The Shogun’s Favorite Brit


One of the defining battles in Japanese history was fought in late October 1600, in a narrow defile between ranges of steep hills, just outside the village of Sekigahara. The stakes were nothing less than the de facto control of the entire country, and came as the climax to decades of bitter feuding by the most powerful feudal overlords, the daimyo. Each of the two sides had marshaled about eighty thousand troops, cavalry and infantry, armed with muskets, spears, bows, and swords, and the fighting was protracted and fierce. The victor was the fifty-eight-year-old head of the Tokugawa family, Ieyasu, already a member of the five-person Council of Regents, who thus cleared the way for his own claim to be the shogun of Japan. The Tokugawa shogunate that he subsequently founded and passed on to his son Hidetada was to endure for two and a half centuries, until the civil war that accompanied Japan’s forced opening to the West in the 1860s.

Shortly before the great battle, Ieyasu had received an extraordinary windfall, no fewer than nineteen heavy bronze cannon, five thousand cannon balls, and five hundred muskets, all stored aboard the Dutch vessel Liefde (“Love”), which in April 1600 had been stranded near Ieyasu’s great domain in eastern Japan. The blinding rainstorm and dense fog that had preceded the battle of Sekigahara probably prevented firearms from playing a central part there, but in the future Ieyasu was to make good use of them, especially in the siege warfare needed to subdue the castles and massed samurai of his remaining enemies.The Liefde was one of a fleet of five Dutch ships that had sailed from Rotterdam in 1598, financed by the Dutch East India Company, for the purpose of breaking the Portuguese stranglehold over the immensely lucrative trade in silk and silver that flowed between China and Japan.

The voyage had been a disaster, and the Liefde was the only one of the five ships to reach Japan. By the time of the ship’s landfall in eastern Japan after a nightmare passage through the Straits of Magellan and across the Pacific, food and water supplies were exhausted, scurvy was rampant, and there were only six men aboard out of the surviving twenty-four who could even walk. That anyone had survived at all appears to have been owing to the brilliant seamanship and unflagging tenacity of the ship’s captain-pilot, a thirty-six-year-old Englishman from Gillingham in Kent, named William Adams.

From one of Adams’s extant letters, we know that he had been apprenticed at the age of twelve to a shipbuilder and navigator in the London docks at Limehouse; by 1588, aged twenty-four, he was skilled enough at his craft to serve as the master of a small English supply vessel ferrying food and munitions to the battle fleet sent by Queen Elizabeth to block the advance of the Spanish Armada. In subsequent voyages Adams acquired an extensive knowledge of the Barbary Coast, along with speaking competence in both Dutch and…

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