Milton — Samurai William

Milton, G., Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002, 400 pp.

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

Some thirty years ago, beach readers basting themselves in the sun were reading the fictional adventures of an English sailor, a navigator or “pilot”, cast ashore after a Dutch shipwreck off Japan in the early 17th century. John Blackthorne was the ultimate “fish out of water,” making his way in an alien violent land through physical strength, mental acuity and prodigious love-making, rising finally after various reversals of fortune to become the trusted confidant and friend of the military supremo of the time — the Shogun. Battling ninja, the Portuguese, Jesuits, scheming Japanese lords, cultural confusion, and romantic tragedy, the novel left Blackthorne an older and wiser man at the peak of his powers.

Like many fans of James Clavell’s Asian novels, I enjoyed the story for what it was … laced with the critical potboiler elements of exotic settings, sex and violence (followed closely by clothes and food) … a great yarn … an uninspiring 1980 TV mini-series — but I thought no more about it until I glanced recently at the cover of a paperback version of Milton’s Samurai William in a bookstore. Hmm. That tale looks familiar.

It turns out that Clavell’s fish-out-of-water story was based broadly on actual events. Englishman William Adams was a crewman on a small fleet of Dutch ships attempting to open trade with the Far East by passing through the Cape Horn and sailing across the Pacific. Adams and a handful of starved, sickened survivors of the single Dutch vessel to make it to Japan were curiosities at first to the reigning shogun (Tokugawa Ieyasu). They were saved from crucifixion on a whim, despite the best efforts of the Jesuits to see that Adams and his crew met an immediate and very bad end. Adams was tossed into a Japanese prison after his first interview with the Shogun.

But the shogun quickly realized that the anjin or pilot was an unusually intelligent, skilled, and self-possessed man. Though not formally educated, his technical and geographic knowledge was substantial. And his ability with languages was to become a key factor in the subsequent history of Japan. For William Adams, English Protestant pilot, formerly of Limehouse in London’s docklands, was to become the European translator for the most powerful man in Japan.

He was to give the Shogun dramatic new insights into the world of the Europeans (especially the ongoing war between Protestants and Catholics). With encouragement and funding from above, Adams began a program of ship-building and mapmaking that gave the Japanese a familiarity (if not expertise) with oceanic travel for the first time. And the Japanese were then able to take part in the trade wars of southeast Asia as independent mercenaries for the first time, rather than merely being lethal cargo moved around the Pacific and Indian Oceans at the whim of the Portuguese. But for Adams, all this was at a cost. Though given lands, honours, and a new family in Japan, the Shogun forbid William Adams from returning home to England.

Milton’s challenge in telling William Adam’s tale is two-fold. First, the era is poorly known and even less remembered by the English-speaking world. And secondly, our knowledge of events in Japan are restricted to a handful of documents that reflect the 17th century incentives of the authors. The author must set the stage for Adams incredible life, but also recount as much of the personality and day-to-day events of Adams’ life as possible to keep the book biographical, rather than broadly historical.

Samurai William, after introducing the protagonist, takes the reader on a quick “voyage of discovery” in late 16th century Europe. The English were coming late to the oceanic exploration game. Initially, in the 1580s, they sought to reach the Orient by either a Northeast or Northwest Passage. Meeting no success, they turned to duplicating the earlier efforts of the master mariners of the time, the Portuguese and Spanish. Sir Francis Drake was to be the first English captain to reach the Pacific and circumnavigate the world in the 1570s.

The Portuguese had rounded the Cape of Good Hope much earlier (1498), and after Magellan passed through the straits at the southern end of South America in 1520, those two nations had established the Indian and Pacific Oceans as their own fiefdoms. Vicious competitors with each other, they controlled information and access to the Protestants even more ruthlessly. By 1511, the Portuguese were established in Malacca on the Malay Peninsula, and began disrupting the Muslim spice trade that had brought Arabs east from India and the Middle East for over 500 years. Then Magellan claimed the Philippines for Spain (1521) and the Portuguese were forced to hop-scotch their way up the Asian coastline to China (and Macao), acquiring harbour rights there by 1535.

The Japanese had established themselves as terrible pirates in the South China Sea, so much so that trade between Japan and the mainland had dwindled to whatever could be arranged through middle-men in the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa). Into this void stepped the Portuguese. The Japanese wanted Chinese silk. The Chinese wanted Japanese silver. The Portuguese had large ocean-going vessels, armed to the teeth. It was a match made in heaven. In 1544, the Portuguese opened their first trade venture to Japan, to be followed by annual trade voyages of a “Great Ship” that made fantastic profits for all concerned. By 1549, Portuguese Jesuits had appeared in Japan (including the famous St. Francis Xavier) , and along with the mendicant orders (primarily the Franciscans), they began proselytizing in the harbour areas surrounding Portuguese trading sites. Rapidly, over the next few decades, the Portuguese and Japanese developed a very profitable trade and with the Jesuit decision to “go native” (adopting Japanese customs and focusing on converting the elite). the pace of Christianization of southwest Japan advanced quickly. By 1580, the port city of Nagasaki was heavily influenced by European technology, culture, and religion. This was the high point of Portuguese influence in Japan. A Japanese delegation visited Rome soon thereafter, and the first Japanese Jesuit priests were ordained.

When Sir Francis Drake passed through the Spice Islands in the late 1570s, heading westward, the local sultans and chiefs were already chafing under the treatment by Portuguese and Spanish traders and soldiers. The English were immediately seen as a potential ally and were encouraged to return. By 1586, English Thomas Cavendish was raiding the west coast of the Americas and seizing Spanish treasure galleons (and Japanese youths).

It would not be long before Dutch and English Protestants were acquiring both the funds and the critical information to venture forth. By the end of the 16th century, Dutch sailors on Portuguese ships had brought back enough information on the Spice Islands of southeast Asia to allow the merchants of London and Rotterdam to consider making some forays of their own into those regions. These private ventures, often subsidized by piracy, were to be the basis of a very rapid expansion of Dutch and English influence in Asia. Many such ventures failed or were financially unsuccessful but the Dutch and English republics could fund repeated efforts … all in the knowledge that a single successful voyage would repay many failures.

And the local peoples were very much on the look-out for alternative trading partners. The Japanese, in particular, considered themselves superior in every way to their Portuguese trading partners … except in two areas: oceanic shipping and military armament. The Spanish and Portuguese rebuffed repeated Japanese requests for training in shipbuilding or oceanic navigation. The Japanese were deeply frustrated.

Now Milton returns us to the story’s central character.

William Adams, sailing with a Dutch fleet, was but one small part of a historical shift that was to shake Asia and Japan. In order to maintain an appearance of strength and dominance, the Jesuits had led the Japanese to believe that Catholicism was unopposed and triumphant in Europe. When Adams and his crew drifted up to the coast of Japan on the 12th of April 1600, and quickly proved that they were far more than heretic pirates, the Portuguese (and the Jesuits) had some serious explaining to do. It’s of considerable credit to Adams that he managed to stay un-crucified during his early months in Japan when the people translating his words for the Shogun were his deadly enemies. Whether the Japanese sensed Portuguese anxiety, or Adams found some way to convey his real intent, we’ll never know. Whatever the case, the Shogun rapidly began to realize that Adams was either the world’s biggest liar or Japan’s most useful source of information on the European world.

The first years after Adams’ arrival in Japan were right in the middle of a savage civil war in Japan. The Shogun’s Sekigahara campaign (1598-1603) was to culminate with the crushing of his main rival (Ishida Mitsunari) and the use of Dutch naval cannon (and Dutch musketry) on Japanese fortifications.

By 1605, Ieyasu had William Adams building small scale versions of European shipping to develop local shipbuilding expertise, graduating step-by-step to larger vessels. As early as 1601, the Dutch had learned that at least one of their vessels had survived the trip to Japan (others from Adams’ small fleet had made it as far as the Spice Islands). From then on they were determined to expand from their newly-established bases in Java toward a lucrative trade with Japan and China. By 1609, Portuguese arrogance and destructiveness in Nagasaki had led the Shogun to dismiss his Portuguese Jesuit translator permanently. Adams took his place. And when, in 1611, the first Dutch trading ships had ventured north from Java to reach the Japanese port of Hirado, Adams was in a position to be an immediate liaison and protector for this new group of Europeans.

Within two years, an English trading ship, the “Clove”, had also reached Hirado, and now Adams became an employee of the English East India Company for a two-year period. Here the tale, if possible, becomes even more tangled. Like the Jesuits, Adams had adapted to his isolation and vulnerability in Japan by adopting Japanese customs, dress, and language. When his Dutch and English colleagues arrived in Japan in small ships filled with items of no use to the Japanese (who wanted silks not woolens), the Europeans thought William Adams must have been turning the Japanese against them for his own gain. Little did they know. Within a year, Ieyasu had issued a suppression edict against Catholic Christians and it was with great effort that Adams kept both the Dutch and English traders from joining the thousands that were expelled or crucified on official order.

Ieyasu fought a climatic battle with the young lord Hideyori (for whom he was nominal regent) at Osaka castle in December 1614. After the edicts issued earlier in the year, the Christian lords (daimyos) understood that they were fighting for their very existence. They joined Hideyori against Ieyasu, and the subsequent battle for Osaka castle was particularly horrific, consuming tens of thousands of lives. The outcome for Japanese history in the 20th century certainly bears noting. This battle was the capstone of the Shogun’s military victories and was to cement control of Japan by the Tokugawa shogunate (and a policy of a “closed” anti-Christian Japan) for almost 250 years.

Adams’ success in supporting the Protestant trading factories ultimately came through his voyages to Malaya and Thailand. The Europeans may have brought nothing of value to the Japanese but they could act as brokers for items of value throughout southeast Asia that did interest the Japanese (such as sappanwood). Through his efforts at constructing, captaining, and piloting ships under Shogunate seal, Adams was to provide enough income for the English and Dutch to keep the traders solvent. It was during one of Adams’ trips to southeast Asia in 1616, that the Shogun Ieyasu died.

This was a crisis of serious proportions and it was fortunate for the small community at Hirado that Adams returned from his voyage only a week or so after the Shogun’s death. As in most dictatorships, transition is perilous, and Adams and the European trading chiefs spent anxious months in audiences waiting for the new Shogun to decide on their future. In the end, the new Shogun Hidetada, Ieyasu’s son, ordered that all European trade was in future to be restricted to Hirado, except for personal trade by Adams (who’d earlier been given noble rank of hamamoto). This, understandably, caused further suspicion by the European community that Adams was self-dealing. Nonetheless, it was Adams’ language skills and reputation at the Shogun’s court that allowed the Dutch and English to avoid the suppression and expulsions experienced by Catholics and the other European nationals.

To further complicate things, the Dutch and English were themselves at war soon thereafter and did much to disrupt each other’s trading success at Hirado. The local Europeans lived in terror of assassination and it was only the intervention of the local Japanese lord (with Adams’ pleas) that kept the smaller English contingent alive during this period.

By 1617, the Shogun began to receive confirmed reports that the Jesuits had begun sneaking back into Japan after their initial suppression, military defeat, and expulsion by Ieyasu in 1614. Now Hidetada began a much more methodical extermination of Christians in the Nagasaki area at all levels of society. Public torture, crucifixion, and burnings were meant to emphasize unrelenting official will. This created a powerful martyr’s movement that took some years to crush. In acts of communal punishment, entire families were burnt alive in conditions so terrible that even the Japanese, for whom such punishment was an accepted part of life, were deeply shocked. For the Europeans, no strangers to the horrors of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the actions of Hidetada and his even more sadistic son, the Shogun Iemitsu, were beyond the pale.

The exterminations continued through 1619 and disrupted trade with the Europeans dramatically. Here our story veers from James Clavell’s swashbuckling tale into a far less uplifting finale. After twenty years of life in Japan, and successive voyages to southeast Asia, Adams health began to break and he died at Hirado harbour in 1620. Without his sponsorship and court finesse, the already-tenuous finances of the English trading settlement were in jeopardy. Despite the outbreak of peace between the Dutch and English, which created a safe environment for Hirado traders for the first time in years, the restrictions placed by the Japanese on trading activities generally made life precarious. A combined Anglo-Dutch “Fleet of Defence” in the early 1620s did little to actually increase safety or trade in the region.

In December 1623, the English trading factory at Hirado was closed forever. The Shogun’s Ieyasu instituted even more pogroms for Japanese Christians, expelled the Portuguese finally and completely in 1637, and soon thereafter moved the Dutch from Hirado to the tiny artificial island of Deshima just off Nagasaki, from which Japan was to engage the outside world for the next two hundred years.

As for William Adams, despite his failure to establish an English trading empire, or to return home to his family in London, his fame in Japan survived the Tokugawa shogunate. Americans coming ashore in Edo (Tokyo) in the mid-19th century were to stumble on memorials to his name and achievements (Anjin Sama – Mr. Pilot). Williams Adams’ letters to England (and that of his contemporaries), stored in the archives of the East India Company, were the foundation upon which historians reconstructed his amazing story … and stimulated a novelist like James Clavell to write a rousing tale of exotic adventure at “the ends of the earth.”

Milton’s Book

As noted above, Milton’s book on William Adams had some big hurdles to overcome. Educating readers, and engaging their interest, are not always compatible. Having read Shogun, I found Samurai William very satisfying though. It fleshed out the “back-story” of Dutch and English exploration with historical detail and it provided a more mundane, but no less amazing, biography of an English pilot at the turn of the 17th century.

Initially, I thought this book would be an excellent read for teens or precocious pre-teens with an interest in Asian history. Start with Shogun … finish with Samurai William. But Milton is judicious in making this an adult story. The European sailors and traders of the era were big fans of alcohol, prostitutes, greed, and violence, so the story of Samurai William must be dispensed by parents selectively. It’s not a prurient story but it is a harsh one.

For adults however, the tale is fascinating and I found myself consulting the atlas and Wikipedia often and repeatedly as Adams’ story unfolded. The decades of the early 17th century in east Asia were times of tremendous change under horrific sailing conditions. It is a world so unlike our own as to seem completely alien. William Adams’ voyage with the Mahu-de Cordes fleet in 1598 forms just one part of a broader story of ocean exploration that took far more than its share in humans and humanity.

Readers who are interested in the subject area are also directed to other great tales of ocean adventure and tragedy:

The The Wreck of the Batavia off the west coast of Australia in 1629. That of shipwreck survivors on south-east coast of Africa in 1782. De Bougainville‘s explorations of the Pacific Ocean, or those of Magellan in his 1520 circumnavigation in Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen. and those of William Dampier (A Pirate of Exquisite Mind) in the 1680s.

When matched with books by economic historians who focus on the global economy over the last five hundred years (chicagoboyz review here), a whole world of fascination opens up that fully exceeds anything from a novelist’s pen.

Here are the Anglosphere’s first faltering steps to establish global influence … not just following the Catholic world but leading it. Disease, ignorance, and inexperience were to plague English exploration for further generations yet but William Adams’ courageous and exceptional character led to his extraordinary achievements in the face of much adversity.

Many decades later, after civil wars, and a scientific and industrial revolution, the English were to reassert themselves in east Asia — in force — and this time, for good.

Table of Contents

1 At the Court of Bungo [8]
2 Icebergs in the Orient [34]
3 All at Sea [61]
4 In the Name of the Father [91]
5 Samurai William [121]
6 Into Unknown Lands [147]
7 Greeting Mr Adams [174]
8 At Home with Richard Cocks [206]
9 Clash of the Samurai [235]
10 A Question of Language [269]
11 Killed Like Fishes [301]
12 A Ruptured Friendship [320]
13 Last Orders [345]

3 thoughts on “Milton — Samurai William”

  1. Complementary to the books recommended by James is Walter McDougall’s Let the Sea Make a Noise”, a history of the Northern Pacific. An example of the illuminating details include the fact that the losing clan in the Japanese civil wars was exiled to Okinawa. Since they became almost the only Japanese with any practical knowledge of navigation, they became the basis of the Imperial Navy in the Meiji era. Their rivals, who had exiled them, became the nucleus of the Japanese Army. Thus, Army-Navy rivalry in Japan went a lot deeper than the Army-Navy game in the US, with consequences for subsequent history.

  2. A very interesting essay. Because it is significant in the later story of Adams, you may be interested to learn more about the Portuguese arrival at the southern Japanese island of Tanegashima in 1543. Sure, the Black Ship became important later but what initially gave the Prtuguese such a big impact was their introduction of the musket. This was quickly copied by the Japanese and spread like wildfire, playing an important role in the battles that led up to the Tokugawa victory. Only later (after the consolidation of the Tokugawa shogunate) were muskets virtually banned and the modern myth created that samurai had fought traditionally until the arrival of Admiral Perry etc. (The movie “The Last Samurai” perpetuates this myth.) The important role of muskets is brought out a bit in Clavell’s “Shogun” but, for a more detailed and fascinating account, I would recommend you look at Olof Lidin’s “Tanegashima – The Arrival of Europe in Japan”. Fuller details can be found at the Univ. of Hawaii Press website (

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