be glad that a harbor in your empire should be appointed to which coal might be brought, and where they might always be able to purchase it.
"In many other respects commerce between your empire and our country would be useful to both. Let us consider well what new interests may arise from these recent events, which have brought our two countries so near together, and what purpose of friendly amity and intercourse this ought to inspire in the hearts of those who govern both countries."
The commodore arrived at the entrance of Yedo Bay in July, 1846. Before his vessels had fairly anchored, they were surrounded by about four hundred guard boats, which, however, showed no sign of hostility, since the men, of whom each boat contained from five to twenty, were mostly unarmed. An inferior officer climbed up the side of the Vincennes, and proceeded to place a stick with some Chinese symbol on it, at the bow, and a similar one at the stern. The captain construed this act to mean taking possession of his ship and therefore at once ordered the sticks removed, to which the Japanese offered no objection.
The letter was now given to one of the officers, and an interpreter came aboard who spoke Dutch fluently. There was no attempt to communicate with the shore, but the officials who came on board gave no evidence of dislike for foreigners. Like all Japanese of the samurai class, they were studiously polite, and exceedingly anxious to obtain information. On the seventh day an answer came from Yedo. It was brief, but to the point: "No trade can be allowed with any foreign nation, except Holland." What could Commodore Biddle do? He had no instructions to employ force, and therefore was compelled to return without having accomplished anything.
But the government in Washington did not despair. A Japanese junk, on the way from Yedo to Osaka, was caught in a storm and blown out into the Pacific Ocean. The poor sailors did not know where they were, and for three weeks drifted at the mercy of wind and waves. At last one of those strange vessels, such as they had sometimes seen at Nagasaki, was sighted, and they made signals of distress. The vessel hove to; the Japanese launched their boat, rowed to the ship, and were taken on board, where they were very kindly treated. This ship was bound for San Francisco, and when she arrived, the United States officers were told of the passengers taken up in mid-ocean. They communicated with the government in Washington, and received orders to take care of the Japanese until they could be sent back to their country.
Among these sailors was a fourteen-year-old boy. He learned very quickly to speak English, and became a great pet of the naval officers at Mare Island, California. At last, when he knew our language, he found a friend in a gentleman of San Francisco, who had him educated, and took him to Baltimore and Washington. As the boy grew up, he attended Sunday school and became a Christian, and when he was old enough, he took out his naturalization papers; that is, he declared that thereafter he would obey the laws of the United States, and was made an American citizen. He afterwards returned to Japan, where he was very useful as an interpreter, and could explain American institutions and laws to the officers.
In 1849 Commodore Geisinger sent the Preble, under Commander Glynn, to Japan to demand the release of some American seamen who had been cast ashore from the wreck of the whaler Lagoda. When the Preble approached Japan, she was warned to return, by a great display of batteries "in petticoats," as the sailors called them, because lines of striped canvas cloth, stretched one behind the other, were used to deaden the shot, as well as to conceal the gunners. When the Preble paid no attention to these warlike demonstrations, but quietly continued on her course, a paper, attached to the end of a long bamboo stick, and containing some directions in English, was offered to the captain, who, however, declined to accept it, but sailed on.
Then an interpreter came on board, and ordered the captain to anchor at a certain spot. But the captain showed him a chart, and pointed out the spot where he had decided to stop. Now some officers of inferior rank came on board to ask about the captain's business, but he refused to receive them. At last officers of a high rank came on board, and they were informed of the purpose of his visit. They said that they wanted time to be able to consult with the emperor (regent). But the commander of the Preble answered that he would give them just so many days, and no more. The Japanese understood the threat, and in a very short time the American sailors were sent aboard. The Japanese then offered to supply the ship with provisions and water, but as they refused payment, the American captain very properly declined to accept their offer.