How a 16th-Century Englishman Landed in Japan

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 19, 2003 | Go to article overview

How a 16th-Century Englishman Landed in Japan


Byline: Woody West, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

On April 12, 1600, the Dutch ship Liefde, barely seaworthy, drifted ashore in southern Japan. When townsmen boarded the battered ship, they found most of the surviving crew lying in their own filth. Of the 24 men, 6 were near death. Most were suffering from advanced scurvy. "Their victuals had run out long ago and they had subsisted on the

rats and other vermin that scavenged for scraps in the filthy swill in the hold of the vessel," writes Giles Milton in "Samurai William."

Only the pilot, Englishman William Adams, was sufficiently coherent to greet the boarding party. In 19 months at sea, the Liefde "had achieved the remarkable feat of crossing both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, negotiating the treacherous Magellan Straits en route, watched in horror as their friends and fellow crewman had weakened and expired," including Adams' brother.

The Liefde was the surviving ship of a five-vessel Dutch flotilla dispatched to exploit the wealth of the far Eastern lands that existed essentially to Europeans in fragmented information and primitive maps.

The Portugese had led the way for God and gain, rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and pushing on in the new century to establish trade with China and eventually Japan. In the early years of the 17th century, the Spanish, the Dutch and the English were widening dramatically the bounds of the known world, and Queen Elizabeth celebrated Francis Drake with a knighthood when the Golden Hind home in 1580 after circumnavigating the globe.

As the Golden Hind returned from its triumphant voyage, William Adams was young and poor in the squalid London portside neighborhood of Limehouse. He apprenticed as a shipwright and pilot, rose to command a small ship supplying the fleet that sailed against the Armada, and over the years mastered the pilot's craft.

After the fateful landfall in 1600, he would spend the next 20 years in Japan.

Never to return to England, "Samurai William" became the most influential foreigner in the kingdom, where survival alone was an achievement. Adams became a trusted adviser to the great shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa, and with a second family died rich in the fabled land where ambition and the winds had taken him.

In Mr. Milton's previous book, "Nathaniel's Nutmeg," he recorded the epic British voyage to the East in search of that rarest and most valuable of spices which was believed to be effective against the plague. As in that book, he here recounts in graphic detail - much from primary sources - the astounding hardships and hardihood of those explorers of a dangerous unknown:

Adams "blinked in astonishment as he caught his first glimpse of a civilization that was older - and perhaps more sophisticated - than his own." The Liefde's crew and the Europeans who would follow them were most astonished at the Japanese penchant for bathing, a practice not habitual among them, at the swift and sure punishment for crimes which featured an ingeniously cruel form of crucifixion, and at the fastidious table manners of the natives which contrasted with their own grab-and-gobble habits.

Adams and his shipmates arrived in Japan as a bloody period of anarchic civil wars was ending. A regency of five warlords ruled on behalf of a revered but impotent emperor; leyasu Tokugawa was the strongest of these, and in October 1600 at the village of Sekigahara, as every Japanese schoolboy knows, he defeated the forces of the other ruling elders. Fifteen years later they regrouped, but Ieyasu totally established his dominance at the battle of Osaka and founded his Tokugawa shogunate that would endure until 1868.

Of the surviving mixed English and Dutch crew of the Liefde, Adams by far seems to have had his wits most about him, a man described as both affable and arrogant. In remarkably short order, he became conversant and later fluent in the difficult language and, perhaps most important, adhered to the punctilious Japanese protocols of civility and hierarchy. …

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