I’m returning from a day trip (really, a day and a half) with my father up to Newport, RI. Famous for its Gilded Age mansions, it’s a very popular tourist destination in general, with a beach and boardwalks, and lots of nauseatingly touristy shopping… It’s a nice town to rent bikes and go biking too, which we did; some places rent out kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and the like, which maybe we’ll have to do some other time.
Perry family house at Washington Square. Built c. 1750.
Newport is also a very historical city, though, loaded with historical buildings, some dating back as far as the 17th century, making for a very nice atmosphere and experience overall, as one is surrounded at every turn by beautiful, or at least historical and romantic, architecture. Newport is the home of the oldest continuously operating Jewish synagogue in the United States, a site my father and I visited once years ago.
We had a great time overall, enjoying walking and biking around, grabbing beers, trying some sandwich shops, etc., but you know me by now, I can’t help but to take the detours to check out minor or obscure Japan-related historical sites. Newport was the birthplace & home of Commodore Matthew Perry, quite likely the most famous American in Japanese history. Now, I’m no expert in Perry’s biography, personality, or various historical shenanigans, and I’m not sure that I’m particularly revved up to go out of my way to go read up on it in any particular detail, but, there’s a statue of him in Newport, so, as long as we’re here, we should go check it out, right?
Perry, as I’m sure you know, led the 1853-1854 missions to Japan in which, according to the American public school history textbook version of the story anyway, he employed “gunboat diplomacy” to force Tokugawa Japan to quote-unquote “open” its ports to American trade. Though I generally think Perry over-hyped in a sense, as there are plenty of other figures, and events, and periods of Japanese history that are worthy of attention, the historical significance of his actions in Japan in 1853-1854, and of their immediate consequences, cannot be denied. The last 15 years or so of Tokugawa rule (i.e. from 1853-1868 looked dramatically different from the previous 250, at least within Edo, Yokohama, Kobe, as Western people and Western influences began to flood in, and aspects of Western culture began to become increasingly popular and widespread.
I had called the Newport Japan Society ahead of time, to inquire about the statue of Commodore Perry, and if there was anything else Japan-related that I should seek out while in Newport. As it turns out, every July they host a big “Black Ships Festival” in Newport, a weekend packed full of Japan-related events and activities, as well as so-called “tall ships” (old-style sailing ships) in the harbor. Shame I missed that.
But, following their advice that the Perry Statue could be found in “Touro Square,” once we got to Newport, I made my way to Touro Street, and to the Newport Historical Society, where we asked about “the Perry statue,” and were pointed to nearby Washington Square. I feel kind of bad for Pres. Eisenhower, since a stone in the center of the square declares the park to have been named in his honor, though it is clearly identified on all the maps, and by various signs in and around the square, as Washington Square. The “Square” is really more of a triangle, and a tall, impressive bronze statue stands at one end of the long triangle, facing outwards towards the harbor. A plaque on the front says simply “Perry,” and an inscription on the back reads “We Have Met the Enemy and They Are Ours.“ A most impressive quote, though decidedly not the much more oft-quoted and thought-provoking “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” This quote sounds familiar, but I wasn’t aware of Commodore Perry having said it, or of Commodore Perry having been famous, in fact, for any actual battles or naval military conflicts. …
One of the houses flanking the square is the historical home of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. We poked our heads inside to find that it’s not so much a historical house that’s all cleaned-up and set up to receive visitors’ tours, but that rather it serves as office space for various non-profits, including an Oliver Hazard Perry Society, and the Tall Ships Society, or something like that. They were quite helpful, though, explaining that, yes, the statue in the Square is Oliver Hazard Perry, not Matthew C. Perry. It was the wrong Perry! Haha. I assured her that Oliver Perry was still cool, but that I was looking for the statue of Matthew Perry. “Oh, he was his cousin or something. [Turns out they're actually brothers.] Had something to do with Japan, I think, right?” haha. Well, I laugh, because to a Japan specialist, it’s an absurdity to think Matthew Perry such an obscure or insignificant figure. But, I fully admit that I know very little about Oliver Hazard Perry, who I am sure is of incredible significance to those whose focus is on New England maritime history, or American naval history, or certain other fields like that.
The kind woman at the Oliver Hazard Perry House explained that though Washington Square borders Touro Street, Matthew Perry’s statue is in Touro Park, a separate place, a few blocks away. I thanked her and headed off to go find it. In truth, my dad and I actually decided to head down the other way, and check out the shops, and meander around some other parts of town, but, in any case, we did in the end make it back to Touro Park. My dad thought it completely absurd that I should be so dedicated to finding this statue. This is not a normal thing that normal people do when they’re on vacation, he said. But, I’m not exactly a normal person, now, am I?
And, then, there it was. Obviously still just a statue, nothing so amazing or anything that it would take more than a few minutes, at most, to take a look at, take a few photos, and call it done. But, still, to say that I’ve been there, and to have the photos to share with you in a post such as this, I enjoyed taking the time to make the effort to find it. It’s a pretty nice statue, too, better, I think, than Oliver Hazard Perry’s statue, in that Matthew C. Perry’s statue includes a wrap-around series of relief scenes depicting his various accomplishments in Japan, Mexico, and Africa, and not only the figural statue itself. It was erected in 1868, shortly after Perry’s death, by Perry’s daughter, Caroline, and her husband August Belmont. Perry was buried at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, in Manhattan’s East Village; some sources indicate that his grave was later re-moved to Newport – I’d mistakenly expected to find Perry’s grave at the site of the statue, but it turns out both he and his brother Oliver Hazard are buried at Newport’s Island Cemetery, which we did not visit on this trip. My dad would have thought me even crazier than normal, and likely would have refused to take the time to do this.
But, I got to see the status. And so it was that my adventure of “The Wrong Perry,” or of “The Two Perrys,” ended. I’m sorry to have not found any Matthew C. Perry Historical House, or further sites or anything to visit, but I’m glad to have found the statue. Maybe one year I’ll manage to catch the Black Ships Festival.