Black Ships

Perry Carrying the ‘Gospel of God’
space“Carrying the ‘Gospel of God’ to the Heathen” American warship, ca. 1854space
spaceChicago Historical Society © Nagasaki Prefecturespace

On the 1853 voyage, Perry’s fleet consisted of two steam-driven frigates (the Mississippi and Susquehanna) and two sloops, with a total complement of 65 guns and a little less than 1,000 men. When he returned the following year, his armada had grown to nine vessels, with the new flagship Powhatan joining the other two paddle-wheel warships. The crew had almost doubled to around 1,800, and mounted cannon now numbered over 100.

In Japanese parlance, the American vessels quickly became known as the “black ships”—probably from the color of their hulls, although it is sometimes said that the label derived from the clouds of smoke that hovered over the coal-burning ships.

Perry himself had played a major role in mechanizing the U.S. Navy, and the new steam technology persuaded all who saw it that the world had entered a new era. When his oldest steamer, the Mississippi, was launched in 1841, its huge engines were described as “iron earthquakes.” On the 1854 mission, the Mississippi consumed 2,336 pounds of coal per hour, while the corresponding figures for the less efficient Susquehanna and Powhatan were 3,310 pounds and 3,248 pounds respectively. To conserve fuel, all of the steamers hoisted sail as well.

Japanese “junk”
Japanese “junk” as recorded by the Perry
mission in the official Narrative
Japan’s adoption of the “closed country” policy in the early-17th century involved not merely keeping foreigners out, but also keeping Japanese in. Thus, severe restrictions were placed on shipbuilding, and maritime activity was restricted to sailing small vessels in coastal waters. An illustration in the official narrative of the Perry mission depicted one of the single-sail “junks” that patrolled the waters outside Edo.
Even as pure sailboats, such modest vessels obviously could not compare with the great multi-mast ships of the foreign powers. Add steam engines and a battery of cannon, and it was all the more painfully apparent how far behind Japan had fallen during its long seclusion.

Ships captivate artists, and the visual record of Perry’s mission is no exception. Although Perry first arrived in Japan in 1853 with a fleet of only four vessels (and returned in 1854 with nine), in May 1852 Gleason’s Pictorial featured a stirring illustration of seven vessels it was originally anticipated would be “composing the Japanese Squadron.” In its Valentine’s Day edition of the following year, Gleason’s gave Commodore Perry a spectacular send-off with a two-page engraving of an even larger armada readying for departure. Titled, “A Superb View of the United States Japanese Squadron, Under the Command of Commodore Perry, Bound for the East,” this now well-known illustration included twelve vessels. Here, the artist merely expanded and rearranged the already imaginary earlier rendering. (Hand-tinted versions of both of these magazine illustrations often appear on the rare books and prints market.)

Dramatically imagined rendering of Perry’s squadron
This dramatically imagined rendering of Perry’s squadron appeared in the February 12, 1853 issue of Gleason’s Pictorial. Perry is being rowed to his flagship on the first voyage, the steamer Mississippi. In fact, the 1853 mission was comprised of only four ships.

The Powhatan
spacePhotograph of the Powhatan,
which remained in service until 1887

US Naval Academy
Model of the Powhatan,
flagship on the second voyage

Smithsonian Institution
The Powhatan, Perry’s famous flagship on the second voyage, survives in photographs, small-scale models, and—most spectacularly—the romantic frontispiece of a now classic 1853 book by Charles Beebe Stuart titled Naval and Mail Steamers of the United States. This luminescent,painterly rendering breathes romance and even mystery into this rather stolid warship through the filtered light and near-mystic ambiance associated with the “Turner school” of high-art
painting (named after the British artist Joseph Turner, who died in 1851).


spaceOil painting
of the
from C. B. Stuart,
Naval and Mail
Steamers of
the United States,


Yokohama Archives
of History

Oil painting of the Powhatan

Perry’s own artists captured the fleet both at rest and in turbulence, but the most provocative rendering of the black ships at sea came from a painter back home, who added a banner legend to his own imaginary artwork to remind Americans that the commodore’s true mission was literally divine. Perry himself usually spoke in terms of showing the flag, opening the doors of commerce, and spreading “civilization” to a backward people.

Perry’s fleet at anchor and in turbulent seas

Perry’s fleet at anchor
and in turbulent seas,
as depicted in the
official Narrative
Perry’s fleet at anchor and in turbulent seas

At the same time, it was widely understood that he was also returning Christianity to a heathen society that had driven out such teachings over two centuries previously. Accordingly, in this graphic rendering, we behold both steamship and sailship plowing through frothy seas above a large caption reading “U.S. JAPAN FLEET. Com. PERRY carrying the ‘GOSPEL of GOD’ to the HEATHEN, 1853.”

U.S. JAPAN FLEET. Com.PERRY carrying the ‘GOSPEL of GOD’ to the HEATHEN, 1853.
“U.S. JAPAN FLEET. Com.PERRY carrying the ‘GOSPEL of GOD’ to the HEATHEN, 1853”
by James G. Evans, oil on canvas

Chicago Historical Society

One person’s god may be another’s demon, of course. In this regard, Japanese artists also gave free rein to their imaginations by depicting the steam-driven black warships, almost literally, as Darkness Incarnate. In the best-known print of this sort, the ship’s hull is pitch black, smoke belches from its funnel, the figurehead on the bow is a leering monster, portholes high in the stern glower like the eyes of an apparition, the ship’s sides bristle with rows of cannon, and gunfire streaks like a searchlight from a gun near the bow as well as from another, unseen, at the stern.

American warship,woodblock print
American warship

spaceAmerican warship,
woodblock print
ca. 1854

Nagasaki Prefecture
American warship,woodblock print
Although woodblock prints as a genre were popular illustrations never intended to be confused with fine art, the detail of this demonic rendering reveals several aesthetic touches characteristic of traditional Japanese design. We see this in the stylized curves of the waves and filigreed rendering of whitecaps and splashing water, for example, as well as in the distinctive pattern of the ship’s paddle-wheel.

In a demonic sister ship that was part of a larger painted montage, many of the same features are present—and a touch more. Here smoke from the coal-burning engines is streaked with forked tongues of flame. To knowledgeable Japanese, these might well have evoked classic artistic depictions of the fires of hell and the conflagrations that consumed palaces and temples in an earlier era of civil wars.

Black Ship and CrewBlack Ship and Crew
“Black Ship and Crew,” watercolor on paper, ca. 1854

Ryosenji Treasure Museum

Black Ship and Crew Like the blue eyeballs seen in occasional renderings of Perry and other “barbarians,” however, even the demon ships are more complicated and nuanced than they appear to be at first glance. Take, for example, the rendering of the stern of the vessel: in each of these graphics, this clearly has been turned into the eyes, nose, mouth of a monster. Is it not obvious that this is meant to reflect the monstrous nature of those who came with the ship? In fact, this is not so obvious—for Asian seafarers of the time sometimes placed huge demonic faces on the sterns of their vessels to ward off evil spirits and ensure safe passage. Despite the seclusion policy, a number of delegations from Korea visited Japan during the Tokugawa period, for example, and we know from Japanese scrolls depicting these missions that the Koreans themselves protected their fleet with fearsome markings of this nature. Could this have influenced these particular Japanese artists who sought to tell the populace about Perry’s black ships? We cannot say.

The Powhatan,hanging scroll

The Powhatan,
hanging scroll
1854 or later

Peabody Essex Museum


Most Japanese renderings of the black ships were more straightforward, in any case, and provide a small but compelling example of how pictorial “realism” may vary depending not only on the viewer, but also on the medium of expression used. The handsome oil painting of the Powhatan in Charles Beebe Stuart’s book, for example, was almost a mirror image of the formal photograph of that vessel—and yet worlds apart in its ambiance.

Japanese artists also portrayed the Powhatan and other black ships “realistically,” from the same perfect-profile perspective—and yet conveyed an entirely different impression.


space“Black Ship at Shimoda,”

Ryosenji Treasure Museum
Black Ship at Shimoda

Perry’s strategy of simultaneously impressing and intimidating the Japanese included inviting some of their representatives to tour his flagship. This made possible a small number of on-deck and below-deck depictions of the details of the black ships.

Japanese official on board the Susquehanna

Japanese official on board
the Susquehanna from
the official Narrative.

Japanese sketches from on board the Powhatan
Japanese sketches from on board the Powhatan space

Japanese sketches
from on board

Library of Congress

Other artists, meanwhile, rendered the foreign intrusion from afar with panoramic views of the American squadrons anchored in Japanese waters. Such graphics, done in both color and black-and-white, often were designed to convey detail concerning not only the black ships but also the surrounding terrain.

Map of the harbor at Shimoda
spacespaceMap of the harbor at Shimoda, from the “Black Ship Scroll,” 1854

Six of Perry’s gunboats rest at anchor. Place names (and ships) appear rightsideup, upsidedown, and sideways—a convention that developed from maps being rotated as they were read.

Honolulu Academy of Art

MIT Visualizing Cultures

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MIT Visualizing Cultures VC Units MIT Visualizing Cultures About VC VC Scholars Partner Institutions Outreach Conferences & Events Contact Join Us Follow Us Units Icon View Text View Curriculae Black Ships & Samurai Black Ships & Samurai II Image Database Curriculum Intro Perry Facing East Facing West Portraits Gifts Nature Sources Intro Perry Facing East Facing West Portraits Gifts Nature Sources “Perry Carrying the ‘Gospel of God’ to the Heathen” American warship, ca. 1854 Photograph of the Powhatan Model of the Powhatan Perry's fleet at anchor and in turbulent seas Perry's fleet at anchor and in turbulent seas American Warship American Warship American Warship Black Ships & Samurai II Introduction Perry Blackships Facing East Facing West Portraits Gifts Nature Sources