Maury’s Nautical Contributions and Influences on the Eventual Opening of Japan

Maury’s Nautical Contributions and Influences on the Eventual Opening of Japan

Matthew Fontaine Maury published his Physical Geography of the Sea in 1855. In his journal, Cornelius Gold mentions that he and some of the other crewmembers aboard the Oriental were in the midst of or had previously read Maury’s work. Maury’s work would have been popular during the late 19th century and extremely important for seafarers looking to gain an edge on their competition. Gold states, “Last eve. finished reading ‘Physical Geog. of the sea’” (Gold 13). Gold also credits Maury’s “brave west wind” for aiding the Oriental in her travels as she raced along south of the coast of Africa (Gold 13). The influence of Maury’s work can also be seen in worldwide commerce and in both East Asian and American history, namely in the “opening” of Japan.

Between 1842 and 1861, Maury collected an extensive array of ship logs that enabled him to chart prevailing winds and sea currents, as well as their seasonal variations. While mariners were well aware of specific regional conditions such as the gulfstream, Maury was the first to tally comprehensive oceanographic conditions at the global level. These findings appeared in The Physical Geography of the Sea, which Gold read during his travels and is considered to be the first significant oceanography textbook. Use of Maury’s wind and current charts enabled drastically shortened sailing times without any improvements made to the ship. The outcome was the creation of relatively well-defined navigation routes that followed dominant wind patterns. It represented a close to optimal use of routing for sailing, which would remain until sailing vessels were replaced by steamships in the late 19th century.

Maury, a prominent Southerner, wrote many letters to leading Southern politicians explaining ways the South could expand its trade and influence around the world (Majewski). Maury was interested in potentially colonizing and expanding into the Amazon Basin in order to tap into the abundant natural resources found there (Barbee). Focused on America’s geographic proximity to Asian ports, Maury “confidently predicted that a port in California—either San Francisco or Monterey—would allow the United States to capture the bulk of Asian commerce and quickly eclipse British ports in London” (Majewski). Maury further theorized that with a railroad extending from California to the Mississippi and with effective sea routes established using his wind and current charts, America, and especially the South, would grow wealthy and powerful through these newly formed routes of commerce (Majewski).

In 1848, Maury proposed an idea to depart off the West coast of the U.S. and make landfall in Hawaii first before continuing onto Shanghai. Maury thought this path could enable the U.S. Navy to gain access to Asia through China, the richest and most populous Asian nation of the time. However, the U.S. coal-fired steamships were only capable of making the journey from California to Hawaii without re-coaling, which made the voyage from Hawaii to Shanghai far outside the Navy’s fuel range (Bradley). The Navy would then be required to find a station to refuel midway before the ships were to continue on their third and final leg to Shanghai.

To remedy this problem, Maury introduced the island of Chichijima. If the U.S. Navy could secure the island of Chichijima as a resupply station, the last leg of the route would be in place and American ships would be ready to journey to Shanghai. It took eighty days to traverse the British route from New York to Shanghai across the Atlantic and around Cape Town (Bradley). However, with the strategic location of Chichijima, the U.S. could now reduce the journey’s length by two thirds (Bradley). By establishing the quickest lines of commerce to China, the U.S. could outcompete the British lanes of trade in the Pacific. Maury’s history-changing route ultimately facilitated the largest Naval squadron in U.S. history, led by Commodore Perry, in the “opening” of Japan (Bradley). It was the American Navy’s “opening” of Japan that enabled the influx of American trade in Asia and caused drastic consequences for the nation of Japan and its people.

The contributions of Matthew Fontaine Maury led to shorter sea passages worldwide. Maury, the quintessential marine analyst, compared thousands of logbooks stored in Navy warehouses on any given route, deduced areas of wide differences and recommended certain areas of the oceans that should be avoided at different times of the year. His charts showed mariners where passes and gaps would accelerate sea voyages around the world. Yet, maybe one of his most unknown influential achievements, based on his novel navigation route to Shanghai, was his influence on the events that would lead to the Western globalization and trade influx in East Asia in the mid 19th century.

- Andrew Bullis and Susanna Dolan

Works Cited

Armstrong, Henery E. "Matthew Maury's Title to Fame: Professor Lewis's Biography is a Reminder of the Debt That Navigation Owes to a Neglected Great American." New York Times 17 June 1928, The New York Times Book Review sec.: 59. ProQuest. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

Barbee, Matthew Mace. "Matthew Fontaine Maury And The Evolution Of Southern Memory." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 4 (2012). Academic OneFile. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Blume, Kenneth John. "Matthew Fontaine Maury, His 'Sailing Directions,' and the Historian of American Foreign Relations: A Speculative Essay." Newsletter of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations 12.2 (1981): 26-32. America: History and Life with Full Text. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Bradley, James. The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2015. Print.

"Captain Matthew F. Maury." The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature (July 1873): 115-20. ProQuest. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

Cohen, Howard J., and Agency. United States. National Imagery and Mapping. "Matthew Fontaine Maury." (2003): HathiTrust. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Grady, John. Matthew Fontaine Maury, Father of Oceanography: A Biography, 1806-1873. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014. Print.

Gold, Cornelius. Journal of a Voyage from New York to Hong Kong, Cornelius B. Gold, 1861-1863. 1863. MS, Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives. Connecticut College, n.p.

Maury, Matthew Fontaine. Explanations and Sailing Directions to Accompany the Wind and Currents Charts. Washington: C. Alexander, 1853. Print.

Majewski, John, and Todd W. Wahlstrom. "Geography As Power: The Political Economy Of Matthew Fontaine Maury." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 4 (2012): n.p. Academic OneFile. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.


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Maury’s Nautical Contributions and Influences on the Eventual Opening of Japan