Remember the Wyoming!
November 4, 2008
by William P. Meyers

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Remember the Wyoming! These words echo down through American history, beloved by every patriotic school child ... not.

Remember the Maine! Yes, that's it. Leading Americans, including Theodore Roosevelt, had been lusting after Cuba and other Spanish colonial possessions for decades. A U.S. battleship, taking on provisions in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, blew up and sank in 1898. Given that it was filled with munitions, this was almost certainly an accident. If the Spanish had done it on purpose, they would have said so. Some time later, when the Spanish refused to peacefully turn over their colonies to the U.S., we declared war and grabbed Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines. Since the people of the Philippines had already thrown the Spanish out and so did not feel the Spanish could give it to the U.S., we then proceeded to kill some 2 million natives to make the islands safe for U.S. sugar growers [See Philippines, U.S. war against].

What was the Wyoming incident? The first glorious victory of the courageous, manly, oh-so-patriotic but peace-loving United States Navy over the cowardly, prissy, but aggressor, inferior Japanese Navy, is a fair summation of how it is seen by U.S. historians. The Wyoming incident took place in Japanese waters; it is also called the Battle of Shimonoseki and took place in 1863.

To understand the importance of the incident (because it is remarkably similar to so many other incidents in U.S. history) one has to back up a little bit, and also see it from the Japanese point of view. A little belief in ethical behavior, and the ability to distinguish between aggression and self-defense, is helpful too. A knowledge of pirates also helps.

To the European pirate states of the 16th century, what we now call the Americas were part of Asia. Conquest of the Americas was just a stepping stone to conquest of greater Asia. Before the British colonies even became the United States of America, Britain had joined the other pirates in trading, raiding, and trying to grab Asian territories. America's pirates, though they had a sea arm, for decades concentrated on grabbing the lands laying between them and the Pacific ocean. While supposedly fighting over a small strip of land claimed by both Mexico and Texas, the United States finally succeeded in getting its full Pacific Coast possessions in 1848 [See Mexican - American War]

The practice of U.S. pirates, like British and other pirates, was to send scouting parties in advance of conquests, usually disguised as traders or missionaries.

The rulers and people of Japan first encountered the Western pirates in the 1500's. After trading with them for some time, they decided they did not like pirate behavior. In the 1600's the Japanese limited trade with the west to a single trading post for the Dutch at Deshima.

In U.S. mythology Japan was a "closed" nation. The U.S. did Japan the favor of opening the door to our wonderful western culture. There are two things wrong with this picture: Japan was not closed and pirates like doors to be open so they can rape and pillage. Japan was trading with China and Korea, and it was trading with the Dutch. Japanese scholars were kept abreast of pirate politics and science by the Dutch. During the American Revolution, since they pirates they were most afraid of were the British, they cheered for George Washington. In the early 1850's two books about the United States of America were published in Japan, Meriken Shinshi and Amerika Soki. [China, Japan, and the Powers, p. 197].

There is no law that individuals or nations have to trade with any particular other individuals or nations. The "free" part of "free trade" means it is optional, in contrast to "forced trade." Japan had enjoyed a historic 250 years of internal and external peace in 1850. Her economy had developed and her population had grown. Her once-feared Samurai warrior class had taken up poetry, flower arranging, and local trade. Japan had some primitive cannon to defend her ports against pirates, but that turned out to be insufficient.

What Commander Perry brought from the U.S. to Japan in 1854 was not a better religion, or goods that the Japanese needed, but bigger cannon. To the Japanese, Perry's ships were big steamships armed with weapons of mass destruction, which Perry demonstrated (they had seen such guns demonstrated already by other pirates) and threatened to use. More important, Russian, British, and French pirates had these weapons, and the Koreans and Chinese were trying to acquire them. The Japanese Shogun and his advisers decided that they needed these new weapons if only to defend themselves. Under threat of violence, they signed the Treaty of Kanagawa which gave the U.S. pirates the right to take on provisions and trade at Shimoda and Hakodate.

The pirate nations, sensing weakness, began their systematic plundering. This may seem like minor plundering, under cover of some trading of goods, in retrospect, but it was minor only because Japan was distant and the pirates were pretty busy plundering India, Japan, China and, well, just about everywhere. The Industrial Revolution allowed the pirates to build really big pirate ships with really powerful guns very quickly, so it was just a matter of time before they would overrun Japan unless the Japanese came up with a workable defense plan. The basic Japanese plan was: minimize the piracy, maximize learning the methods of the Industrial Revolution.

In 1863 the Emperor Komei believed the Japanese were strong enough to ask to be left alone again. He ordered the expulsion of the pirates. The pirates, naturally, did not like that, and being pirates and pretty good soldiers decided they would show the Japanese that they were not ready to be treated as a first class western, that is pirate, nation.

The Japanese still mostly had medieval style cannon, but they had three small steam-powered war ships (ironically, made in the United State). As per the Emperor's orders, they tried to drive off the pirates, notably the U.S. flagged Pembroke (named, appropriately, after a college that trained high-ranking women pirate molls). The Pembroke escaped without casualties, not being equipped to take on the Japanese steamers.

The USS Wyoming was well equipped. It was nowhere near the size of the full-scale battleships in the U.S. fleet at the time, but those ships were fighting the Civil War (a sort of temporary falling out among the American pirates). The pirate captain was David McDougal. The Wyoming was almost 200 feet long, 33 feet wide, 15 feet deep and weighed nearly 1500 tons. It had sails, but it main form of propulsion was a steam engine turning a propeller. She sported 2 pivoting Dahlgren cannons with 11 inch bores and modern explosive shells, at that time the biggest gun in the U.S. Navy. She also had a 60 pounder and three 32 pounders. [China, Japan, and the Powers, p. 202-203]

To make a long story short, she wiped out the three smaller, more lightly armed Japanese vessels. Many of the Japanese shells hit the Wyoming, and she suffered five pirates killed and six wounded.

The pirate nations then ganged up on the Japanese. A fleet of French, British, Dutch, and American war ships attacked the forts in the strait of Shimonoseki on September 5, 1864 and destroyed them. The Japanese decided they were not yet ready to defend themselves against the pirates. So they signed the Convention of Shimonoseki, agreeing to give the pirates a ransom of $3 million and, of course, allowing the pirates to continue their "trade." [p. 203-204]

"Those who do not remember history are bound to repeat it." Those who want to repeat history try to make sure it is not remembered, at least by their potential victims.

More data:

The United States War Against Asia


China, Japan and the Powers by Meribeth E. Cameron, Thomas H. Mahoney, and George E. McReynolds. The Ronald Press Company, New York, 1952.

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