Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Samurai William by Giles Milton

(Book Review)

In 1611, London's merchants received an intriguing letter written by a marooned English mariner named William Adams, who had been living in the unknown land of Japan for more than a decade. Seven adventurers were sent to Japan with orders to find and befriend Adams. It was believed he held the key to exploiting the opulant riches of this forbidden country; but when they arrived they discovered that Adams had gone native.--From the book cover jacket

This is a fascinating story told by an author with an eye for interesting details and an indulgence for interesting digressions.

In my opinion, the title of the book is slightly misleading because it gives the impression of a foreigner trying a little too hard to fit in with Japan. And although William Adams was granted official Samurai status by the Shogun, this is not really a Tom Cruise/ Last Samurai type of story. Instead this is more of an adventure on the high seas, exploring strange and exotic foreign lands, Robinson Crusoe/ Treasure Island type story.

The book begins with a brief account of the first Europeans to land in Japan (the Portuguese) and then digresses to some of the early attempts to find the legendary Northwest passage through to Asia.

And then finally we get to the story of William Adams, and the bizarre adventure that landed him in Japan.
Of course getting to Japan is half the adventure, and Giles Milton being the great story teller that he is recognizes this. William Adams was an English man aboard a Dutch trading fleet. The ship was loaded with so many weapons it was rumored the real purpose was to harass the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the New World, but whatever the ships original purpose it never made it. Instead it was beset with on disaster after another on the coast of Africa and then in the New World. Battles with the Portuguese, ambushes by hostile natives, and the terrors of the straits of Magellan. Finally in desperation the men decide to sail to Japan (under the mistaken impression that it was a lot closer to South America than it actually was). When they arrive, all that is left of the original 5 Dutch ships is Adams and a handful of men.

Unfortunately Adams troubles do not end there, because the Portuguese priests, already established in Japan, are horrified that the protestants have landed on Japanese shores, and try to have William Adams crucified. That is until Adams becomes the friend and confident of the all powerful Tokugawa Ieyasu, after which the tables turn and Adams is able to use his influence at court against the Spanish and Portuguese.

Then the action changes again, and we go to the adventures of the British East India Trading company, which has heard rumors of a marooned English mariner in Japan with great influence in the Japanese court, and wants to contact him and use him to set up an English trading post in Japan.

And once again, getting there is half the story, and Giles Milton guides us through all the exotic adventures in strange land the crew has before they finally arrive in Japan and make contact with William Adams.

From this point on, the book is just as much the story of the British trading outpost as it is the story of William Adams, and we follow the adventures and misfortunes, squabbles, personal rivalries, and romantic affairs of the British men stationed out in Japan, and their at times tense relationship with William Adams.

This is a fascinating story and it takes place in the brief interlude between when European explorers and traders discovered Japan, and when all foreigners were expelled and Japan became a closed off country. It is interesting to see how the conflicts from Europe were carried over all the way into the Far East, such as the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics. Throughout much of this story the Dutch and English are stalwart allies, but eventually trading rivalries lead to war, much to the misfortune of the English in Japan (who are outnumbered and outgunned by the Dutch) and the annoyance of the Japanese (who resent having to police a foreign war on their own soil).
Milton, a British author, presents this as unprovoked acts of aggression by the Dutch. I'm not sure if a Dutch historian might take a different view.

The book also deals with the subject of the rise and fall of Christianity in Japan, going from at first being welcomed by the Japanese (as a way to encourage European traders) to being outlawed and horrible persecution. (If you though the Romans were cruel, it's amazing what the Japanese did to Christian converts.) The book entertains the possibility that William Adams, with his fierce anti-Catholicism and his influence in the Shogun's court, might have played some role in causing Christianity to be outlawed.

This book has been criticized for some for it's selective view of history and only focusing in on the interesting stories as opposed to providing a larger background. That's also it's charm though. Milton is an author never afraid to follow an interesting digression even if it has little to do with his larger story. So, for example, we are treated to the story of Captain John Saris, and the embarrassment his stash of pornographic pictures caused to the East India Trading company. Or the story of Captain William Keeling and his attempts to smuggle his wife onto his ship with him. And many other pointless, but delightful, similar digressions.

Link of the Day
Via This Modern World
Martin Luther King responds to Hillary Clinton, and

1 comment:

Joel Swagman said...

(If you though the Romans were cruel, it's amazing what the Japanese did to Christian converts.)

...For whatever it's worth, I regret writing this sentence. It implies Japanese are more cruel than Europeans, which I don't think the historical record bears out