British Empire Books

Samurai William

AuthorGiles Milton
PublisherHodder and Stoughton

Giles Milton has stumbled across a fascinating story. It is the story of an English sailor from Limehouse rising to become a key adviser to one of the most influential leaders in Japan's history. Most people may remember the 1980s mini-series based on James Clavell's novel, Shogun, which was loosely based on the story. This book helps show that the truth is almost always more interesting than fiction. However, the book is actually more than about the remarkable story of William Adams, it is also the story of the English attempt to establish a commercial toehold on the other side of the planet on the Japanese island of Hirado.

The book is set at the fulcrum of the Sixteenth to the Seventeenth centuries. Protestant England and Holland are trying to figure out how to muscle in on the commercial successful trading empires of the Portugese and to a lesser extent Spanish empires. The author tracks the early successes of the Portugese in Japan as they dazzled their hosts with new technology and an alien religion. Of course, they didn't mention the fact that they had European rivals who did not share their brand of Christianity and who wished to compete with them. The Shogun of Japan was therefore very interested when a Dutch ship limped into a Japanese port with an English Pilot. The Portugese tried everything in their power to have the heretics executed, but their enthusiasm for demanding such a course of action intrigued the Shogun and made him want to know more.

The Shogun had wanted the Portugese to share some of their technological expertise with Japan so that he could extend Japan's military power. The Portugese had shied away from such technological transfers, frightened of the consequences. However, William Adams happened to possess some of the skills that the Shogun was looking for, particularly with regards to boat building. He managed to impress the Shogun to such an extent that he won the Shogun's trust and was promoted to the rank of Samurai. The Shogun appreciated having another perspective to rely on. William's stock rose as the Portugese Jesuit monks' stock fell.

The book then seems to take a different tack as it explained the early years of the English East India Company as it tried to find markets in the Pacific that weren't being zealously guarded by the Portugese, Dutch or Spanish. Japan seemed to offer a potential trading destination where the inhabitants seemed far richer and sophisticated compared to most other places so far discovered around the world. A Captain John Saris was also delighted on landing in the new lands to discover that an Englishman had risen to such influence in the court.

The story then tracks the ten odd years that the English tried to build up a commercially viable trading factory. William Adams was hired as an adviser, but Saris had stopped short of putting him in charge of the factory, unsure of his loyalty and business acumen. He needn't have worried. William Adams proved his value to the company time and time again as his influence opened doors and smoothed wrinkles that should have sunk the factory. The Chief Factor, Richard Cocks, was honest enough but was working in an alien cultural environment with some very real and deadly rivals. The Portugese were willing the factory to fail at first, but as they got caught up in a Civil War they saw their own influence pulled from under them. The Dutch would then prove a deadly, perhaps the deadliest rival, as fighting over the influence over the Spice Islands spilled in to the Japanese Archipelego and the factors' very lives were at stake.

Finally, the story unfolds to explain why the factory was closed down and had to be withdrawn - commercial and political rivalry combined with trade mismatch and the obvious problems of distance. Perhaps the most important reason was the change in the leadership of Japan. William Adams, long the guardian angel of the factory, had lost some of his influence when a son followed his father in to the post of Shogun. Whilst honouring his father's grants of title and land, the informal influence waned significantly leading to a fundamental curtailing of trading rights that all but closed down the commercial opportunities of the English factory. It withdrew, although with hindsight this may have been a blessing in disguise as the Japanese government all but closed down all foreign commercial opportunities throughout the archipelego.

This is a riveting story from start to finish. The author has real style and embellishes just enough to set scenes and tell interesting anecdotes without getting bogged down in superfluous detail. He finds interesting sources that backs up his story and finds interesting parallels. It would be churlish to say that a story this interesting writes itself, fortunately, the author adds to an already fascinating tale - one that Hollywood could not make up.

Buy this book at: Amazon

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by Stephen Luscombe