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Anjin The Life and Times of Samurai William Adams
As Seen Through Japanese Eyes
By Hiromi T. Rogers
Global Books LtdCopyright © 2016 Hiromi T. Rogers
All rights reserved.
THE LURE OF THE EAST
* * *
We owe to Marco Polo the first European account of Japan, or Cipangu as he called it, although, not having visited the country himself, he was entirely reliant on third-party sources. In the remarkable twenty years he served as ambassador for Khubilai Khan, the fourth Emperor of China and descendant of Chinggis Khan, he visited many neighbouring countries. In The Travels of Marco Polo, published in 1298, he describes reports of Japan as a magnificent country, abundant in gold and with white and civilized people, but whose skilful warriors were in constant conflict.
Marco Polo, with his father and uncle, had originally travelled to China overland. In the following century, the expanding Ottoman Empire began imposing heavy taxes on overland travellers, prompting European explorers to look for sea routes that would avoid passing through Islamic territory. The stakes were high. The lure of the East sprang from the pages of Marco Polo's Travels – the silk, the gold, the silver, the spices such as pepper, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon, even the erotic paintings. All were in great demand in Europe. Fortunes were there to be made.
Henry XV of Portugal [1394–1460], known as Henry the Navigator, was particularly keen to solve the sea-route problem and so despatched many of his young explorers with a mission to find an alternative route. The Cape Verde Islands were discovered in 1445 and by 1498 the Portuguese had found an eastern route, around Africa. Columbus, seeking a western route, had found the West Indies and part of South America for Spain. In 1494, the Pope defined what was known as the Tordesillas Line, whereby Spain and Portugal agreed not to interfere in each other's international business on their side of this north-south demarcation line. The Italian explorer, John Cabot, had also read The Travels of Marco Polo. He hoped to reach the East by sailing west, across the Atlantic. He came to England and gained Henry VII's support. In 1497, he sailed for North America and reached Newfoundland, thinking it was Asia. However, his was the first English expedition to reach America. In 1498, he set out again with five ships, but none returned.
In the next century, Ferdinand Magellan and his Portuguese sailors sailed south round America and became the first people to circumnavigate the world. By 1540, the Spaniards Cortés and Pizarro had explored Mexico and much of South America. A French explorer, Jacques Cartier, reached Canada. English merchants too were eager for trade in Asia, but Portugal controlled the south-eastern sea routes round Africa to India, China and Japan, and Spain controlled the south-western route round America and across the Pacific. Apart from the enormous challenges presented by the elements, both routes were beset by danger from pirates and raiders. In 1548, Edward VI's government invited John Cabot's son, Sebastian, to England to help. He was a respected geographer and mapmaker. To avoid the Spanish and Portuguese, he recommended a 'Northeast Passage' to Asia, through Arctic waters north of Norway, but Tudor ships were no ice-breakers.
In 1553, with three ships and ninety-five men, Sir Hugh Willoughby accompanied by the expert navigator Richard Chancellor set sail from London taking a route around Norway to try to find an ice-free passage to Asia. Their ships were struck by a violent storm and they lost their way in the Arctic ice. After sheltering, Willoughby decided not to set out to sea again, but he and his seventy crew members died from cold and starvation. Russian fishermen found their frozen bodies when summer came. On the other hand, Chancellor and his crew were lucky enough to reach the White Sea and an unknown land. Fishermen told them the country was called Russia or Moscovy. They were welcomed by the Russian Emperor, Ivan IV, and English merchants were permitted to trade. In 1554, Chancellor returned home safely, but within two years he had died having failed to discover a north-east passage to Asia. However, he had started a friendship between Russia and England which helped Queen Mary to establish the Muscovy Company in 1555, giving it monopoly control of all trade and discovery in the north.
In the same year, the Muscovy Company sent Stephen Borough to find the north-east passage. He explored to the north-east area of the White Sea, but his voyage was once again blocked by endless ice. Much of the Arctic Ocean was permanently frozen and even in summer it was extremely hazardous because of the unpredictable ice floes and icebergs. Twenty-five years later, the Muscovy Company sent out Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman who tried to find a way through, but the ice hazards also forced them to return. In 1594, a Dutch explorer, Willem Barents, sailed through what became known as the Barents Sea and got as far as the Kara Sea, but he died on his second voyage attempting to explore further. The triumph of discovering and sailing through what is now known as the North-east Passage had to wait until 1879 and the arrival of the Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld.
In 1576, Sir Martin Frobisher took a different tack. He made an Arctic voyage to try to discover a north-west passage to Asia, but he failed and returned home. In 1578, Sir Humphrey Gilbert also tried, but fared no better. In 1583, he tried again, but this time his ship sank, and he went down with it. The problems with ice on this westerly route were compounded by fog. Between 1585 and 1587, John Davis made three Arctic voyages, but he only reached latitude 73°N, off the coast of Greenland, in what was eventually called Davis Strait.
The sixteenth century, therefore, when William Adams was learning about the world, was a time of fierce competition among explorers to discover the North-east and North-west Passages. As we have seen, it was also a time of great opportunity for adventurers to make their fortune following the newly-established trade routes. One of Adams' childhood inspirations would certainly have been the Devon sailor Francis Drake. For this ambitious and anti-Catholic young sailor, the Spaniards were a natural enemy and he took delight in plundering Spanish ships. Although he was shot in the leg by the Spanish, it only increased his determination. Eventually, he succeeded in capturing £20,000 of Spanish treasure (worth about £20 million today). He returned to Plymouth a hero and a rich one. Drake's next challenge was to explore the Pacific. In 1577, his ships set sail. His voyage proved to be very challenging involving a number of terrible storms, but he survived them and sailed through the Strait of Magellan. During 1579, on raids along the western coast of South America, he plundered £140,000 of silver (worth about £140 million today). He decided not to return via the Magellan Strait for fear of Spanish attacks and sailed north-west towards latitude 48°N. In June his ship landed in what is now Drake's Bay, north of San Francisco. In November 1579, he reached the Moluccas. Then he sailed on westwards, returning home to another hero's reception and a knighthood. At this point, William Adams would have been in his teens.
In the same period that many Europeans were eager for trade with Asia, Japan and China were trading with each other. The main trading port of Japan was the Kobe Port in Hyogo Prefecture, almost at the centre of the main island. Japanese merchant ships, which were no larger than the fishing boats of those days, set sail for Ningbo in China calling in at Hiroshima in western Japan and Fukuoka in the south. At Hakata Port in Fukuoka, they stopped and waited for the autumn north-easterly to speed them on their way to China. They went to trade with Ningbo, Fujian and Guangdong, mainly for silk. Relations between the two countries were strained and trade tightly controlled. They returned home on the spring south-easterly. Later, as commerce in Osaka and Nagasaki developed more than in other areas, the ports of these two prefectures replaced Hyogo and Hakata.
In today's Nagasaki Prefecture, there used to be a port called Hirado. This is where William Adams was later to make his base. Hirado became the main centre for maritime traders. It had environmental advantages, the right depth of water and was surrounded by mountains of ideal height to provide good shelter. The Japanese likened its shape to their traditional earthenware oven, sunk as they were in the ground. Its location at the southernmost tip of Japan put it closest to the Chinese mainland. Shipbuilding was also developing in China and soon the Japanese were making ships with thicker and stronger hulls while also improving the design and quality of the sails. Consequently, they were no longer confined to sailing in specific seasons, when a fair wind was blowing, and thus did not have to stop and wait in Hakata's port in order to pick up these winds. In time, Hirado Port became a favourite haunt for pirates, but in those lawless days that was another indication of the port's status and commercial success.
* * *
There is little known of William Adams' childhood. What is recorded is that he was the elder son of an English mariner and was baptized at St Mary's parish church in Gillingham, Kent, on 24 September 1564. His family was part of an impoverished, Elizabethan underclass, but it is reasonable to assume that he and his brother Thomas were brought up well, with their imaginations fired by stories of their father's sea voyages. In the sixteenth century, the River Medway was very important from both the commercial and naval points of view with the section of river opposite Gillingham becoming the harbour for the King's ships. In 1576, when Adams was twelve years old, his father John Adams died, prompting William to leave home and become an apprentice pilot and shipwright in Limehouse on the Thames, just outside the walls of the City of London. In those days Limehouse, unlike the smart riverside flats of today, was known as the land of the living poor. The many mariners, carpenters and shipwrights who lived there were in constant danger from street gangs, but it was on these banks of the Thames that sailors gathered to volunteer for voyages into the unknown.
Adams was trained by the well-known shipwright Nicholas Diggins. He was personally more interested in a career as a pilot than a shipwright. However, while he was also to prove a keen student of the new science of navigation – hydrography, astronomy, astrology, geometry and mathematics – it was his knowledge of how to build small ships from start to finish, that eventually not only saved his life but made his fortune.
He completed his apprenticeship in 1588, just in time to go to war and to take part in the battle against the Spanish armada. His first assignment, in fact, was on the 120-ton Richard Duffield, which had a crew of twenty-five men, and was a supply ship, responsible for conveying food and ammunition to the English fleet.
Although Adams' first command was only a modest little vessel, the fact that he obtained the command at all at such an early age shows that he must have been a good and diligent apprentice, having earned a first-rate recommendation from the highly-respected mariner Nicholas Diggins. But Adams had his sights on piloting a fighting ship, so when, at the age of twenty-four, he was told he was too young for a command, he resigned from the fleet.
On 20 August 1589, Adams married Mary Hyn Mabel, the only daughter of Master Saris, a wealthy London merchant. The ceremony was conducted in the Parish Church of St. Dunstan in Stepney, just to the east of the Tower of London, but also very near Execution Dock, where the dead bodies after execution by hanging could be seen piled up in the water. After tying the knot at such a macabre place, the bride must surely have been very disappointed to discover that her husband did not intend to work as a shipwright in London. He was to be almost continuously at sea – roaming as far as the west coast of Africa to the south, and the island of Spitzbergen in the north. Then, one day, poor Mary Hyn, who had already been left alone so much since her marriage to Adams, was told by her husband that he had now agreed to be employed in the English wool trade by the London Company of Barbary Merchants. It was risky work, particularly in the Mediterranean where he could have been caught and hanged by the Turks, but she would have consoled herself that he had sailed to and from North Africa safely for ten years.
During these voyages, Adams had acquired invaluable experience as a mariner and pilot; likewise, the qualities he developed of toughness, determination, ambition and self-reliance were to stand him in good stead later. From 1593 to 1595, Adams had also piloted a voyage of exploration to discover the Northeast Passage to Asia. In the summer of 1595, they reached latitude 82°N, but the frozen Arctic seas forced them to return.
He was also developing his skills at a time of great change at sea. Pilots were now skilled in the science of navigation, rather than just in the experiences of those who had gone before. The pilot who understood astronomy, mathematics and other sciences could qualify as a master pilot, capable of sailing his ship to an unknown horizon, even in the darkest of nights, and reach his destination safely. In fact, Adams was one of the first English apprentices to master the new science of navigation. He was to become the first European to teach it to the Japanese authorities.
In Queen Elizabeth I's reign, the English and Dutch nations shared a common rivalry with the Spaniards. Queen Elizabeth allowed Dutch seamen to sail into the Thames to refit and rest, and towards the end of her reign she actually sent English forces to the Netherlands to help the Dutch in their fight for independence.
Adams had met many Dutch seamen and merchants on his travels and liked them. On one of his voyages, he picked up rumours of a Dutch plan to send a large fleet to the Spice Islands. The word was that five ships were already prepared at Rotterdam. The fleet required experienced pilots, able to navigate safely across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Adams was now thirty-four years old. He had worked for the Barbary Merchants for ten years. He was looking for a change. A long voyage to the East Indies would be high risk, but the potential rewards in spice and gold were enormous. He already had a good understanding of the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish languages. His nationality presented no difficulties as far as being employed by the Dutch was concerned. He could also take advantage of a connection with his Dutch uncle-in-law. His wife's mother was Dutch and one of her uncles was involved in Dutch trading. So Adams asked him to provide a reference for him to the Dutch East India Company. His wife and daughter, whom they had named Deliverance, reluctantly accepted Adams' decision. As soon as Adams was given the reference from his uncle, he grabbed the opportunity and signed on, along with his brother Thomas.
When the spring of 1598 arrived, without any farewells to his wife and daughter (something he was later to regret), Adams set sail with a little ship to Goedereede Port on Goeree Island, near Rotterdam. The River Thames, Limehouse, the church of St. Dunstan and the town of Gillingham were all gradually lost from sight. His thoughts then were of a triumphant return, not that he would ever see these sights again.
Adams, Thomas and his English crew received a warm welcome from the Dutch organizers of the expedition. Information on the precise purpose of the expedition was harder to obtain. There were rumours in Rotterdam that the Dutch merchants who were financing the fleet had more interest in gold than spice and that they had instructed their captains to copy Francis Drake's tactics and raid Spanish settlements in South America.
The fleet of five ships must have looked very impressive riding at anchor in Goedereede Port, a deep waterway that joined Rotterdam with the North Sea. The five ships were the 500 ton De Hoop (Hope) with 130 crew, the 320 ton Het Geloof (Faith) with 109 crew, the 300 ton De Liefde (Love) with 110 crew, the 220 ton De Trouw (Fidelity) with 86 crew and the 150 ton De Blidje Boodschop (Merry Messenger) with 56 crew (see Plate 5). These names were to prove sadly inappropriate. Hope and Faith were tested to destruction, Love and Fidelity wilted under pressure, and when the surviving crew of De Blidje Boodschop finally returned home, the messages they brought back were anything but merry.
The admiral of the fleet, Jacob (Jacques) Mahu, asked Adams to join his flagship, De Hoop. In certain situations at sea, pilots would carry more responsibility and influence than captains and Adams was to be one of the main pilots for the fleet. He was also lucky to be on the same ship as Timothy Shotten, his best friend, who had already sailed around the world and was a goldmine of advice and information. Adams' brother was placed on De Trouw and the other Englishmen were divided between the vessels.
Excerpted from Anjin The Life and Times of Samurai William Adams by Hiromi T. Rogers. Copyright © 2016 Hiromi T. Rogers. Excerpted by permission of Global Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
1 The Lure of the East,
2 A Punishing Passage,
3 Life or Death,
4 The Shogun Decides,
5 The Battle of Sekigahara,
6 The Shogun's Adviser,
7 An Exceptional Honour,
8 Samurai Life and Nuptials,
9 The Battle for Naval Supremacy,
10 Trade with the Dutch,
11 A Toehold for the Spanish,
13 A Welcome for the English,
14 An Agonizing Decision,
15 A Political Earthquake,
16 Private Disgrace and Company Debt,
17 War and Death,