The Commandant’s House in Brooklyn

Last Saturday I was biking around some back streets in Brooklyn down which I had not wandered before and stumbled across what was clearly a very old fashioned mansion of landmark status, but surprisingly labeled as private property rather than a museum or public building, with no descriptive signage whatsoever.


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Poking around on the Google Maps satellite view I was able to locate the mansion (seen above) in the tiny and quaint neighborhood of Vinegar Hill, and a bit of keyword searching led me to discover that, not only is it in fact a registered historical landmark, but was the official residence of Commodore Matthew C. Perry for two years from 1841-1843, when he was first promoted to the rank of Commodore! As I am sure you all know, it was Perry who, a decade later, sailed into Uraga Harbor and began the process of forcing the opening of Japan, ending the Edo Period and leading to the Meiji Restoration.

I found a 2006 New York Times article about the Commondant’s House, formally known as Quarters A of the now defunct Brooklyn Navy Yard, where my grandfather worked during World War II.((The Yard was closed in 1964, but after being vacant for some time is now a city owned industrial park for incubating small and medium businesses.)) The article describes the history of the property as follows.

 The land for what was at first called the New York Navy Yard was bought in 1801. It is not clear whether the first officer in charge of the yard, Jonathan Thorne, was there when the house was built, a time frame traditionally given as 1805 to 1806. The archivist of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Daniella Romano, says that Thorne was later scalped and killed by Indians in 1811 while on a campaign in the Pacific near Vancouver.

The building that Thorne (or a successor) occupied is shown in 19th-century photographs as a clapboard house

four bays wide in front and five bays dee

The facade rose to a peaked roof and a rooftop observation deck.

The main doorway, on the right, was in an intricate Federal style with a fanlight. The cornice and roof trim also carried delicate detailing.

Charles Bulfinch, the architect for part of the United States Capitol, is often mentioned as the designer, but Ms. Romano believes that was the wishful invention of a 20th-century writer.

[...]

In fact, the terms of office in the 19th century seemed to run rather short: Perry’s successor, Joshua Sands, was commandant for only a year. The next commandant, Silas Stringham — who fought the slave trade off the African coast and pirates in the West Indies — served from 1844 to 1846.

It was halfway through his occupancy that The Brooklyn Eagle visited Quarters A and wrote that the house, “with its lawns, terraces and teeming gardens, is a conspicuous object.”

An Eagle reporter returned in August 1872 and wrote that, along with its orchard and vegetable garden, Quarters A had “a look that makes one feel that it must be a pleasant thing to be the commandant.” That was during the four-year term of Stephen C. Rowan, a Civil War veteran.


There is a more detailed architectural history of the house in its National Register of Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form (Quarters A was eventually granted landmark status on May 30, 1974), which cites Perry’s residency as one key reason for its registration, although I think anyone would agree that it would still qualify without the commander of the infamous Black Ships.

 It is unclear who lives there today. The Times says that the house has been “In private ownership since the Navy Yard closed in 1964”, but the aforementioned Nomination Form, dated July 1969, says that “Quarters A is owned by the Navy, privately occupied, and not open to the public.” It also lists the owner as “Adm. Harry L. Horty, Jr., Vice-chairman, U.S. Delegation U.N. Military Staff Committee”, which I suppose may mean that the house is still owned by the Navy and occupied by an admiral, but sadly the only thing I know for sure is that it remains closed to the public.

Recalling Fang Lizhi as we watch Chen Guangcheng

I’m sure everybody reading this had been following the dramatic and confusing Chen Guangcheng1 story as it develops, and I also trust that all but the most enlightened remain as puzzled as I do regarding exactly what Chen, the United States, and Chinese authorities have negotiated, promised, lied about, achieved, failed, and intend to do regarding the still unfolding situation((Although, as I finalize this post, it does appear that Chen will be allowed to come to the US on a student visa.)).

I had certainly found the story interesting since it began, but had no particular thoughts regarding it until I read this New York Review of Books article comparing the Chen story with that of Fang Lizhi, a prominent Chinese dissident who similarly sought refuge in the US embassy following the Tiananmen Square Massacre and eventually settled in the US following similarly tense diplomacy, written by Perry Link, an American academic who was in Beijing at the time and helped Fang in his escape.

Fang, who died just under a month ago at the age of 76, after spending the latter part of his career as a professor of physics at the University of Arizona in Tucson, was a prominent dissident at the time of the 1989 protests, who sought—and received—protection at the US embassy in Beijing when the subsequent crackdown started. Before the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, he was already well enough known to be profiled in this May, 1988 Atlantic Magazine article.

I strongly recommend reading the entire piece, as well as Fang Lizhi’s “Confession” to Deng Xiaoping, and Fang’s own commentary on writing it, which was published in June of last year, also by the New York Review of Books.

I also found Perry Link’s concluding comparison between the Fang incident and the current situation to be quite interesting.

Today, for Chen Guangcheng, the two governments might agree that exile is the least awkward solution from their points of view, but Chen may not accept it. Chinese dissidents have learned over the past two decades that exile leads to a sharp decline in a person’s ability to make a difference inside China. Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who is now in his third year of an eleven-year prison sentence for “subversion,” made it clear after his arrest that he would not accept exile as an alternative to prison. From what friends of Chen in Beijing have been saying in recent days, it seems that Chen is taking a similar position.

Another important difference between the Chen and Fang cases is that Chen has a broader following among average Chinese people than Fang had. Fang was a hero to university students and some intellectuals. But most Chinese did not know him, and what they did hear of him were highly distorted accounts in the government-controlled press. Even before the 1989 crackdown, government television was broadcasting images of government-orchestrated “protests” in which farmers were burning Fang Lizhi in effigy. Many people, having no other sources on Fang, accepted such accounts. Today, though, with the Internet, far greater numbers of Chinese—millions of people including many outside of the big cities—know the true story of Chen than ever knew the story of Fang. And to judge from the many accounts circulating on microblogs and elsewhere, hardly anyone seems to view Chen with anything but sympathy.


But while it does seem likely that Chen has widespread support, I wonder what good that will do for him in America, other than provide a comfortable life for him and his family.

For example, look at how much support the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei received after his own unjust arrest, almost entirely enabled by the Internet. And in his case, not only did he receive the ephemeral support of Tweets and Facebook “likes”, but enough small donations (which the artist categorized as loans to be repaid in the future) from tens of thousands of donors to cover the Chinese government’s punitive taxes and fines (which Ai and his legal team continues to challenge).

But how contingent is that support on the fact that he is staying to fight? While there is no question that Ai Weiei, by all accounts charming and brilliant, would be a darling of intellectual and artistic as a political exile, he would also lose the ability to use his own ongoing on-and-off imprisonment as fodder for political artwork such as his recent and short-lifed self-surveillance “Weiweicam” project.

While much about the Chen Guangcheng case remains murky and mysterious, he does at least seem to wrestling with such a choice. Will he stay in China, despite the risk to himself and—apparently more importantly—his family, or will he seek exile2, where he would undoubtedly be safer and more comfortable((He certainly has plenty of supporters in the US, since if there is one things that the “Pro-life” and “Pro-choice” camps can agree on wholeheartedly, it’s that forced abortions are a bad thing.)), but also risk damaging his own credibility as an activist and his ability to help others.

The NYT had an article on Friday discussing this very possibility, saying “Based on past experience, China is often all too pleased to see its most nettlesome dissidents go into exile, where they almost invariably lose their ability to grab headlines in the West and to command widespread sympathy both in China and abroad.” The article goes on to mention how “If Mr. Chen receives a green light to depart for the United States, he will arrive to find a fractured tribe of Chinese dissidents and pro-democracy advocates shouting over one another.”

This line in particular made me think of a particular book I read several years ago, which had already been on my mind as I was catching up on the past week of Chen Guangcheng related coverage earlier today, In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture, By Geremie R. Barmé. Despite the bland and vague title, a significant portion, or even a majority of the book is devoted to Chinese counterculture and dissident protest, including quite a bit of discussion of the criticism and failure that prominent Chinese dissidents have faced in exile, including from one another.

Among exiled intellectuals for a time there was also a considerable amount of critical reflection on the events of 1989. Yuan Zhiming was another of the writers of River Elegy, the television series that was branded by the government as part of a wave of “cultural nihilism” that contributed to the protests. In an article published in January 1990, Yuan questioned what would have happened in 1989 if the most famous Chinese public intellectuals — Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan, Yan Jiaqi, Chen Yizi, and Su Xiaokang, had “courageously stood forward and led the movement.” He continues his speculation in the tone of a guilty survivor:

If we had formulated some mature, rational and feasible plan of action and organized a democratic front incorporating the students and civilians, if we had worked harmoniously together to struggle for dialogue with the authorities, how would it have turned out? Of course, we may still have been vanquished, but at least we could say we had done everything in our power to prevent defeat. 3



Barmé is also unimpressed with the post-exile efforts of dissident intellectuals, writing:
Prominent intellectuals and students had, bu the very fact of their exile, suffered a serious blow to their credibility. This was particularly so, since it was widely perceived on the mainland that many of the key agitators of 1989 had sought refuge with former imperialist powers (that is, France, England, and the United States((And we could add Japan to this list, which not only sheltered some refugees from China, but also applied pressure on the PRC government during the Fang Lizhi incident, using the carrot of development loans.))) and the KMT government in Taiwan. The mainland authorities were well aware of the jealous reaction of its people to reports of dissidents living off the fat of the land overseas, and the official media took delight in portraying them all as traitors to the nation.4

The remainder of the third chapter deals with this issue in greater depth, and I recommend it to anyone wondering how successful an activist Chen might be in exile.

Even though modern communications has greatly improved the ability of activists and supporters to coordinate better and more secretively across borders, it is hard to imagine how Chen Guangcheng, whose activism so far has largely taken the form of legal action that would be impossible to file from abroad, would be able to continue his activism in any substantial way after reaching NYU. Above, I cited speculation by a sympathetic Chinese intellectual over what would have been different had Fang Lizhi and his compatriots ”courageously stood forward and led the movement” rather than accepting exile. In America, Fang was very successful in continuing his career as a physicist, but his post-exile activism was a mere footnote to the exile itself. How might Chen’s career develop if he comes to the US, and how might it develop if he does not?

  1. This 2006 NYT story is a good description of his career and legal troubles up to that point. []
  2. Or asylum, or “rest”, or “study abroad”. []
  3. Pages 51-52 []
  4. Page 44 []

March 14: International Marriage Day

It may be inappropriate to move on to non-earthquake topics, but it just so happens that I just now discovered that today is International Marriage Day in Japan.

I was reading about Philipp Franz von Siebold, the German physician who traveled extensively across Japan for eight years from the time of his arrival in 1823, playing a key role in teaching Europe about Japan upon his return. The wikipedia article also contains this section:

Since mixed marriages were forbidden, von Siebold “lived together” with his Japanese partner Kusumoto Taki (楠本滝). In 1827 Kusumoto Taki gave birth to their daughter, Oine. Von Siebold used to call his wife “Otakusa” and named a Hydrangea after her.

That made me wonder—if mixed marriages were forbidden during the Edo Period, when was the restriction lifted? It took very little research to see that this came on 14 March 1873 (Meiji 6), from which time marriages to foreigners were permitted—a copy of the issued order being shown below. Consequently, 14 March—today—is International Marriage Day (although it’s not widely recognized, and probably no better known than 15 March being Shoes Anniversary Day).

The first recorded international marriage took place on 27 January 1874 between Mr. Juro Miura and Ms. Crausentz Gertamier (accurate Roman alphabet spelling unknown) after they met while Miura’s studied in Germany. They were married at a church in Tsukiji in Tokyo.

Importantly, government approval was required for Japanese women to marry foreigners, and they lost their Japanese citizenship (bungen) upon marrying a foreigner. Similarly, foreign women acquired Japanese citizenship upon marrying a Japanese man. In the 1870s, Japan was still in the process of developing its legal system and the concept of citizenship and citizen were not yet clear. This was put into law by the Meiji Constitution and Citizenship Law that were both enacted in 1899, but the system remained essentially unchanged until 1916, when Japanese women only lost their Japanese citizenship if they acquired foreign citizenship.

“Disunion” in the New York Times: “Noli Me Tangere”

Anyone who follows me on Twitter may know that I have been a huge fan of the New York Times online series “Disunion”, in which a number of historians take turns writing essays about the American Civil War in largely chronological order – laid out on a great interactive timeline that offers links to contemporary articles on one screen, and links to new essays by historians on a parallel screen.

On top of the generally high quality of the writing and the presentation of lesser known but fascinating anecdotes and characters, the real time nature of the project makes it particularly interesting. When reading history it is all too easy to skim over the happenings of months or years with no appreciation that people at the time experienced them with just as much ambiguity and complexity as we experience current events today.

I don’t know how many people are actually reading the whole thing, but I have just been taking a few hours to read through the entire archive and I must say that this would form the basis for an excellent Civil War curriculum in say, a high school AP or undergraduate US History course and I am sure that more than a few teachers will be using it.

While I don’t feel like just listing my favorite posts from the series, I must point out the proposal of New York City mayor Fernando Wood to secede along with the Southern States, but instead form an independent city-state with the peculiar name of “the Free City of Tri-Insula.”

Entries such as this profile of William Webb, a slave man and underground political activist, or this one on the slaves’ view of Abraham Lincoln are also a necessarily supplement to the admittedly excellent posts on the all-white statesmen and mostly-white soldiers.

As a photography enthusiast I also very much enjoyed this post on photography in the Civil War, in particular its very first photographer – George S. Cook – who took portraits of Major Robert Anderson and his men at Fort Sumter shortly before they were attacked. Cook’s two photos below, of Union ironclads firing on Fort Moultrie in South Carolina on September 8, 1863 are believed to be the world’s first photographs of combat. Perhaps most astonishingly of all, the pair of images seem to have been intended for viewing in 3D, with a stereopticon!   (There is also a slideshow of his work.)

But the single detail that jumped out at me the most is, oddly, the obverse of the banner for the “Wilcox True Blues,” a company in the Confederate military from Alabama.

Above you can see the front of the banner, which looks like it depicted some sort of giant, similar to the not-yet existent Statue of Liberty.

And here on the back you can see a snake curled amidst a flowering bush, and the slogan “Noli Mi Tangere.”

This appears to have been a variant on, and reference to, a proposed design for a Republic of Alabama flag during the brief period between the decision to secede and the formal creation of the Confederacy.

Students of European art history may be familiar with this phrase as the title of a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Correggio. Those same art historians, or well-studied Catholics, may be familiar with the original source of the phrase, below as explained in Wikipedia.

Noli me tangere, meaning “don’t touch me” / “touch me not”, is the Latin version of words spoken, according to John 20:17, by Jesus to Mary Magdalene when she recognizes him after his resurrection.

The original phrase, Μή μου ἅπτου (mê mou haptou), in the Gospel of John, which was written in Greek, is better represented in translation as “cease holding on to me” or “stop clinging to me”.


Doing a quick search through books published before the Civil War shows that Noli me tangere was also the name of both a kind of skin disease sometimes associated with either lupus or cancer and a type of flowering plant. In 1719 it probably seemed common sense to name a skin disease “touch me not” and according to our 1802 botanical guide: “The elastic valves of the capsule, when ripe, curl up, and fly asunder on the slightest touch, whence the common name Touch me not.”

Before considering exactly why the slogan noli mi tangere was used on the battle standard of an Alabama military unit, a glance at the books cited above and the many dozens of other search results shows that the phrase was commonly known at the time as a phrase of Biblical origin, with the literal meaning of “touch me not” as well  as a number of metaphorical secondary meanings, such as for the names of diseases or plants.

Although the phrase was apparently common at the time, I would hazard a guess that it is very little known except among people familiar with the reference that made it so noteworthy to me. That is, as the title of the first of two novels by Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, whose publishing activities  – especially his two novels of social protest – helped inspire the 1890s revolution against Spanish colonial rule. Originally written in the Spanish language and published in Europe with the  Latin phrase Noli Me Tangere as its title, the 1887 novel came some time after the US Civil War and has no direct connection to it, but part of the symbolism of the title – “touch me not” – as an expression of defiance rings similar to its use on the Alabama flag.

Since “noli me tangere” or the English translation of “touch me not” refers to a number of plants that do grow wild in the American South I had wondered if the plant featured on the banner’s obverse might be one of them, but it is easy to verify that it is in fact a cotton plant. This is hardly a surprise, as slavery – and therefore the cotton economy – was the central reason for secession, a pillar of the state’s economy, and a cotton plant is still featured on the Standard of the Governor of Alabama (not the state flag).

The heritage of the snake, specifically a coiled rattlesnake,  is probably also obvious to most Americans. This is of course a reference to the Gadsen Flag, not well known by name (I must admit I was not familiar with this name) , but well known as a symbol of the 1776 American Revolution.

“The Gadsden Flag, 1776 – The uniquely American rattlesnake became a popular symbol in the American colonies and later for the young republic. When the American Revolution began, the rattlesnake appeared on money, uniforms and various military and naval flags. To provide a striking standard for the flagship of the first commodore of the American Navy, Christopher Gadsden, an American general and statesman from South Carolina, chose the rattlesnake for
his design.”

Perhaps even better known than the coiled rattlesnake image on the Gadsen Flag  is the segmented snake of Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 “Join or Die” cartoon, which the Gadsen was itself referencing. But it is the coiled rattlesnake motif that the Alabama secession flag employs, and “Noli me Tangere” or “touch me not” – is obviously a reference to “Don’t Tread On Me.”

The use of the phrase Noli Me Tangere by both Jose Rizal and the State of Alabama were in the service of protest, and a move towards revolution and self governance (although Rizal was not exactly a revolutionary he did help to inspire them.) But Rizal, whose anti-colonial novel was inspired by the anti-slavery propaganda novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and preached universal freedom. Alabamans, by contrast, used the phrase to propagandize for their own freedom, but in favor of slavery – an irony that would certainly have disgusted Rizal. One imagines that had he seen this flag, rather than interpreting the snake among the cotton as a symbol of the free agrarian Confederacy, but as the Satan of slavery lurking below King Cotton’s promise. And he might have even chosen a different title for his novel.

I conclude this post with the following two minute animation, an artistic illustration of the “right” for which the Confederacy fought.

[Update: I originally neglected to point out that the banner reads “noli mi tangere” rather than “noli me tangere,” which is simply a spelling error and of no significance that I can determine.]