Review: Samurai William by Giles Milton

Review: Samurai William by Giles Milton
(Review published Sunday, June 09, 2002, reviewed by Alex Meehan)


In 1598, an English man named William Adams set sail for Japan as pilot of a Dutch expedition with five ships and 100 men. Lured by the thought of lucrative silk and spice trades, the Europeans hoped to make their fortune and return with enough cash to secure their futures.

However the journey proved extremely difficult, and when Adams eventually landed in Japan in 1600 after 20 months at sea, four ships had been lost and just 24 crew had survived. Those that did make it were suffering from scurvy and dysentery — only six could stand and several died the week after they arrived.

Giles Milton’s Samurai William is the story of this epic voyage to Japan and the subsequent events that took place during Adams’s 20-year stay in the country, with a special focus on his spectacular rise in stature in the court of the feudal Shogun, or ruler of Japan, Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Milton’s account of the trip makes for unsettling reading. Sailors of this period did not yet know that fresh fruit prevented scurvy, and so many died painfully on long sea journeys.

Standard rations consisted of salted meat and biscuits which were frequently infested with weevils. This was bulked up with whatever fresh food could be gathered en route, although boiled rats and mice also featured when stores ran low.

In 1600, there were no reliable maps of the Pacific and the Far East, and navigational techniques were still extremely rudimentary. As a result, the route taken by Adams’s expedition involved sailing down the coast of Africa, across the Atlantic, through the Magellan Straits and across the Pacific to Hawaii before finally reaching Japan.

Europeans had arrived in Japan some time previously — most notably Jesuit missionaries intent on converting the natives to Catholicism. The Jesuits had told the ruling Shogun that all of Europe was united in Roman Catholicism under the authority of the Pope, and that all rulers in Europe deferred to him.

Needless to say, the priests weren’t too impressed when the Dutch and English Protestants aboard Adams’s boat arrived, and tried to have them crucified. But Shogun Ieyasu was intrigued by the tales of political division which Adams told, and invited him to court to educate him in European politics as well as shipbuilding and navigational techniques.

Much to the displeasure of the religious orders in Japan, Adams rose in stature to become a trusted confidant of Ieyesu and he was eventually honoured with the title of Samurai and Hatamoto, or Lord, complete with country estate and retainers.

After 13 years as the only Englishman in Japan, Adams was longing for the company of his countrymen. But he was horrified when the next batch of English seamen eventually arrived — he thought them smelly, bad mannered and uncouth; they in turn thought Adams had gone native.

He had adopted the local customs of bathing daily, as well as washing and oiling his hair. He dressed in silk kimonos, had a large retinue of servants and carried the signature daisho, or twin swords, of the Japanese ruling samurai class. Most shockingly, he had married and had children by a local Lord’s daughter, despite having a wife and daughter back home in London.

By contrast the newcomers had been on a ship for two years without a wash, had lived on rats, were suffering from scurvy and were intent on boozing and whoring once they hit dry land.

While Milton’s book purports to be about William Adams, it would probably be more accurate to describe it as an intensely readable account of the first trading missions to Japan.

Much space is given to documenting other voyages to the region at the time, key among them the Dutch East India Company’s efforts to establish trading bases around the Far East.

Much of the book is constructed from the records and logs left by the sea captains and pilots of the day, and so also provides an intriguing insight into the workings of feudal Japan and the attitudes of European travellers to this unique island nation.

Adams’s story was the inspiration for James Clavell’s epic novel Shogun, and the subsequent 1970s TV series of the same name starring Richard Chamberlain. It’s easy to see why, as it is a fascinating tale.

Giles Milton has managed to provide a complex history lesson in the form of an engaging narrative. Anyone interested in the mysteries of the East or in the cultural make-up of the inscrutable Japanese will find this an engaging read.

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