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History Time: Salem Meets Japan

Posted by Marjorie Nesin  January 19, 2011 02:00 AM

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A view of Nagasaki before Japan was opened to commerce from The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem; the Record of a Brilliant Era of American Achievement

Ralph D. Paine (1909)

The Japanese observed one fast when we were there. It was in remembrance of the dead. The ceremonies were principally in the night. The first … was devoted to feasting, at which they fancy their departed friends to be present; the second and third nights the graves which are lighted with paper lamps and situated on the side of a hill make a brilliant appearance. On the fourth night at 3 o'clock the lamps are all brought down to the water and put into small straw barques with paper sails, made for the occasion, and after putting in rice, fruit, etc., they are set afloat. This exhibition is very fine.
~from an account of the voyage of the Margaret (departed Salem Nov. 1800)

On March 31, 1854, U.S. Naval officer, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858), welcomed the end of months of negotiation toward a difficult goal. On that day, representatives of Japan and the United States signed a historic treaty, opening trade with Japan. Perry's achievement is indeed notable, and usually marks the "beginning" of the story of the relationship between the two nations in many a history book.

But to Boston and Salem belongs credit for America's earliest trade with Japan.

In 1799, Boston's Franklin, captained by Salem's own James Devereaux, sailed into Nagasaki harbor under charter to the Dutch East India Company and became the first American vessel allowed in a Japanese port. In May 1800, the Franklin returned to the United States from the Far East. Salemites were fascinated by the cargo she brought.

In more than one stout old Salem mansion are treasured souvenirs of the voyage of the Franklin ... "cabinets, tea trays, boxes of birds, waiters, boxes of fans, nests of pans, camphor wood, mats, kuspidors ... inlaid tables and carved screens."

Devereaux was a founding member of Salem's East India Marine Society, and, in 1821,  some of these beautiful objects were added to the Society's catalogue of "curiosities." Thus, they stood silent witness to brief episodes of peaceful American/Japanese interchange more than fifty years before Perry. According to scholar and expert on Japanese art, Christine Guth, these were "the first Japanese artifacts to reach the United States directly from Japan."

Japan was isolationist, hitherto granting only the Dutch the privilege of landing and requiring strict attention to protocol from visitors. According to 1918's Old Shipping Days in Boston:

The log of the "Franklin" shows the curious customs that had to be observed by the foreign vessels….

What were some of these imposed conditions? The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem (1909) gives us a long list, too long to relate here. A sample item:

All the books of the people and officers, particularly religious books must be put into a cask and headed up; the officers from the shore will put their seals upon the cask and take it on shore, and on the departure of the ship will bring it on board without having opened it….

The Franklin was succeeded by Boston's Massachusetts, and then, in November, 1800, Salem's own "fast-sailing ship" Margaret. According to her captain's clerk George Cleveland, "We carried 6 guns and 20 men; most of the crew were fine young men in the bloom of youth."

His journal relates their adventure.

On the 20th September, 1801, we went into the city of Nangasacca. The first place we went to was Facquia's, an eminent stuff merchant. Here we were received with great politeness…. We had set before us for a repast, pork, fowls, eggs, boiled fish, sweetmeats, cakes, various kinds of fruit, sakey and tea. The lady of the house was introduced, who drank tea with each of us as is the custom of Japan. She appeared to be a modest woman.

As the time was approaching for our departure we began to receive our returns from the interior brought many hundred miles. These consisted of the most beautiful lacquered ware … waiters, writing desks, tea-caddies, knife boxes, tables, etc…. packed in boxes so neat that in any other country they would be considered cabinet work…. a great variety of porcelain ... house brooms of superior quality….

The Company's ships have been obliged to take their departure … on a certain day … no matter whether it blew high or low, fair or foul, even if a gale…. Early in November we went to this anchorage and remained a few days when we sailed for Batavia where we arrived safely after a passage of one month.

Musician, educator and lecturer, Maggi Smith-Dalton is the president of the Salem History Society and the author of “Stories and Shadows from Salem’s Past: Naumkeag Notations” (The History Press, 2010). She and her husband, Jim Dalton, are co-authoring a book on music in Salem's history. Reach her at For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to


The "Franklin" of Boston and her captain from Old shipping days in Boston

State Street Trust Company, Boston, Mass. (1918) Compiled, arranged and printed by direction of Walton Advertising y Printing Co. Boston, Mass


The "Margaret" of Salem from The Marine room of the Peabody Museum of Salem (1921)

Peabody Museum, Salem, Mass.

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