Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry was the Newport – born son of Sarah Wallace (nee Alexander) Perry, a native of Ireland’s County Down, and mariner Christopher Perry of South Kingstown, who met Sarah when he was confined to a British internment camp in Ireland as a Revolutionary War prisoner. After the conflict, Perry sailed back to Ireland to bring Sarah to America to be his bride.
Matthew was the younger brother of Lt. Commander Raymond Perry of Bristol and Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, hero of the strategically crucial Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. Like Oliver, Matthew became a career naval officer. He also served in the War of 1812, fought in the Second Barbary War against Algiers in 1815, and later commanded the Gulf Squadron in the Mexican War (1846-48).
Matthew gained the distinguished rank of commodore in 1840. By that time, he had also earned the title the “Father of the Steam Navy” for his efforts to introduce steam power into American naval vessels.
On his various diplomatic assignments, “Old Bruin” as he came to be known, helped to establish the African nation of Liberia for America’s freed slaves and conducted negotiations with the Sultan of Turkey and the King of the Two Sicilies.
Perry’s greatest achievement was diplomatic in nature. In 1853, his black-hulled fleet visited Japan and induced that nation to accept the Convention of Kanagawa, a consular treaty with the Empire of Japan, giving the United States access to the ports of Hakodate and Shimoda and opening the feudal nation to Western influence. Perry was praised and rewarded by Congress for this feat, and he prepared an historically valuable three-volume report on his expedition prior to his death in 1858. Both he and his equally famous brother are now interred in Newport’s Island Cemetery.
The Japan-America Society of Rhode Island holds an annual Black Ships Festival to commemorate Matthew Perry’s achievement. The Society also celebrates the achievements of the entire Perry family from their origins in the South Kingstown village of Perryville to the long and strong Perry presence in historic Bristol in a home on Hope Street along Silver Creek. That home was frequently visited by Matthew and remained in the Perry Family until 1957.