Samurai William by Giles Milton

William Adam was an English sailor working as a pilot on a Dutch expedition of five ships that set out in 1598 to make money in the Orient. In 1600, after a disastrous voyage during which just about everything went wrong, Adam was one of just 24 men surviving on one of the ships – the Liefde – when it reached Japan, the men too weak with starvation and disease to row ashore.

He rose to become the most influential westerner in Japan, with direct access to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the effective ruler, and was granted a court title normally given only to senior samurai. Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan is his story, and the story of the early English attempts to set up a trade with Japan. It’s by the same chap as Big Chief Elizabeth, a book about the English settlement at Jamestown.

A Dutch man and a French woman

As with that book, the emphasis is on telling a good story rather than exploring the finer ethical and semiotic nuances of colonisation. Which isn’t to say that he glosses over the frequently bad behaviour of everyone involved; just that the book is pitched as entertainment.

And the stories from that period of European exploration are really extraordinary; the men in their tiny little ships sailing off optimistically into unknown waters, and ending up either fabulously wealthy or dead. Or enslaved. Or marooned. It’s like Star Trek, if instead of peaceful, multi-cultural, non-interventionist scientists and diplomats, the Enterprise had been crewed by greedy, heavy-drinking, violent, unwashed men who were only really interested in local cultures if they could make money from them or have sex with them.

» The picture is from over 200 years after the period dealt with in Samurai William, but it seemed too good not to use. It’s a detail from a Japanese woodcut of a Dutch man with a French woman, from an exhibition about the Dutch in Nagasaki on the website of the International Institute of Social History, where you can see a larger version as well as lots of other great pictures.

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