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.

Big Chief Elizabeth

I just read Big Chief Elizabeth – How England’s Adventurers Gambled and Won the New World, by Giles Milton. As the title suggests, it’s an account of the earliest attempts to set up an English settlement in America. As the title also suggests, the general tone of the thing is ‘rollicking yarn’ rather than ‘nuanced and careful investigation into the ethics of colonisation and colonialism’.

That’s fine by me. I refuse to feel any ancestral guilt over anything countrymen of mine did over four centuries ago. Or indeed feel any ancestral outrage over things done to them, since there seems to have been plenty of brutality on all sides.

I was slightly startled to realise how little I knew about the subject. In a curious way it’s become part of American history rather than British. Not that gaps in my historical knowledge are so unusual they need a special explanation.

Odd how hard it is to shift the idea of the Elizabethan period as glamorous. I mean, the clothes were pretty fab, and there was Shakespeare of course, and pirates and gold and stuff, but Elizabeth was just another capricious despot in a string of despots.

Sir Walter Ralegh features heavily, of course. Which seems as good a reason as any to post a favourite poem.

As you came from the holy land
Of Walsinghame,
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came ?

How shall I know your true love,
That have met many one,
As I went to the holy land,
That have come, that have gone ?

She is neither white nor brown,
But as the heavens fair ;
There is none hath a form so divine
In the earth or the air.

Such a one did I meet, good sir,
Such an angel-like face,
Who like a queen, like a nymph, did appear,
By her gait, by her grace.

She hath left me here all alone,
All alone, as unknown,
Who sometimes did me lead with herself,
And me loved as her own.

What’s the cause that she leaves you alone,
And a new way doth take,
Who loved you once as her own,
And her joy did you make ?

I have loved her all my youth,
But now old, as you see,
Love likes not the falling fruit
From the withered tree.

Know that Love is a careless child,
And forgets promise past ;
He is blind, he is deaf when he list,
And in faith never fast.

His desire is a dureless content,
And a trustless joy ;
He is won with a world of despair,
And is lost with a toy.

Of womankind such indeed is the love,
Or the word love abusèd,
Under which many childish desires
And conceits are excusèd.

But true love is a durable fire,
In the mind ever burning,
Never sick, never old, never dead,
From itself never turning.

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