The United States Naval Expedition to Japan, 1852-1854, was considered at the time to represent a major turning point in the diplomatic history of the Pacific Basin, and its successful outcome was believed to be of vital importance to the nation's political interests. This symbolic projection of U.S. economic and military power and technology into the "exotic" Orient, the availability of new technological resources for reporting, including photography and telegraphy, and the larger than life image projected by the leader of the expedition, Matthew Calbraith Perry, created great popular excitement, and the media closely followed every phase of the expedition. At the same time, Perry's obsession with controlling the flow of information led him to limit personal communication from the flotilla, particularly during the days immediately preceding and during the sensitive negotiations to open Japanese ports. He attempted to ban the keeping of private journals aboard ship, and despite the appearance of a few private letters from sailors in local newspapers, he was generally successful in managing access by the media. Perry's official account of the expedition, Narrative of the expedition of an American squadron to the China seas and Japan … (Washington, B. Tucker, 1856), remains one of the few first hand accounts in print.
In January, 1852, Thomas C. Dudley, a resident of Yonkers, N.Y., enlisted in the Navy as purser's clerk aboard the USS Powhatan . The Powhatan , according to Dudley, was "quite some pumpkins;" a recently built, state of the art paddle-wheel warship of 2,182 tons and 17 guns. On May 4th, Dudley embarked on his first cruise, which during the next five months took in several ports of call in the Caribbean, including Antigua, Grenada, the Virgin Islands, and Cuba. The experience was novel for Dudley, who was simultaneously entranced by the physical beauty of the open ocean and exoticism of the Caribbean islands. For the first time, he was exposed to a foreign culture, one in which, to his distaste, Blacks and persons of mixed race seemed assertive of their rights. It was a shock for him to hear a Black man in the Virgin Islands complain when white sailors walked across his property, and the "sauciness" of a Black pilot in Antigua led him to suggest that if the pilot had talked in Virginia as he did aboard the Powhatan, "he would certainly had 9 & 30 the next morning" (1852 June 12). Dudley was particularly repulsed by the racial mixing that he saw in the Caribbean and remarked "If [the English] think our equality disagreeable, I think theirs disgusting," while vowing that he would to continue to purchase sugar grown with slave labor (1852 June 16).
In January, 1853, Dudley was back in Norfolk awaiting assignment. After rumors had the ship leaving for a station in Madagascar, the Powhatan finally received orders to join Perry's expedition early in February. Their route to join Perry took them by way of the Cape of Good Hope and they made port calls of various lengths at Madeira, St. Helena, Cape Town, Mauritius, Singapore, and Brunei, before arriving at Hong Kong on July 25th. From there, the ship went immediately to the rendezvous point in the Ryukyu Islands (at Napa, Okinawa), only to discover that Perry had already left for Japan to deliver the President's ultimatum, and that he was in fact, already returning. This surprise failed to enhance Perry's image with the sailors of the Powhatan, and grumbling over Perry soon became a blood sport for Dudley, who loathed Perry's vanity and penchant for autocratic rule. Perry's ban on the keeping of "notes, journals, manuscripts, &c. &c." in July, 1853, was a sore point for Dudley, who was forced to destroy one journal he had been keeping and had to "take measures for the security of the other" (Memoir, p. 32), and he complained even when the Powhatan was designated flagship of the expedition. "A flag ship is generally the most detested vessel in the squadron, under the most gentlemanly Commodore," he wrote, and because the expedition was Perry's, he concluded "in this instance we shall probably become absolutely despicable" (Memoir, p. 41). Dudley left no doubt about how he and his fellow sailors felt toward the Commodore: "If I ever despised a man, it is Perry and I question much if he is entitled to be called a man -- his naval name in the squadron is 'old hog' -- 'beast' and such like" (1854 before August 7).
During this first encounter with the Japanese in the Ryukyu Islands, Dudley noted the mutual fascination that the Americans and Japanese held for the technology and culture of the other. The quality and ingenuity of Japanese handicrafts and the arrangement of the Japanese market and schools engrossed his interest, and at the same time, he believed, western culture was equally frightening and appealing to the Japanese. He was amused, too, by the comparatively degraded position of women in Japan, and advised his sister, "Think of this ye 'womens rights' women of America, and be very thankful with your present lot" (1853 August 18).
After overwintering in Chinese ports, in January, 1854, the Powhatan once again steamed toward the Ryukyu Islands en route to the official treaty signing at Yokohama. Despite Perry's protestations of peaceful intentions, the flotilla arrived in Japan with weapons loaded and its sailors fully armed, prepared for a fight. Dudley thought is "strangely in contrast to those assurances of 'amity and friendship' continually advanced," and wondered at all "whether a foreign ship or fleet has a right to ascend bays and rivers of another country and make surveys, without permission even, or in the face of objection is a question out country will probably soon settle to its own satisfaction" (Memoir, p. 29). Yet the Japanese fared little better in his estimation. Their negotiators were all "liers and quibblers" who were "dilly dallying with us, to make us tired, and then we will go away" (1854 February 20-22). He could hardly keep himself from concluding that "Japan is the humbug of this century" (1854 before August 7). Even as Perry succeeded in impressing the Japanese with displays of technology, including a small railroad, the telegraph, daguerreotypes, and advanced weaponry, Dudley continued to wonder whether the Japanese could ever offer anything to the west, since they seemed to offer nothing the west would want and showed no desire for anything the west has to offer.
When regulations began to relax somewhat, Dudley's attitude improved, slightly. The sailors were permitted to stage a minstrel performance for the Japanese dignitaries, during which alcohol flowed freely and the crew "got a good many of them right tight." All had a "rousing time" (1854 March 29) in Dudley's estimation. Once the sailors were allowed to leave ship and walk around Yokohama, Dudley discovered that westerners were as much objects of curiosity for the Japanese as the Japanese were for them. The sailors were "lionized at every step" and Dudley found that "people crowd to the doors and windows to see us pass, and if any of us stop, a circle of admirers speedily collect around" (1854 April 12-20). The Powhatan was later able to steam about Tokyo Bay and call briefly at Shimoda and Hakodate, Hokkaido, mostly as a demonstration of the American right to do so.
Dudley was elated when the Powhatan finally completed its Japanese mission in August, 1854, and returned to port in China to settle in for the winter. The long voyage had begun to wear on his patience, as much as anything, and his conviction that the expedition was likely to have little real benefit for the nation remained with him. "If there was another magnificent and unparalleled Japan, to offer itself for us to explore," he wrote, "I think we would wish it sunk rather than protract our absence from home any longer" (1855 June 20). Never the less, Dudley still enjoyed Navy life, particularly seeing new places and experiencing danger. During that winter, the crew of the Powhatan visited Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai and Peking, and had the opportunity to see the effects of the political and military turmoil of the Nien Rebellion, and Dudley even arranged a visit with a rebel chief, Alin, near Peking, and he and his shipmates had a brief, but bloody encounter with pirates. They finally left for home in November, 1855, arriving in Virginia the following February.