Mercator Cooper (September 29, 1803 – spring 1872) was a ship's captain who is credited with the first formal American visit to Tokyo, Japan and the first formal landing on the mainland East Antarctica.
Both events occurred while sailing ships out of Sag Harbor, New York, where he was born.
Visit of the Manhattan to Tokyo
On November 9, 1843, Cooper left Sag Harbor as captain of the 440-ton ship Manhattan on a whaling voyage. On March 14–15, 1845 the Manhattan picked up 11 Japanese sailors in the southern Japanese islands.
Outside of Tokyo Bay four of the survivors took a Japanese boat with a message that Cooper wanted to deliver the remainder to the harbor. The Japanese normally wanted to avoid contact with outsiders because of the Tokugawa Shogunate policy of Sakoku.
However, on April 18, 1845, an emissary from the shogun gave the ship permission to proceed – accompanied by "about three hundred Japanese boats with about 15 men in each took the ship in tow" according to Cooper's log. "They took all our arms out to keep till we left. There were several of the nobility came on board to see the ship. They appeared very friendly."
The Japanese examined his ship and took particular note of Pyrrhus Concer, a crewman from Southampton who was the only African American on board, and a Shinnecock Native American named Eleazar – the first dark skinned men the Japanese had seen and they wanted to touch their skin.
The Japanese refused payment for provisions and gave them water, 20 sacks of rice, two sacks of wheat, a box of flour, 11 sacks of sweet potatoes, 50 fowl, two cords of wood, radishes and 10 pounds of tea, thanked them for returning their sailors, and told them to never return.
On April 21, the 300 boats towed the Manhattan 20 miles out to sea.
Cooper took with him a map that charted the islands of Japan that had been found on the disabled Japanese ship. He was to turn the map over to the United States government when the ship returned to Sag Harbor on October 14, 1846. Matthew Perry was said to have used the map on his visit with four U.S. warships on July 8, 1853.
Cooper's home in Southampton (village), New York is now owned by the Southampton Library. Pyrrhus Concer is buried in the North End Cemetery in Southampton across from Cooper's home.
First visitor to Antarctica
In August 1851, Cooper again left Sag Harbor, this time as captain of the 382-ton ship Levant on a mixed whaling and sealing voyage. Making a quick passage through the belt of pack ice in the Ross Sea, on January 26, 1853, he sighted land, an ice shelf backed by a high mountain some 70 to 100 miles distant. The next morning, the ice shelf still in sight, with high mountains looming behind it, he sailed the ship close inshore and ordered a boat to be lowered. They made a landing on the ice shelf, reportedly seeing numerous penguins, but no seals – their chief objective. The landing occurred on what is now known as the Oates Coast of Victoria Land, in East Antarctica. It is arguably "the first adequately documented continental landing" in not only this area, but on the mainland of Antarctica itself. They stayed within sight of land for several days, sighting the Balleny Islands on February 2. At the conclusion of the voyage the Levant was sold in China.
The logbook from the voyage is in the Long Island Room of the East Hampton Library in East Hampton (village), New York.
References and notes
- A Cold Welcome in Japan When an LI ship sailed into Tokyo's bay, it was met with curiosity and hostility by Bill Bleyer – Newsday – Long Island Our Story
- The cited Newsday article refers to the relevant island as St. Peter, a European name for one of the islets (rocks) in the Bonin Islands group.
- The cited Newsday article says four shipwreck survivors went onland to deliver the message. However the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State thesis Commodore Perry’s 1853 Japanese Expedition: How Whaling Influenced the Event that Revolutionized Japan by Terry Burcin says that Cooper went ashore with two of the shipwrecked Japanese and explored the coast and then returned to his ship to await word.
- There was also a sloop at this time called the USS Levant, but this was a different vessel.
- Starbuck (1878), pp. 490–91. Starbuck says Cooper sent home 12,560 pounds of "bone" (whalebone).
- Mills (2003), pp. 160–61.
- Encyclopedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans By Bernard (EDT) Stonehouse, p 349 ISBN 0-471-98665-8
- Antarctic Circle – Antarctic First
- Long Island Genealogy
- Howell Research