On board Constitution in the Mozambique Channel in early November 1844, Captain John Percival ordered that his own coffin be made at once from wood found on the shore.1 His ship, one of the Navy’s original six frigates (launched 1797), had been at sea since 29 May, and clean drinking water was getting harder to find. The specter of dysentery loomed. Captain Percival, well past the customary age for retirement, seemed sure that he would be the first to die—if not from dysentery, then from the gout that had afflicted him for the better part of a decade.
Why send a half-century-old sailing ship—and her gout-afflicted captain—on a two-year cruise all the way around the globe? The mission, as Secretary of the Navy David Henshaw described it, can be divided into four priorities:
Collect information on foreign waters and foreign ports
Make the seas safer for American commerce
Project U.S. naval power as formidable but benevolent
Find available coaling stations for a future steam navy.2
Captain Percival succeeded with the first goal but met increasing failure down the list. Regarding number 2: The seas were not necessarily safer after Constitution’s cruise. One region had grown more perilous as a direct result of Percival’s actions, which also caused foreigners—the Vietnamese in particular—to doubt American claims of good will.3 Finally, the effort to find coaling stations for a new steam navy met abject failure when Percival had to return empty-handed from the Southwest Pacific.
Nevertheless, Constitution’s around-the-world cruise was a remarkable feat and the adventure and ordeal of a lifetime for everyone on board. In two years (1844–46) she called—in this order—at the East Atlantic islands belonging to Portugal and Spain; Rio de Janeiro; Madagascar and Mozambique; the East African sultanate of Zanzibar; the Sultanate of Aceh (in contemporary Indonesia); Singapore and Borneo, a coal-rich island in the Malay Archipelago; Vietnam and China; the Philippines and Hawaii; California and Mexico; and Valparaíso, on the Chilean coast.4
The cruise also reflected a changing geopolitical order—the advent of Western imperialism as well as the early days of what we now call globalization. U.S. exports to far-flung ports in South America and Asia increased from a paltry $20 million to $334 million in the period 1790 to 1860, and Constitution’s principal mission in 1844 was to secure the routes and ports for this booming trade.5 In East Asia, the site of Percival’s greatest misadventure, the Americans were as yet minor players in the violent process whereby Western powers—at this stage, the French and British in particular—gained mastery over foreign peoples and their resources. Percival, therefore, like Commodore Lawrence Kearney before him and Commodore Matthew C. Perry after him, sought national advantage in some of the world’s most contested and troubled waters.
Repairs and Preparations
Given the ship’s symbolic importance, sturdy construction, and relative roominess, it made sense to use Constitution for this around-the-world cruise, despite her advanced age and poor condition.
To be seaworthy again, Constitution required considerable repairs, which Captain Percival oversaw at Gosport (now Norfolk), Virginia, in late 1843 and early 1844. Laborers caulked and coppered the hull, changed out a good deal of wood on the decks, and repaired the rudder, masts, and rigging.6 In April, Constitution set sail for New York to pick up supplies and the rest of the crew. She also berthed a few dozen Marines, a band of musicians, two surgeons, a professor of mathematics, an expert naturalist, Henry Alexander Wise, and Wise’s wife and children. The Wises were to disembark at Rio so that Mr. Wise could take up his post as U.S. minister to Brazil.7
The 381 Sailors on board Constitution were a diverse lot: Not even half claimed to have been born in the United States. The rest came from such places as the British Isles (mostly Ireland), Scandinavia, central Europe, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, South America, and Australia.8 Many of these men would have been immigrants to the United States, but others belonged to what historian Frederick Harrod has called the “easily identifiable international seafaring population”—a cosmopolitan well from which the Navy drew some of its more experienced (if often unruly) Sailors.9
Discipline, Disease, Death
Captain Percival, who had a reputation for fairness if not patience or tact, would say by the end of the cruise that no fewer than 75 of his bluejackets belonged to “the very worst class of foreign sailors.”10 He had them flogged for various infractions, some quite serious.11 Assault, theft, and attempted desertion appear in the records of disciplinary proceedings, but the majority of transgressions were minor delinquencies, usually involving alcohol.12
Percival could also show mercy and generosity. When the sick list grew particularly long in December 1844, as Constitution made her way across the Indian Ocean, Percival let one of his two rooms be used to house men in the throes of dysentery and other illnesses, according to Benjamin F. Stevens, the captain’s clerk. “These little acts of kindness,” he wrote, “cheer the minds of the sick and make them more contented with their situations.”13
But things only got worse. Dysentery was fast permeating the ranks. By the middle of the month, 43 were on the sick list.14 Captain Percival, also sick with dysentery, had to transfer executive command to a subordinate during the crisis.
On the morning of 20 December, a Sailor named John P. Wester became the cruise’s first death.15 Next to succumb was Christian Fischer, a recent immigrant to the United States from Germany and now one of Constitution’s musicians.16 His son Frederick, aged 17 and also on board as a musician, kept a diary that recounts in pitiful detail the father’s decline and death.
At perhaps the height of the dysentery outbreak, on 5 December 1844, Frederick’s father began to suffer abdominal pain. Overnight, the pain intensified and continued to do so until the 18th, when it subsided. But on the following morning, the pain was “again as before and stayed that way until the 21st,” according to Frederick. From then, “father just got worse and worse” until he lost consciousness and died in the early hours of 22 December.17
Later the same day, according to Midshipman Coleville Terrett, “the colors were half-masted, the burial service was read, and his body was committed to the deep.”18
Throughout the ordeal, Frederick took good care of his father, according to several eye-witnesses: “Many of the crew remarked how well the boy behaved and that his loyalty to his father was unflinching,” wrote Henry G. Thomas in his journal.19
More men followed Fischer as dysentery afflicted up to 150 by the middle of February. (Thirteen would not recover.20)
Throughout, Captain Percival, who had managed to recover, proceeded with his mission in Sumatra—to impress upon pirates there the reality of U.S. naval power, such as it was—and in Singapore, where conditions finally improved.21
Constitution arrived at Singapore, then part of the British Empire, on 2 February 1845. “I was very agreeably surprised,” Stevens writes in his diary, “to find it a place of so much importance.” The rectilinear street plan and the sumptuousness of the bazaars, where the “variety of fancy articles . . . is astonishing,” pleased Stevens’s Western sensibilities. He was equally impressed with the fruits on offer, especially “the delicious mangosteen so highly extolled. . . . The inside resembles a kind of jelly or grape and dissolves in the mouth. It seems that enough cannot be had.” The U.S. consul to Singapore, moreover, had planted a full hedgerow of pineapples near his villa and sold them for a penny each.22
Singapore appears to have cheered up Frederick Fischer, too, who marveled at the city’s attractions, including the English apothecary, the courthouse, the grand hotels, and the cosmopolitan assemblage of peoples and institutions—the juxtaposition of churches, mosques, and temples among the mansions of the consuls of Portugal, Holland, Spain, and France.
The scourge of the region, opium, was also on hand in Singapore. Stevens admits in his diary to having stopped in one of the city’s opium concessions—not as a customer, he assures the reader, but as an innocent flâneur: “I felt disgusted with my visit, though I certainly had obtained some information from it,” he explains.23
There were plenty of reasons to be curious about opium in Singapore in 1845. In 1839, the British had weaponized the drug and used it to unleash a three-year war against the Qing Dynasty of China. That war, which China lost, transformed the diplomatic and military dynamics of East and Southeast Asia.24 And into this highly complex and volatile situation waded Captain Percival with his gun drawn.
Mistakes and Misadventures
After having stopped at Borneo to establish a coaling station for a future U.S. steam navy only to find that the Royal Navy had taken violent action in the area to secure it for themselves, Captain Percival set course for Vietnam.25
Constitution arrived at Da Nang, in southern Vietnam, on 10 May 1845. A Vietnamese delegation came to tour the ship, as was customary. However, one of the delegates breached protocol by smuggling a letter to Percival. The letter had come from a Monsignor Dominique Lefebvre, a Catholic clergyman and missionary of French nationality. Lefebvre was imprisoned, his letter explained, and sentenced to death for trying to spread the gospel in Emperor Thieu-Tri’s Vietnam. All true, these statements nonetheless concealed more than they revealed about Lefebvre’s activities in the area.
Assuming the priest’s righteousness, Percival decided within an hour to storm into the town. Eighty armed men, among them 30 Marines, disembarked Constitution and followed the captain to the town’s administrative palaces. Percival carried with him a letter for the emperor demanding Lefebvre’s immediate release.
What was the logic of this incursion on Vietnamese sovereignty? Percival later explained that because Lefebvre was French, and because France had been so helpful to the United States during the Revolutionary War, it was therefore the duty of the U.S. Navy to do everything it could to rescue the churchman.
To add teeth to this argument, Percival took three Vietnamese civil servants back to the ship as hostages.
His claims about Franco-American friendship aside (the friendship was informal and far from stable by 1845), the underlying catalyst for Percival’s actions originated in his ignorance of the political situation in Vietnam.
For almost 20 years, emperors of a newly unified Vietnam had viewed religious pluralism and Catholic missionaries in particular as dangerous to the stability of the state.26 As the emperors transformed Vietnam into a centralized, bureaucratic, unitary state, in the decades leading up to Percival’s arrival, they used Confucianism—ancient Chinese philosophical principles—as the creed that would help rationalize the government and bring order and cohesion to the process of consolidating the emperor’s power. Other creeds looked like potential threats to Confucianism’s primacy.27
In the case of French Catholic missionaries, the emperor’s fears were well founded. Lefebvre and his compatriots had a history of supporting rebellions that might depose the present emperor in favor of a new one more amenable to Christianity. In the eyes of the law, then, Lefebvre was a political actor implicated in recent efforts to undermine the authority of the state.28
Percival, unaware of these complex dynamics and running out of supplies, had to return his hostages and leave. Only afterwards did the Vietnamese authorities decide to release and banish Lefebvre rather than execute him, as was their pattern in these cases by the 1840s.29
Throughout the nineteenth century, naval officers like Captain Percival regularly conducted diplomacy—both commercial and political—for the United States, yet diplomacy, it turned out, was not one of Percival’s strengths. Of the affair and Percival’s motivations, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft had this to say: “The Department [of the Navy] wholly disapproves of the conduct of Captain Percival as not warranted either by the demands of [Lefebvre] or the law of nations.” Well into the 1850s, U.S. envoys to Vietnam were still trying to right Percival’s wrong.30
Long Way Home
After the misadventure in Vietnam, Percival and his men sailed to Macao and then up the Canton River to meet U.S. envoys to China.
Constitution next called at Manila and other parts of the Philippine archipelago (7–20 September 1845) and Honolulu (17 November to 12 December), which had taken two months to reach. In Hawaii, Percival learned from Commodore John D. Sloat of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Squadron that Constitution was to proceed to California and then to the west coast of Mexico in anticipation of the outbreak of war.31 But just three days before hostilities began at the Rio Grande on 25 April 1846, Percival’s frigate began the long journey back to the eastern seaboard of the United States.32
On the way, they stopped at Valparaíso, Chile, before enduring an icy squall off Cape Horn. After another stopover at Rio (the crew’s second visit there in two years), Constitution set sail for Boston, her final destination, which she reached on 27 September 1846.Constitution had covered more than 52,000 miles since 29 May 1844.
Upon arrival in New England, Captain Percival, now under official investigation for various allegations (some of them related to the fiasco in Vietnam), eventually retired.33 Other crewmembers and landsmen continued their careers or rejoined their families. Frederick Fischer, fatherless, went back to Baltimore to give his family the sad news. He stayed in that city, married, and continued to play flute in orchestras and bands almost to the end of the nineteenth century.34
The diary he kept on board Constitution made its way to a descendant, Navy Chief Annabelle F. “Sue” Fischer (1926–2016). Having retired from a long and distinguished Navy career in 1981, she began work on a translated, annotated version of her ancestor’s diary, which she eventually published in 1996. The research materials, which cover the diary, its translation, and the 1844–46 cruise more generally, fill five boxes in the archives. The files and the original diary in Frederick’s precise hand, all of which Sue Fischer had the foresight and generosity to donate to the Nimitz Library of the U.S. Naval Academy, have made it possible to bring depth and detail to the story of a cruise begun more than 175 years ago.
—Adam Bisno, PhD, NHHC Communication and Outreach Division, May 2019
1 Journal of Dominick H. Lynch, in Logbooks and Journals of the USS Constitution, 1798–1934; Record Group 24: Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, microfilm; National Archives College Park. Hereafter: NARA College Park. Quoted in James Ellis, Mad Jack Percival: Legend of the Old Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2002), 166.
2 David F. Long, “Mad Jack”: The Biography of Captain John Percival, USN, 1779–1862 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1993), 136. Secretary of the Navy David Henshaw stressed the primacy of promoting and maintaining “friendly relations with the local inhabitants en route.” Long argues that “Percival’s disregard of this vital. . . directive would help to end his active naval career.” On the issue of coaling stations: Henshaw gave Percival the right to buy any coaling rights at Borneo and, furthermore, granted him wide latitude to establish similar agreements elsewhere.
3 Ibid., 178–79.
4 There were, of course, intermediate stops and anchorages, according to the ship’s logs, in Logbooks and Journals of the USS Constitution, 1798–1934, Record Group 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, vols. 13–14, microfilm, at NARA College Park. Reproductions in Sue Fischer Papers, 1843–1996, MS 470, Boxes 3 and 4, Special Collections and Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD. Hereafter: Sue Fischer Papers, USNA Nimitz Library.
5 Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States, revised and expanded edition (New York: Free Press, 1994), 140.
6 Ellis, Mad Jack, 154.
7 Henry George Thomas, Around the World in Old Ironsides: The Voyage of the USS Constitution, 1844–1847, edited by Alan B. Flanders (Lively, VA: Brandylane Publishers, 1993), 8; Benjamin F. Stevens, A Cruise on the Constitution: Around the World on Old Ironsides, 1844–1847, reprinted from the United States Service Magazine (New York, 1904), 3, available at the Navy Department Library, Washington Navy Yard; “Henry Alexander Wise,” Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 20, edited by Dumas Malone (New York: Scribner’s, 1936), 423.
8 Long, “Mad Jack,” 143.
9 Frederick S. Harrod, Manning the New Navy: The Development of a Modern Naval Enlisted Force, 1899–1940 (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1978), 8 and 13. Permanent recruiting stations existed in various port cities, including Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, but the captains themselves often had to enlist men on board as part of the preparations for setting sail. A man’s period of enlistment ended upon completion of the cruise—provided, of course, he had not deserted or died on the journey. See also James F. Downs, Judith Cohart, and Constance Ojile, of the Development Research Associates, Arlington, VA, Naval Personnel Organization: A Cultural-Historical Approach (August 1982), 9, available at https://apps.dtic.mil/docs/citations/ADA119778, accessed 2 April 2019.
10 Quoted in Long, Mad Jack, 143. On nineteenth-century officers’ complaints about drunkenness, foreignness, and desertion, see Harrod, Manning the New Navy, 11–13.
11 On flogging, which was permissible on board Navy ships until 1851, see Peter Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1972), 85.
12 Long, Mad Jack, 144.
13 Stevens, Cruise, 44.
14 Ellis, Mad Jack, 166 and 168.
15 Stevens, Cruise, 43.
16 Fischer Family Genealogy—Family Group Sheet, in the Sue Fischer Papers, USNA Nimitz Library, MS 470, Box 3.
17 Diary of Frederick Fischer, manuscript, 1844–1846, in the Sue Fischer Papers, USNA Nimitz Library, MS 470, Box 1; translations are my own.
18 A Profile of Crew Members Who Participated in the 1844–1846 World Cruise of the Frigate USS Constitution, prepared by Albert J. Leach, March 1994, Samuel Morison Library, USS Constitution Museum, reproduced in the Sue Fischer Papers, USNA Nimitz Library, MS 470, Box 4, USNA/Nimitz.
19 Ibid. See also Stevens, Cruise, 44.
20 Ellis, Mad Jack, 170.
21 On Southeast Asia, piracy, and imperialism in the 1830s and 1840s, see Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford, Rage for Order: The British and the Origins of International Law, 1800–1850 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 135–36 and 139ff.
22 Stevens, Cruise, 47–49.
23 Stevens, Cruise, 49.
24 Tonio Andrade, The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 255–56 and 266–67; Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery, Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858–1954, translated by Ly Lan Dill-Klein, with Eric Jennings, Nora Taylor, and Noémi Tousignant (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009), 3.
25 Thomas, Around the World, 81. On the British action, which historians Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford call a “messy melee,” see Benton and Ford, Rage for Order, 117–19.
26 Brocheux and Hémery, Indochina, 19.
27 Christopher Goscha, Vietnam: A New History (New York: Basic, 2016), 46–51.
28 Ibid, 56–7; Brocheux and Hémery, Indochina, 18–19.
29 Long, “Mad Jack,” 174. Earlier, in the 1830s, especially, the government had executed hundreds of Catholics in the aftermath of a failed coup d’état. By the 1840s, death sentences against Catholic missionaries usually ended in banishment. (See Goscha, Vietnam, 55–57.) Yet Monsignor Lefebvre, having been banished, was back in Vietnam—illegally—by 1846, when he called upon his own country’s navy to rescue him. This they did but with maximum violence, opening fire on Da Nang and killing hundreds of people. See Brocheux, Indochina, 19; and Long, “Mad Jack,” 175.
30 Quoted in Long, “Mad Jack,” 178. This was the same George Bancroft—scholar and diplomat—who initiated the process of creating the United States Naval Academy, founded in 1845.
31 Ellis, Mad Jack, 181.
32 Although the Mexican-American War did not formally begin until a U.S. Army invasion of Mexican territory in May 1846, the first hostilities had occurred along the Rio Grande a month prior. See Vazquez, “War and Peace,” 360. At this time, Constitution was also charged with protecting a convoy of U.S. merchant ships from the dangers brought on by the insipient naval war against Mexico. On this point, see Ellis, Mad Jack, 184.
33 Long, “Mad Jack,” 177–79.
34 Annabelle F. Fischer, ed., Experienced and Conquered: Frederick C. Fischer, Musician, Aboard USS Constitution, 1844–1846 (Westminster, MD: Peach Originals, 1996), x. A special thank you to Margherita M. Desy, historian at Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston, for alerting me to the existence of the diary and to Jennifer Bryan, head of Special Collections and Archives at the Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy, for helping me gain access on short notice to the original German manuscript and the rest of the materials in Ms. Fischer’s bequest.