Portrait of Captain Mercator Cooper

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    Accession Number: 1983.45.1

    Creator: Hubbard Fordham (American, 1794-1872)

    Summary: Whaling Captain Mercator Cooper (1803-1872) is associated with two firsts in maritime history, one involving Japan and the other, Antarctica. In 1845 he made the most extended and (from the Japanese point of view) the most intrusive visit to Japan by any American vessel prior to when, a decade later, an American naval expedition under Matthew C. Perry coerced the Japanese into establishing relations with the West. Other British and American vessels had rescued castaway Japanese fisherman and tried to bring them home to Japan, with mixed results, but most rescuers were reluctant to violate Japan’s strict prohibitions against foreign vessels, as it meant going out of their way, losing time on the whaling grounds, and risking a confrontation with hostile local officials who were unequipped—and had no authority—to deal with foreigners and unwelcome returnees. For the castaways there was the fear of punishment for violating the strict embargo on consorting with foreigners, no matter how unwittingly. Putting such castaways ashore in Hawaii or some other landfall outside Japan was the usual solution. But in March 1845, while whaling off the coast of Japan in the ship Manhattan of Sag Harbor, Long Island, Cooper took aboard the crews of two disabled coastal trading vessels and attempted to land them in Japan on April 16. The Manhattan was met by 170 armed Japanese boats, who towed the ship into Edo Bay (Tokyo Bay), where they dropped anchor and continued to be surrounded by the Japanese armada. It all became a local cause celebre, with the ultimate result that on April 20 the authorities grudgingly agreed to receive the castaways. An official legation came aboard to escort them ashore, gifts were exchanged, watercolors commemorating the event were produced by Japanese chroniclers (q.v. below), and when Cooper asked what he should do with any Japanese castaways he might encounter in the future, he was instructed to carry them to some Dutch port, but never to return to Japan. Cooper’s second claim to enduring fame is that, as captain of the Sag Harbor whaleship Levant a few years later, he made the first-ever landfall on the Antarctic continent, at Victoria Land, January 26, 1853. A third point of interest is that one of his granddaughters married Robert Kendrick, a great-grandson of Captain John Kendrick (1781-1849), the first American ever to make a landfall in Japan (at Kushimoto, Oshima Island,Wakayama Prefecture, in April 1791, in the brig Lady Washington). The artifacts that Mercator Cooper brought back from Japan, along with this portrait and a scrimshaw swift (yarn-winder) he made during his whaling voyages, were donated to the Whaling Museum in 1983 by Judge Mercator Cooper Kendrick, a descendant of both Captains Mercator Cooper and John Kendrick.

    Title: Portrait of Captain Mercator Cooper

    Date: Circa 1835

    Medium: oil on canvas

    Dimensions: 32-1/2 x 27 inches (82.6 x 68.6 cm)

    General Information about the New Bedford Whaling Museum is available at: www.whalingmuseum.org

    For information on obtaining reproduction rights or purchasing prints go to: www.whalingmuseum.org/explore/collections/rights-usage

    Or contact the New Bedford Whaling Museum Photo Archives at:
    508-997-0046 ext.207

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