Samurai William

Sometimes, and for whatever reason, there are books that you just don’t get around to reading. At this point last week, I owned five books by Giles Milton, two of which I had read. Firstly, I had encountered The Riddle and the Knight, which as I have mentioned before, is probably one of my favourite books.

I then encountered Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, which deals with the Spice Islands, the spice trade, troubles between the English and the Dutch, and covers the rather brutal, unwholesome, inhumane and generally barbarous things people used to do to each other.

Having enjoyed these two books, I also bought Samurai William, White Gold and Big Chief Elizabeth, other books by Giles Milton in his niche of historical narrative.

Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan (Amazon)

And there the situation remained for a couple of years: I never got round to reading any. Until last week, when as a result of trying to force myself to read the books that I actually have before getting new ones to clutter up my shelves, I picked up Samurai William for the first time.

Samurai William tells the tale of the English mariner William Adams, who survives what can only be described as a disastrous voyage by the Hoop and her sister-ships, and ended up more or less shipwrecked just off the coast of Japan. Despite some initial difficulties (like nearly being executed), he eventually gained the trust of the ruler, and ended up being awarded Hamamoto rank, of which every other member was a samurai, and no member ever before had not been Japanese.

The story tells of his time in Japan; his workings for and against the other European countries there, how eventually word got back to England that he was alive and so on. But what Giles Milton does well is not simply telling the tale of William Adams, it’s blending it in with colour which tells you about prejudices, preferences, and the culture of the time which gives you a very vivid picture.

For example, consider how the early Portugese Jesuit priests found Japanese nose-picking noteworthy:

‘We pick our noses with our thumb or forefinger’, wrote one, ‘… [while] the Japanese use their little finger because their nostrils are so smallSamurai William, Ch 1: At the Court of Bungo

Admittedly, this did leave me contemplating exactly how large the nostrils of Portugese Jesuits must be if they are regularly ramming their thumbs up them…

It was also interesting to find that the Western perception of Buddhist temples wasn’t always correct. Prior to reading this, I’d assumed that they were bastions of meditation, quiet contemplation, and renouncement of fleshly things, and that they had been this way pretty much since they started. It was therefore a little surprising to find out that the flesh wasn’t always so renounced.

In old age, many retired to Buddhist monasteries to live the rest of their days in prayer and contemplation. It was a tantalising vision to the churchmen of Portugal, and the only blemish came at the end of the prayer sessions when the monks would hitch up their kimonos ‘[and] engage in sodomy with boys whom they instruct’Samurai William, Ch 1: At the Court of Bungo

The pleasures of the flesh, were despite the overt religious nature of the times, something enjoyed by the mariners quite frequently, with frequent references to prostitution in different ports, to employers having to drag their employees out of whorehouses — and arguments with the pimps theirin — through to those contracting syphillis. It’s quite clear that 17th Century sailors had a goodly number of earthly desires.

It is also interesting to note that even four hundred years ago, Londoners were very sceptical of those outside their borders (any reference to their stereotype of Northerners today with flat caps and whippets is entirely intentional).

Even those living on the fringes of the British Isles were deemed primitive by the sophisticates of Elizabethan London. One group were held to be particularly backward — idolatrous, superstitious, and living in ‘barbarous ignorance’. They were the Welsh.Samurai William Ch. 2: Icebergs in the Orient

Sadly, it appears that history has failed to record exactly what the Welsh thought of these ‘Elizabethan sophisticates’ in return…

The journey of the Hoop consists only of one chapter. In a way this is a shame, because this is how William Adams ended up being in Japan in the first place which is rather key to the tale, but considering the rather perilous nature of the journey, and the fact that he barely survived it, the fact that Giles Milton has managed to piece together 30 pages worth of the journey is surely commendable.

Sadly, one of the things I had disliked about Nathaniel’s Nutmeg appears again here. This is man’s inhumanity to man, and here is reflected in the ultra-severe Japanese punishments (as a rule of thumb, if you did something — anything — wrong and were beheaded, it would appear you’d got off lightly). This is again hardly something to blame Giles Milton for; I’m sure he too would have been happier had people generally been a bit nicer to each other, but he’s right not to gloss over the atrocities and pretend they didn’t happen.

For example, at one stage the Catholic Portugese were persecuted severely by the Japanese (technically, it was against Christianity, but the Protestant English and Dutch managed to survive much better because they had emphasised the differences between Catholicism and themselves). Whole famlies were burnt alive, simply for being Christian:

This execution was on an unprecedented scale and the carnival atmosphere came to an abrupt end when people realised the full horror of what they were about to witness. One of the mothers, Tecla, was to be burned with her five childrenSamurai William Ch. 13: Last Orders

I’ve avoided covering the tale of William Adams in great detail here, because you may well wish to read it for yourselves, but Milton’s method of telling the story of one person (well, mostly) in order to tell the history of the time is extremely well done. It is somewhere between reading a biography and reading a history text. It’s an easy read — I read two thirds of it on one train journey — and yet you emerge from the far end having felt that you’ve learned something.

Perhaps the most telling point of the tale is that immediately upon returning home, I dug out Big Chief Elizabeth and White Gold from my bookshelves to read next…

One Response to “Samurai William”

  1. duncan responds:

    You should read Shogun if you haven’t already, which was loosely based on William Adams.

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