March 25, 2004

Samurai William, Giles Milton

William Adams, tactful and tactiturn, is only in the background of the failure of the English to found a trading outpost in Japan in the early 1600s. He is a mountain in the background, but half the history is the galloping stupidity of the crew sent out to build on his achievements.

It's like a dozen tales from the late 1990s of incompetence and poor social skills in ill-supported startups, but of course the risks were larger (syphilis, dismemberment) and the escape routes well closed off. Weirdly familiar: inane, self-delusional support from the home office; colleagues who didn't like each other before a year in close quarters, and who now drink too much, sleep with each others' concubines, and then write thinly coded letters to each other to gossip about it. That's better than having your adolescent embarassments pinned out in the Usenet archives: having them in the British Library, just waiting to be released to the Internet archives.

There was, actually, one trader in the factory who could make money. Unfortunately, he made it all in private trading (using Company boats) and covered his tracks by casting aspersions.

Adams had arrived earlier, the long way, by dint of being a stout mariner and navigator. He was also diplomatic enough to get along with the Dutch, who were rather like the English and therefore in perpetual competition with them, and clever enough to dissociate the English and Dutch from the well-established Spanish Jesuit presence in Japan. Adams learned Japanese, was honored with land and title by Ieyasu (the first Tokugawa Shogun). He and some of his surviving men built an oceangoing ship, one that did eventually make it across the Pacific; this though Adams hadn't ever overseen the construction of a vessel in Europe. It's a great pity that Milton doesn't quote him more often. I want more of the story of his successes; it's more impressive than A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. In light fiction, it would take up at least a C. J. Cherryh series, since Adams' tenure in this foreign land saw Ieyasu's consolidation of control, war between the Dutch and English, peace between them, the suppression and martyrdoms of Catholic converts, and a lot of trips to rough and exotic cities in the region. Oh, and Adams got a second (bigamous) wife and family, as well as a feudal estate, which seems more than a little hard on the wife and children he left in Limehouse.

The style of the book is somewhere between historical and popular. We might see a higher proportion of the racy quotes than the carpentry ones, but they're all marked off as quotes, although sources aren't given to the page-number.

Richard Hakluyt is in this story in person! he was a consultant on missions of exploration and trade, and seems to have realized that Japan, more cleanly and sophisticated than England, would be a different matter for trade than the commoner expeditions to less developed countries. His The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation has a brief mention in Milton's Notes and Sources, and the cited publications and republications of similar works by the Hakluyt Society are many.

Words: "Chargeable" was used for "expensive" in one of the letters Milton quotes. Less familiar is "homegers", vassals accompanying a lord to show his importance (p. 262; "homage-ers", I suppose).

One minor oddity; there's a copy of an engraving of Japanese prostitutes in décolleté kimono (p. 219) from what seems to be a European atlas of Japan, published in 1670. But, if I remember Liza Dalby's Kimono correctly, a seductive woman would instead have loosened her kimono to show the back of her neck. There are surely Japanese engravings of the same subject in the same period, which I could count up for evidence.

ISBN: 0-14-200378-6

So wrote clew in History (17th c.). | TrackBack
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