The 1860 Japanese Embassy and the Antebellum African American Press
This blog accompanies Natalia Doan’s Historical Journal article The 1860 Japanese Embassy and the Antebellum African American Press.
What did samurai and African Americans in 1860 have in common?
Quite a lot, according to the Weekly Anglo-African, Douglass’ Monthly, and other African American and abolitionist publications.
Before the American Civil War (1861-1865), African American newspapers and periodicals imagined a solidarity with the Japanese. This article explores how, to these publications, the samurai members of the embassy were “negroes from Japan” who challenged America’s racial hierarchies and proved further the equality of all men.
The 1860 Japanese Embassy came to the United States to ratify the Treaty of Amity and Commerce. It was the first official state visit of the Japanese to America. The American state, hoping to build a foundation for future trade, was desperate to impress the embassy with dramatic exhibitions of American commerce and culture. The omission of slave plantations from the itinerary did not escape the notice of abolitionist publications. The Anti-Slavery Bugle commented in late June 1860, “As slavery is the corner stone of our free institutions, why should it be hid from the gaze of strangers?”
Later in their travels across the US, the embassy became the subject of minstrel shows and printed criticism. African American journalists rallied to praise and defend the Japanese. Both despite and because of the American state’s intentional separation of the Japanese from African American people, these journalists imagined their own relationship with the Japanese.
To African American publications, the Japanese were “Oriental brethren” who exposed the American government’s corrupt and prejudiced treatment of its black people. Neither the Japanese nor the American government predicted or encouraged this imagined and transnational relationship. These “negroes from Japan” demonstrated further to African American and abolitionist publications that racial prejudice had no merit, and that all men had the right to participate in the affairs of the world. For more details about the 1860 African American press and their imagined solidarity with the Japanese, please read the full article.
Main image credit: Matthew B. Brady, ‘[Japanese Embassy, Navy Yard, Washington, DC], 1860, 2005.100.1115, Metropolitan Museum of Art.