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The Curious Tale of William Adams, the Samurai Sailor

In the early 1980s a novel by James Clavell called ‘Shogun’ gripped the Western World. The book sold in millions, and awoke considerable interest in the history of feudal Japan. It was soon turned into a very successful TV series starring Richard Chamberlain as a Tudor sea pilot called John Blackthorne. The story tells how Blackthorne was wrecked on the Japanese coast in 1600, just when that country was entering a violent power struggle between rival clans of Samurai, battling to be supreme leader – the Shogun of the title. What is less well known is that Clavell based his book on the true story of an English sea captain called William Adams.

Adams was born in Gillingham in the Thames estuary in 1564. This was a traditional ship building area, and he was apprenticed at twelve to a shipyard owner at Limehouse. Over the next decade he learnt shipbuilding, astronomy and navigation. He was clearly a talented and able man, because at just 24 he was master of a ship under Drake during the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Later he became a pilot for the Barbary Company, and may even have taken part in an expedition to the Artic looking for the Northeast Passage along the coast of Siberia to the Far East.

In 1598, the now highly experienced Adams was appointed as pilot major to a Dutch expedition of five ships bound for the Far East, that planned to sail westwards across the Pacific. Leaving a wife and two children behind in England, he took the fleet first to West Africa, and then on raids in Spanish America, before making for Japan. Plagued by bad weather and disease, only one ship with a handful of men, led by Adams, arrived there in April 1600. They were accused of being pirates by Jesuit missionaries, their ship and cargo was seized and they were thrown into prison by a Japanese Warlord called Tokugawa Leyasu.

And then his remarkable story began to change. Over a series of interviews with Tokugawa, Adams first impressed his captor with his knowledge of the world, shipbuilding and mathematics, before slowly befriended him. He describes one of the meetings in a letter to his wife at home. “Coming before the king, he viewed me well, and seemed to be wonderfully favourable. He made many signs unto me, some of which I understood, and some I did not. In the end, there came one that could speak Portuguese. He asked me diverse…questions of things of religions, and many other things: As what way we came to the country. Having a chart of the whole world, I showed him, through the Strait of Magellan. Thus, from one thing to another, I abode with him till mid-night.”

By the end of 1600, Tokugawa had defeated his opponents to become Shogun, and Adams became his trusted advisor on maritime affairs and trade. In this capacity, Adams went on to set up many of the trading links that the original Dutch expedition had been tasked with forming. In 1604 he began teaching the Japanese how to build western-style ships, and how to navigate them. The first ones launched were used to open up trade with China, South East Asia, the Spanish Philippines and the Dutch East Indies. Although Adams himself was not allowed to leave Japan until 1613, many of the early trade expeditions were led by Dutch survivors of his original crew. After 1613 he was allowed his own ship, and took part in many of these voyages himself. He even worked on a plan to search for the North East passage to Europe from its Asian end. In time, he arranged the building of trading factories in Japan for both the Dutch and English East India Companies.

With the establishment of foreign enclaves in Japan, Adams might have been expected to start living amongst his fellow Europeans, but this didn’t happen. He was now fluent in the language, and was becoming increasingly seduced by the Japanese way of life. He had developed a high regard for Japan and its civilisation, and refused to live in Western style accommodation. He wrote that “the people of this Land of Japan are good of nature, courteous above measure, and valiant in war. [There is] …not a land better governed in the world by civil policy.”

Once he was allowed to leave Japan in 1613, Adams travelled extensively around Asia but never seems to have attempted to return home. By then he was a trusted member of Tokugawa’s inner circle, had become a Samurai and been given the title of ‘hatamoto’, or advisor, a high prestige position in Japan. He had even adopted a Japanese name (Miura Anjin), and was given land, wealth, and had "…eighty or ninety husbandmen, that be my slaves or servants." He was also encouraged to marry, which he did, to a lady called Oyuki. This match seems to have been prompted by love, and they had two children together. He did not neglect his family in England, however, sending regular sums of money home through the East India Company. Whether this was prompted by genuine concern, or guilt, is not recorded.

He eventually died in 1620, still in Japan, at the age of 55. In his will, he divided his considerable fortune between his two families on different sides of the world. With his passing, Japan became increasingly inward looking, eventually expelling foreigners and closing itself off from the outside world in 1635. This isolation would continue until the American Commodore Perry arrived to force change on Japan during the 19th century.

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