- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

By Giles Milton
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24, 338 pages, illus.

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. These distinctions were mostly disdained by his mates and by Englishmen who would arrive in Japan more than a decade later; indeed, the raucous and carousing habits of his countrymen did not endear them to the Japanese.
Adams was fortunate that Ieyasu was a man of wide curiosity about the world outside Japan. The British pilot was taken before him and fortunately made a favorable impression, one that would increase as Ieyasu came to rely on Adams' knowledge of navigation and other sea-going skills as well as general adviser. Adams was granted a stipend and, eventually, an estate and a title that classed him among the samurai.
The wild card, first, in survival of Adams and his mates, and, second, in their efforts to set up a trading network, was the influence of the Jesuits, who had arrived in Japan five decades before. In that period they made thousands of converts. While this worried the Japanese, their activities were tolerated, for a time.
The zealous missionaries, as it happened, had not explained to their hosts that the Reformation had ignited the vicious religious wars in Europe. The Jesuits were disconcerted by the arrival of the first "hereticks" aboard the Liefde and thought the most satisfactory solution was to have Adams and his fellows killed. "Thus daily," wrote Adams, "more and more, the Purtugalls incensed the justices and the people against us." Adroitly, Adams fended off the Jesuits and later Franciscans through the shogun's favor.
It was the battle of Osaka that drastically devalued the tolerance for the Catholic missionaries, when converts made the egregious decision to join the fight against Ieyasu. (After his death in 1617, his son and successor as shogun, Hidetada, began vigorously enforcing an anti-Christian edict through a hideous slaughter of priests and converts, which in practical terms meant Catholics).
Through Dutch traders, Adams managed after years to get a letter back to England to the "gentlemen adventurers" mobilizing to explore and trade in the Far East. A small English expedition under the aegis of the East India Company in 1611 arrived in Japan, and Adams was hired as a "factor" to begin the presumed flow of riches from the East. Several others in Adams' original crew also established what they hoped would become lucrative trading entrepots
But efforts to establish an effective commercial network failed disastrously in part through the ineptness and quarrelsomeness of the English captains and factors, and in part because of often subtle Japanese resistance to foreign inroads. Mr. Milton is excellent in delineating the brutal alignments and realignments of European power in these early decades of the 17th century in which yesterday's allies (the Dutch and the English) were tomorrow's sanguinary foes.
Adams in these years was the only Englishman to prosper, and was often distrusted by his own countrymen as well as by the Jesuits. He trod a risky line amid the flammable tensions that were always the environment in Japan, and he did so evidently with decent integrity.
In the spring of 1620, the 55-year-old Adams went into physical decline and died on May 16. He had wielded enormous influence, had played a "significant role" in Ieyasu's expulsion of the Jesuits under the anti-Christian edict, while protecting the tiny contingent of his fellow Englishman. .
Shortly after Adams' death, the East India Company appraised their affairs in Japan; "a sorry picture of degeneracy and insolvency" was apparent, and in 1623 the English abandoned The Land of the Rising Sun. The Portuguese and the Dutch then were expelled, and Japan, having seen enough "of troublesome foreigners and their bitter internecine war," sealed itself off from the West for 200 years.
When Westerners finally returned to Japan, "they were astonished to discover that William Adams's name was still famous throughout the land," writes Giles Milton. Indeed, Anjin Sama, as he was called in Japanese, was annually remembered at the Jodoji temple near where he once had a house.
"As incense thickened the air, and bells clanged in the twilight, they prayed for the soul of Samurai William."
This is a brave and harrowing tale.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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