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World Cruise (1844 – 1846)

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USS Constitution was not a pretty sight in 1842. Stripped down and languishing in a shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia, the ship desperately needed repairs. Constitution’s last patrol along the East Coast of the United States had been cut short because the ship was leaking too much to keep sailing, and the Navy could neither afford nor justify the expense of the extensive repairs required. For the second time in the ship’s history, it appeared that Old Ironsides’ days were numbered.

But an aging captain looking for another chance at command was about to rescue the ship and take it on a mission that would give USS Constitution a new life. Constitution’s circumnavigation of the globe from 1844 to 1846 might initially appear to be a charity case for a beloved icon. However, the ship’s World Cruise, as the voyage came be known, made Constitution a representative for the nation’s new role on a rapidly changing world stage. In nearly every port Constitution visited, the ship and its crew worked to secure America’s position as a dominant political and commercial force in the face of newly emerging foreign powers, advancing technology, and the challenges of global commerce.

The Navy’s New Role

By the time Constitution departed for the World Cruise in 1844, the Navy, the nation, and the world overseas had changed dramatically from the heyday of Constitution’s victories against British frigates in the War of 1812. The end of the war in 1815 served as the beginning of a period of astonishing expansion for the United States, and a rapidly shifting imperial order around the world. In this new environment, the United States sought to expand its commerce and influence far beyond its North American shorelines. For the Navy, which until then had been occupied with specific conflicts, this new and generally peaceful period meant a seismic shift in responsibilities. Beginning in the 1820s, Navy ships had been dispatched on regular patrols in squadrons positioned around the world to protect U.S. merchant ships and help facilitate the trade conducted by those ships. Through the 1820s and 1830s, these assignments had taken USS Constitution on several trips to the Mediterranean and South America, in addition to patrols of the Eastern Seaboard.

While each of the squadrons had been assigned to patrolling specific regions of the world, the Navy also began asserting U.S. strength through a series of globe-trotting expeditions that were intended to show the flag, establish strategic diplomatic relations with foreign governments, and develop scientific knowledge. Much of impetus of the missions was to find new natural resources that could be exploited, markets for U.S. commerce, and governments willing to support that commerce. The first such expedition by the Navy had begun in the late 1820s, when the USS Vincennes became the first Navy ship to circumnavigate the globe. Vincennes’s primary task was to establish relations with the nation of Hawaii in order to ensure a safe haven for American whalers and other merchant ships that were increasingly sailing in the Pacific. The U.S. Exploring Expedition had followed in 1838-1842, and two years later, USS Constitution was to continue the pattern.

In 1842, when the World Cruise was first conceived, Constitution was in no shape for any voyage. Initial estimates of the repair costs had ranged upward of $70,000, which was more than the Navy felt it could expend on the old ship. However, 64-year-old Captain John Percival convinced the Secretary of the Navy that he could get the ship back in sailing condition under budget, and he delivered, readying the ship for only $10,000. When Constitution departed the Chesapeake on April 17, 1844, Percival became the oldest individual to ever command the ship.

But during Constitution’s two-year circumnavigation of the globe, which took the ship to 24 ports of call from Brazil to Borneo and back, Percival’s leadership and decisions came into question. He failed to achieve his primary tasks in some ports and exacerbated conflicts in others, sometimes failing to fulfill the ship’s diplomatic mission.

Unlike Constitution’s previous missions, which often had a singular military focus, the World Cruise had a mix of goals that reflected the multi-faceted role the United States was coming to play on the world stage. Most of the journey took the ship through the southern hemisphere, and many of the port stops were in remote locations that the United States had not previously regularly visited, particularly in Southeast Asia. Some of the ship’s port calls served no specific mission purpose, but instead merely allowed the crew to gather water and provisions, or recover from bouts of disease on board.

In addition to establishing new trade agreements, Constitution served as a symbol of force that demonstrated the nation’s commitment to protecting its merchant and whaling fleets in those locales where trade was already occurring. Ironically, Percival was also charged with scouting out possible coaling stations for the new steam-powered vessels that were already expected to replace sailing ships like Constitution around the world in the coming decades.

From New York to Borneo

After a month in New York taking on additional supplies, Constitution set sail for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 28, 1844. Brazil was recognized as an independent state by the United States when it achieved independence from Portugal in 1823, and a U.S. representative had been stationed there since 1825. Travelling on Constitution with his family and servants, Henry Wise was to become the newest minister to Brazil and the sixth to serve in that role. Brazil was one of numerous South American countries to shed their European imperial authority in a series of revolutions after 1815, and the United States made efforts to establish relations with all of them. As an expression of the Monroe Doctrine beginning in the 1820s, the United States sought to ensure that European nations would not retake those former colonies in the Americas.

From Rio, Constitution sailed for Africa. Throughout the fall of 1844, the ship made stops in Madagascar, Mozambique, and Zanzibar. These African ports were the gateway for European and American ships to the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. U.S. merchant and whaling ships had mixed experiences in these ports, and Percival met with local leaders to send the blunt message that treating Americans well would ensure peace and prosperity. Additionally, he emphasized that the United States, unlike its European competitors, was not interested in colonizing the region.

On November 26, 1844, Constitution set sail for the five-week, 4,500-mile voyage across the Indian Ocean from Zanzibar to Sumatra. Throughout the voyage, the crew was stricken with dysentery and other illnesses. Most of these illnesses likely originated in contaminated water that was acquired at one of the African ports. In the time between the ship’s departure from Zanzibar and its arrival in Singapore on February 2, 1845, more than 60 of the 450 crew were relegated to sick bay, and eight crew members died.

After stops at Sumatra and Singapore, Constitution crossed the South China Sea to the island of Borneo. One of the primary goals of this voyage was to negotiate a trade agreement with the Sultanate of Brunei on Borneo for pepper and coal, but the negotiation was a disaster. Thanks in part to a poor interpreter, the Americans left the meeting with the sultan’s representatives empty-handed. They mistakenly believed that the British had signed an exclusive deal with the island nation just three weeks before Constitution’s arrival. The United States was competing with Britain in trade around the world, and often faced British efforts to shut out the Americans. However, although the British had been in Brunei, their agreement with the Sultanate was not exclusive and did not entirely cut off the prospects for American trade. Had Percival kept Constitution in the port longer or more patiently attempted to continue negotiations, he may have been able to arrive at an agreement with the Sultanate.

Trouble in Touron Bay

Captain John Percival’s impetuous nature earned him the nickname “Mad Jack” while he was in the merchant service. In some ways, Percival’s boldness was useful for Constitution during such a long voyage, but that same attribute proved troublesome in the delicate diplomatic maneuvering that was required in some ports. In Touron Bay in Cochin China (present day DaNang, Vietnam), Percival created a diplomatic incident that nearly instigated a war while trying to free an imprisoned French bishop and missionary. The Constitution anchored there hoping to take on water and provisions, but the Americans met a cold reception from locals wary of western incursion.

During a tour of the ship arranged to mollify several local officials, an interpreter slipped a note to Percival, written four days earlier by the French bishop Dominique Lefèbvre, and addressed to an unnamed admiral of regional French Naval Forces. In it, Lefèbvre said he was being held in the nearby city of Hue and appealed for rescue because he was “condemned to death without delay.”

Lefèbvre was one of many French missionaries who had come to Cochin China, the southern half of Vietnam, seeking to convert the Confucian populace. But the Nguyễn Emperor, Thiệu Trị, was opposed to the missionaries’ presence. The Nguyễn Dynasty had been in power since uniting Vietnam in 1805, and like his father, Thiệu Tri was a strict isolationist. French missionaries had largely been outlawed, and those who remained were frequently arrested. By some accounts, Lefebvre had already been in the country numerous times illegally prior to Constitution’s arrival in 1845. Thiệu Tri had a history of capturing priests and missionaries, threatening to kill them, and then releasing them out of his country’s borders. The pattern of treatment of the French Catholic missionaries later led to a joint French-Spanish invasion of Vietnam in 1858 and eventually the French conquest of the country, which lasted until the 1950s.

Unfortunately, there is no indication that Percival or his crew were at all familiar with the history of Vietnamese authorities’ treatment of European missionaries when they arrived in Touron Bay in 1845. In an effort to free Lefebvre, Percival stormed ashore with 80 armed men and demanded to see the local leader, but was unable to determine exactly who that leader was. He insisted on delivering letters demanding Lefèbvre’s release. Unable to identify a local authority, Percival took several prisoners and returned to the ship for a standoff that lasted two weeks. Constitution’s crew also seized some local fishing boats during the lengthy standoff, and several local people drowned trying to recapture them from the Americans. When additional Vietnamese ships began to arrive in the bay to defend their town and its neighboring fort from the Americans, Percival finally abandoned his futile effort. He released his hostages and left the bay without securing the release of Lefèbvre. Even though Percival did not succeed, the events still bitterly angered the Vietnamese. Neither the Secretary of the Navy nor regional American diplomats seeking to re-engage American trade in Touron Bay approved of Percival’s rash actions.

Overseeing Trade with China

From Touron Bay, Constitution sailed to Macao and Canton (modern Guangzhou), which was rapidly becoming another destination of American trade after the reopening of Chinese markets to foreign traders. For many decades, trade with China had been a one-sided affair. China provided a range of luxury goods including silks, ceramics, and tea, but there was little that Americans or Europeans had to offer to Chinese markets in return. This balance shifted in the 1820s, when the British began exporting opium from India to China. Disturbed by how opium addiction was impacting its society, the Chinese government seized and burned about 1,400 tons of opium that British merchants had stored on the docks in Canton in 1839, setting the two countries on the path to war. After two years of conflict, the British captured the city of Nanjing and forced the Chinese into peace negotiations. The resulting Treaty of Nanjing forced the Chinese government to open additional ports to foreign trade and give up Hong Kong to the British.

In the wake of the treaty, the United States was one of several western nations who demanded that the Chinese government grant them trading rights equal to those taken by the British. Later described by Chinese as the “unequal treaties,” the American government forced concessions from the Chinese while offering little in return. The Treaty of Wanghia in 1844 was America’s first trade deal with China, and opened up opportunities for American merchants who had long feared being shut out of Chinese trade by the British. Percival and the USS Constitution were kept busy throughout the summer of 1845 dealing with complaints from American merchants and local issues that arose in the wake of the ratification of the treaty.

Expansion in Hawaii and Mexico

After stopping at Manila and Batan in the Philippines, Constitution sailed for the independent nation of Hawaii, arriving there on November 16, 1845 after six weeks at sea. Hawaiians were open to engaging with the Americans, but fearful of their ability to defend their island nation against other incursions. While in Hawaii, Constitution’s Marine Lieutenant Joseph W. Curtis was asked to survey Oahu for the best places for defensive fortifications. Curtis recommended Pearl Harbor and its narrow river entrance as a good position for improvement and defense.

After sailing from Hawaii to Monterrey, Percival was ordered to Mazatlán in anticipation of the looming war with Mexico. Percival argued that the ship was not in condition to serve in battle in Mexico, and Constitution departed Mazatlán on April 22, 1846, just three weeks before the United States declared war and began the Mexican-American War.

Spurred by the U.S. annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War was a multi-front war that saw America seeking to defend its new territory and further expand into the areas of present day New Mexico and California. Throughout the two-year conflict, the U.S. Navy worked to secure control of California from the Pacific coast, using ships to land troops who took control of small towns, ranches, and missions from San Francisco to San Diego. By the time the war ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, U.S. control of Texas was expanded to its current border on the Rio Grande River, and Mexico had ceded all of the territory that is now encompassed by the states of California, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada, as well as parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

Leaving Mexico just before the war was declared in 1846, Constitution made the long passage south, stopping at Valparaiso, Chile before rounding Cape Horn and reentering the Atlantic Ocean. After a stop in Rio de Janeiro at the beginning of August 1846, the ship headed for home.

The Return to Boston

Constitution arrived in Boston on September 27, 1846, officially concluding her world voyage. Over the course of two years, the ship had sailed more than 52,000 miles and visited more than 20 different ports. The mere completion of such a voyage was an accomplishment that few other ships could claim. Though Percival was not completely successful in his mission, Constitution’s World Cruise reflected the United States’ commitment to expanding its commercial and diplomatic influence into the most far-flung corners of the world. In nearly every port it visited, the ship was witness to a rapidly changing world, and sometimes participated in those changes.

Throughout the following year, Constitution remained in Boston and underwent expensive repairs. By the end of 1848, the ship was redeployed to the Mediterranean for a third time. Captain John Percival’s frugal restoration of Old Ironsides in preparation for the World Cruise had succeeded in giving the ship a new importance and extended career, but the same could not be said for Percival himself. After leaving USS Constitution on October 8, 1846, Percival never commanded another ship. It is unclear how much his difficult behavior during portions of the Constitution’s World Cruise contributed to his loss of command, or whether it was merely a question of his age. He lobbied for a position as Commandant of the Boston Navy Yard, but was rejected. Percival retired to Dorchester, Massachusetts, and died in 1862 at 83 years old. He was buried in his hometown of Barnstable on Cape Cod. In 1939, town officials erected a large memorial tablet at the cemetery commemorating Percival’s role as Constitution’s captain during the World Cruise.

USS Constitution