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Several readers have asked for an update on the search for the illusive “Oqui.” Well, he’s still alluding me. Though Samuel Eliot Morrison provides a few more details in his entertaining 1967 biography of Matthew C. Perry: “Old Bruin" Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry.
Morrison describes Oqui as a “Chinese gardener boy,” and “China-boy gardener,” hired to help Dr. James Morrow care for botanical specimens the Perry Mission collected during the voyage. Most of them from China. More on Morrow in a moment. The specimens, he writes, were “some three hundred living plants, trees and ornamental shrubs of Japan and China.”
They were carried aboard the USS Lexington, the vessel sent from the United States after Perry’s departure with supplies and gifts for Japan’s emperor.
Morrison calls the Lexington an “old and notoriously slow corvette,” “now converted into a steamship.” Here above is a drawing of the Lexington made by a Japanese observer during Perry’s second visit to Japan. Old and slow it may have been. But it was the vessel of greatest interest here to us, since it carried our Oqui to the United States in 1855.
The Lexington, Morrison writes, presumably with Oqui aboard, arrived from Japan at Brooklyn, New York, on February 16th, 1855. Oqui and Dr. Morrow had been able to keep nearly all of the plants alive during the voyage, in spite of their exposure to salt spray and the burning sun encountered at sea.
Morrison writes that the plants then were transferred to another Navy vessel for transport to Washington D.C. Oqui must have accompanied them. Though Morrison writes that he could learn nothing of Oqui’s whereabouts after his arrival in Washington. We know a little more, but not much!
In Washington the plants were stored in a greenhouse near the Capitol. Morrison further speculates that some of the plants now at the Botanic Garden in Washington are descendents of those Oqui and Morrow brought from Asia in the mid-1850s.
The father of the Perry Expedition’s “agriculturalist,” Dr. James Morrow, it turns out, owned a plantation in South Carolina. There young James dabbled in botany before beginning his medical education. Another lead to check out.
Morrison also says that Morrow established a medical practice in Charleston, South Carolina, after returning from Asia. And that he served as a physician for the Confederacy during the War.
See a caricature of him by a Japanese artist at the time. With special attention to his stylish hat. Probably not regular Navy issue ….
Morrow and Perry were to quarrel over the custody of the botanical samples collected. It seems unlikely that Oqui would have been involved in their dispute. But it may have complicated his life somewhat.
Morrison also mentions that Commodore Perry, himself an enthusiastic amateur botanist, communicated with Francis Lieber, at what would become the University of South Carolina, about the plants he brought back from Japan, and expressed his hope they would be adopted by American horticulturalists.
So it’s nor surprising that John Ferars Townsend, owner of Botany Bay Plantation in South Carolina, would have learned of the illusive “Oqui” and his botanical charges soon after Oqui’s arrival in the United States. Either from Morrow’s father, if still living, from Morrow himself, or from Francis Lieber. Lots more research to do on this interesting topic. Stay Tuned.