August 29, 2021

The Forgotten Journey of the Frigate Pallada

The Forgotten Journey of the Frigate Pallada
The Pallada. Who doesn't love a good seafaring story of adventure and discovery? Public domain.

Most Americans probably learned about Commodore Perry in school. Amid the industrial revolution, the story goes, American naval officer Matthew C. Perry forcibly "opened" the country of Japan after centuries of self-imposed isolation. Following the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, America encouraged (forced?) Japan to be open to international trade and global industry. Within a half-century, Japan would revolutionize rapidly, quickly becoming the leading industrial power in the Asia-Pacific.

This much can be found on the back of AP World History flashcards across the US. But there's a side of the story that isn't much talked about. The Russian side of the story.

Even I, the proud purveyor of obscure and useless history facts (especially obscure and useless Russian history facts) hadn't heard about this until reading Yale professor Edyta Bojanowska's book, A World of Empires, a couple years ago. The book is primarily a literary analysis of a travelogue written by a passenger, but it still traces the path of a fascinating voyage. It's well worth a read and provides much of the background for this blog post.

The story is this:

In 1852, on hearing of American plans to open up Japan through naval force, the Russian Navy sent Vice-Admiral Yevfimiy Putyatin on an expedition to take a piece of the cake for themselves, opening Japan to Russian markets and solidifying Russian claims on Far East islands (like Sakhalin). Officially sanctioned as a voyage to check on Russian possessions in Alaska and the Pacific (not yet in US hands), the voyage was to stop in England, South Africa, and Japan. Putyatin was explicitly told to be discreet and ride on the coattails of Perry: let him do the talking, and slip in once the Japanese were warmed up and feeling generous.

putyatin in nagasaki
Vice Admiral Putyatin, to Japanese eyes. Anyone else love Japanese prints of European travelers? I use them throughout here. | Public domain.

On October 7, 1852, Putyatin set out from Kronstadt, near St. Petersburg, with his flagship, the Pallada (a 52-cannon frigate), as well as three smaller ships. Among these was the schooner Vostok, captained by Voin Rimsky-Korsakov, elder brother of the famous composer (and who would have a chain of islands named for him).

Also on board was moderately-famous author Ivan Goncharov, charged with keeping a meticulous logbook that would later become a best-selling travelogue (and the fodder for Bojanowska's book). It is through his perspective that we see much of the journey.

The first destination, London, gave Goncharov a chance to lampoon British society as mechanical and impersonal, ruled rigidly by technology and capitalism. The wide-open spaces and burgeoning railroad of the Cape Colony demonstrated the colonial progress of European nations, and a stop in Singapore highlighted the expansive reach of Western capitalism. Goncharov was critical and sarcastic, painting Russian colonization efforts in Siberia (where natives were encouraged to assimilate) and America (where outposts for fur extraction treated natives in a much more detached way) in a significantly more positive light.

The Pallada in Nagasaki Harbor. The white flag with the blue cross was the imperial Russian naval jack. | Public domain.

When the Pallada reached Japan in August 1853, only a month after Perry's arrival, they opted to moor off Nagasaki, rather than barging into the capital at Edo (as Perry had done). While delegates and researchers disembarked for the Japanese court, Putyatin and his crews headed off to explore the Korean and Russian Pacific coasts. In July 1854, they were met by the Russian ship Diana, which had been dispatched to provide Putyatin with a newer vessel. Its crew also alerted the Russian expedition of the newly-begun Crimean War against the allied French, British, and Ottomans.

Putyatin transferred to the Diana, and, on his return to Nagasaki, heard rumors that a British fleet had landed while he was gone, seeking to destroy his vessels. The Russian ships therefore left for Edo, arriving in November, where the American ships had just finished up their treaty and left for home.

The Japanese government allowed negotiations to start on December 22, but one day later an earthquake and 20-foot tsunami struck, damaging and ultimately sinking the Diana. With aid from 300 Japanese locals, Russian engineers were able to build from its wreckage the schooner Heda, named for the town near where the Diana had sunk. The Heda served as a model for Japanese shipbuilders for years to come in their rapidly modernizing nation.

Negotiations finished on February 7, 1855, and the Russians sailed for home. A handful of Japanese cities were opened to Russian trade, territorial disputes in the Kurile Islands were settled, and the land of the tsars now enjoyed favored status with the land of the shoguns.

A part of the Russian delegation in Japan. | Public Domain

Putyatin returned to St. Petersburg and a hero's welcome in 1856, after more than three years at sea. Goncharov chose to return overland through Siberia, giving him ample time to ethnographically survey the indigenous population of Russia's empire. His book, The Frigate "Pallada," was published in 1858, achieving a moderate level of success.

While Putyatin's mission was a success, in a sense, it backfired on them fifty years later. In 1868, the Japanese government threw itself into a program of modernization, rapidly adopting railways, modern industry, and the latest military weapons and tactics. When Russia's and Japan's Manchurian border dispute turned to violence, Japanese industry and strategy overwhelmed Russian forces and logistical challenges; it was the first time a modern European power was defeated by a non-Western state, and it shocked the world. It also embarrassed Russia, deepening the cracks in the Romanov foundation and setting the stage for the 1905 and 1917 revolutions.

It's easy to see how those events would overshadow a single expedition's trip to Japan. But it's hard not to imagine how exciting a voyage around the world by sail would have been in the mid-1800s, as well as the wonder these Russian mariners would have felt in the exotic locales they were visiting.

Perhaps it explains Russians' affinity for sushi?

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