Ward's Book of Days.

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What happened on this day in history.

MAY 16th

On this day in history in 1620, died William Adams.

Adams was the first Briton to reach Japan. He became a shipbuilder to the shogun and the first outsider to become a Samurai.

Adams was born in 1564, at Gillingham, Kent. His early life is best summed up in his own words, in this letter written in 1611:

‘I am a Kentish man, born in a town called Gillingham, two English miles from Rochester, one mile from Chattam, where the King's ships do lie: from the age of twelve years old, I was brought up in Limehouse near London, being Apprentice twelve years to Master Nicholas Diggins; and myself have served for Master and Pilot in her Majesty's ships; and about eleven or twelve years have served the Worshipfull Company of the Barbary Merchants, until the Indish traffic from Holland began, in which Indish traffic I was desirous to make a little experience of the small knowledge which God had given me. So, in the year of our Lord 1598, I was hired for Pilot Major of a fleet of five sails, which was made ready by the Dutch Indish Company.’

Adams set sail with the fleet along the coast of West Africa and into the South Atlantic, heading for the Magellan Straits. Before they arrived, the fleet was scattered by a storm, and Adams’ vessel, The Charity, took shelter in Kyushu, in southern Japan. Although many of the crew were sick or dying, they were imprisoned by the shogun Tokugawa, after Portuguese Jesuit priests, accused them of piracy. At that time, the Portuguese had trading contracts with the Shogunate, and were fearful of the English gaining a foothold in Japan.

Despite Portuguese protests, Adams gained favour with Tokugawa, on account of his knowledge of shipbuilding, and was placed in charge of a shipyard, where he constructed vessels for the shogun. These ships were capable of long journeys and equipped with weapons, in contrast to the junks used by the Japanese and Chinese. Because of his value to the shogun, he was refused permission to return to England, and settled permanently in Japan, marrying a Japanese woman, despite the fact that he already had a wife and family at home.

Adams learnt to speak Japanese fluently and, in due course, replaced the Portuguese priests as interpreter to visiting traders. A visiting sea captain, John Saris, commented that Adams was wearing Japanese clothing, speaking the language, and “acting in every way as a naturalized Japaner”. Adams presented Saris with two suits of Japanese armour, as a gift for James I. These are now exhibited at the Tower of London. After many years of service to the shogun Tokugawa, Adams was presented with two swords, the katana and the daito, representing his promotion to the rank of Samuri.

Adams died on 16th May 1620, aged 56, and was buried in Hirado, near Nagasaki. By his will, he left half his property to his Japanese wife and family and half to his family in England. His life in Japan was the inspiration for James Clavell's best-selling novel Shogun.

Recommended reading.

Milton, Giles. Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan. Paperback.
Tames, Richard. Servant of the Shogun.
Clavell, James. Shogun.

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