"At early dawn we descried the dim light from the lighthouse at the entrance to the bay of San Francisco. A gun was fired from our ship as a signal for a pilot. ... Our ears were assailed by a deafening noise of firing from the guns of the fort and on the warships ... intensified when the Powhatan fired a return salute," wrote Muragaki-Awji-No-Kami, Japanese vice-ambassador to the United States on March 29, 1860. It was in 1860 that the USS Powhatan was sent to Japan to pick up the 77 Japanese ambassadors who were being sent to open the first embassy from Japan to the United States. In fact it was the first Japanese embassy to be established in any Western country.
Vice-ambassador Muragaki recorded that trip in a diary that was published by the American Japan Society in 1920.
When the smoke cleared from all the gun salutes, Muragaki wrote he was "agreeably surprised to see the flag of the Rising Sun flying at the fort and at the foremost of all the ships in the harbor to greet and welcome the first ambassadors ever sent abroad by the far eastern empire."
The Powhatan did not linger at the San Francisco port but went 30 miles up the bay to Mare Island where it would be refurbished and take on fuel for the next step of the ambassadors to get to Washington D.C.
Muragaki enjoyed the ride.
"Land gently sloping on both sides of the Bay was covered with beautiful green like carpet of velvet. ... Cattle and sheep grazed placidly. ... The whole scene made a pleasing picture, most welcome after so many days at sea."
It wasn't until the next day that the ambassadors got off the ship and set foot on American soil. Captain R.B. Cunningham, commandant of the Navy Yard at Mare Island, greeted his guests, who presented him with a sword blade as a souvenir from Japan.
The mayor of San Francisco had arrived earlier at Mare Island with a delegation of local dignitaries to invite the ambassadors to spend a few days in San Francisco. The ambassadors quickly accepted.
They all went aboard the USS Alacrity while a band played soft music. There was to be a 17-gun salute, but to the surprise of all only one shot was fired.
"We learnt afterward that this was in consequence of Commodore Cunningham having met with an accident. He had unfortunately been standing near the line of fire and he was, we regretted to hear, seriously injured by the concussion. The American Navy prides itself on its proficiency in gunnery, so we rather wondered how it was that both the commodore and the gunner came to make such a careless mistake," wrote Muragaki.
The gun salute was to have come from the USS Independence, which was permanently docked at Mare Island. It wasn't the first time that the gunner on the Independence made a mistake. One time he fired too few shots and another too many. Fortunately Cunningham was not seriously injured and was able to return to duty shortly.
Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at email@example.com.