Henry Ward Beecher stated an interesting observation about ships at sea. Honolulu in the 19th century was a major whaling port.
The following quote was published in the December, 1860 edition of Rev. Samuel C. Damon’s monthly newspaper The Friend:
“A ship is the most ingenious and mighty fabric which human hands have ever wrought. Nothing else is half so strong, neither pyramids, nor temples, nor cathedrals of stone, which, before printing, gave opportunity for the human heart to express itself, gave forth the thoughts, and the sublimest feelings and aspirations of the greatest thinkers. There is not one of these things that does not easily fall to pieces. They can be moved by earthquakes as easily as the seed globe of a dandelion by winds that puff at it. But a ship caught by the winds, and tossed about like a ball is unharmed. It is smitten and whirled. It is rocked on waves as a cradle is rocked by a mother’s foot. It rears up like a frightened steed. It plunges again like war horse in battle. But though winds chase it, and storms reach out black hands after it, and waves forever beat it, and it needs roll and plunge, it seeks its centre again, and comes upright the moment the airy hands let go.”
The U.S.S. Powhatan witnessed a great deal of history. This was the steam-powered frigate that brought the Japanese Embassy to the Hawaiian Islands on its voyage to San Francisco in the United States. But there is much more.
Built at the Norfolk (Virginia) Navy Yard, the Powhatan’s keel was laid down on August 6, 1847, and the ship was launched on February 14, 1850. The engines of this steam frigate –one of the largest every built- were constructed by Mehaffy & Company of Gosport, Virginia. The cost of constructing the Powhatan was $785,000. Its tonnage was 2,425 long tons with a displacement of 3,765 long tons. The Powhatan’s length was 253 feet and eight inches; its beam was 45 feet. The ship’s draft was 18 feet, six inches. The used side paddlewheels and could reach a speed of 11 knots, or 13 miles per hour.
Powhatan was named for a Native American chief from eastern Virginia. The Powhatan was commissioned on September 2, 1852 with Captain William Mervine, commanding.
From 1853 to 1860 the U.S.S. Powhatan was assigned to the East India Squadron. The ship’s voyage took it to East Asian waters via the Cape of Good Hope off the coast of South Africa, arriving on June 15, 1853. This was important time since the Powhatan’s arrival coincided with Commodore Matthew Perry’s negotiations with the Empire of Japan. In addition to serving as Commodore Perry’s flagship on his November, 1853 visit to Whampoa, China, the Powhatan and the East India Squadron entered Tokyo Bay (Yeddo Bay) on February 14, 1854. The Convention of Kanegawa was signed on board the Powhatan on March 31, 1854. The Powhatan is considered one of Perry’s famous “”Black Ships.”
On July 29, 1858 the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce –also known as the Harris Treaty (negotiated by first U.S. Consul Townsend Harris)- was signed on the deck of the Powhatan.
Under the command of Commodore Josiah Tatnall and Captain Pearson, the Powhatan accompanied the Japanese warship Kanrin Maru from Yokohama, Japan. Vice-Ambassador Muragaki Norimasa recorded this description of the U.S. S. Powhatan in his journal on February 9, 1860:
“U.S.S. Powhatan is a steam frigate of 241 5 tons. She was launched in 1855 at Gosfort, Virginia, U.S.A. She ranks as a first class frigate and is a magnificent ship one of the best in the American Navy. Her dimensions are: length 250 feet, beam 45 feet, hold 26 feet, and she carries eleven guns on deck. Three of us have cabins on the lower deck; for the other members of the party several large temporary cabins have been built on the gun deck, necessitating the removal of several guns. The officers and men of the ‘Powhatan’ are as follows: Commodore Tattnall, Captain Pearson, Captain Taylor of the Marines, six lieutenants, one Chief Engineer, seven assistant engineers, three doctors, a purser, a Chaplain, a gunner, a carpenter and a crew of hundred men.”
Though the Kanrin Maru continued on its journey to San Francisco nonstop (though the ship stopped in Honolulu on its return voyage to Japan), the Japanese ambassadors stayed on board the Powhatan. Both ships endured heavy seas due to a particularly violent typhoon.
Upon reaching Honolulu Vice-Ambassador Muragaki Norimasa recorded in his journal:
“Commodore Tattnall told us that the " Powhatan " would remain here for about ten days to repair the damage done by the storm, and to coal, and he suggested that we should go ashore and stay at an hotel where he had already engaged accommodation for us, adding that, during our stay, the American Minister would look after us.”
The March 5, 1860 edition of the Honolulu’s Pacific Commercial Advertiser reported the arrival of the U.S. Powhatan in Honolulu. The Polynesian, also published in Honolulu as the official news source of the Hawaiian Government, reported the Powhatan’s arrival two days later. The officers and crew of the ship were welcomed and honored by Honolulu citizens along with the Japanese Embassy. The Powhatan’s officers and the Japanese Embassy were officially welcomed and granted an audience by Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma in the old Iolani Palace.
After refitting and repairs were completed at Mare Island, California, the Powhatan brought the Japanese Embassy to Panama, where it crossed the isthmus for its voyage to the Atlantic and the east coast of the United States.
The Powhatan saw action throughout the Civil War. The ship decommissioned June 2, 1886, and was eventually sold and scrapped on August 5, 1887.