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Mercator Cooper (September 29, 1803 – spring 1872) was a ship's captain who is credited with the first formal American visit to Edo (now Tokyo), Japan and the first formal landing on the mainland East Antarctica.
Both events occurred while sailing ships out of Sag Harbor, New York.
Cooper was born in Southampton, New York, to Nathan and Olive (née Howell) Cooper, one of five children, three of whom survived to adulthood. He went to sea on a whaling vessel in the early 1820s. Records show that he visited Guangdong (China) and Patagonia (South America) on whaling expeditions, and that he became captain of a ship in 1832.
He married Maria Green at the age of 24, and they had three children: Nathan (died in infancy), Maria, and Sarah.
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, its crew rescued 22 shipwrecked Japanese sailors in the Bonin Islands. The first 11 sailors were found on Tori-shima, where Manhattan anchored to hunt for turtles to supplement the ship's provisions, and were survivors from the Koho-maru wrecked en route to Edo. The next day 11 more sailors were found on a foundering Japanese boat Senju-maru (along with a detailed navigation map of Japan).
The Manhattan set sail for Edo to repatriate the sailors. Outside Edo 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 due to the Tokugawa shogunate's official policy of national isolation. However, on April 18, 1845, an emissary from the shogunate gave the ship permission to proceed. "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."[a]
Japanese accounts place the anchorage of Manhattan at Uraga, at the mouth of Tokyo Bay. It had been over 220 years since so many foreigners had been so close to the Japanese metropolis, but no one from the vessel was permitted to actually land in Japan.
The Japanese examined his ship and took particular note of Pyrrhus Concer, a crewman from Southampton, Long Island, who was the only African American on board, and of a Shinnecock Native American named Eleazar. They were the first dark skinned men the Japanese had seen and they wanted to touch their skin. The interpreter from the Japanese side was Moriyama Einosuke, who would later serve during the Perry Expedition.
The Japanese refused payment for provisions and gave the ship 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, and a set of lacquer bowls for the captain, together with a letter from the Shogun. They thanked the Manhattan's crew for returning the shipwrecked sailors and told them to never return, not even to bring back more castaways, on pain of death. On April 21, 500 small boats towed the Manhattan 20 miles out to sea.
Cooper took with him the map that charted the islands of Japan that had been found on the disabled Japanese ship. This is now located in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. News of Cooper's encounter was extensively publicized in the United States. Matthew Perry was said to have used the map on his visit to Japan on July 8, 1853.
Cooper's home in Southampton is now owned by the Rogers Memorial Library. Pyrrhus Concer is buried in the North End Cemetery in Southampton across from Cooper's home.
In August 1851, Cooper again left Sag Harbor, this time as captain of the 382-ton ship Levant[b] 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.