Saturday, November 19, 2005

Samurai William by Giles Milton

An Engaging Account of an Incredible Period
Samurai William by Giles Milton

This book is a work of non-fiction which has points and events which one might imagine would be settings and scenes for a movie.

But this is all based on historical accounts, curried together from a wide variety of sources; the research of this book is astounding. Milton has scavenged many original and reprinted log books from period voyages in the languages of their lands, and the personal diaries of most of the principle characters. His first-person characterizations of the all too human leaders of English commercial enterprise in Japan are the real treasury of their efforts, as is well worth knowing, the East India's first foray into Japan was a commercial failure.

William Adams is the most notable character; he is the "Samurai William" of the title. Shipwrecked in Japan in the early 1600's as a sailor on board a Dutch trading vessel. His early story is of a man who survived ordeals and eventually mastered the local language and customs, rising to favor under a partial Shogun and given a title, lands, and authority unprecedented in Japanese history.

While he played Jesuit, Portuguese, and Dutch interests off each other in the beginning of his decades of influence in Japanese foreign trade policy, Adams became gentrified in only a manner which can be described as resultant of the good influence of his environmental conditions. He was of little consequence in England, having been from Limehouse, but in Japan he literally had the ear of the Emperor.

It seems implausible to some, but the worst thing that happened to Adams was that he was rediscovered by his countrymen. The English sought Adams out, and hoped to profit from his experience. However, imperialists can be at the best graceless and at the worst dangerously petty; the first encounter of Adams was less positive than expected.

Perhaps he was perceived to be shipwrecked and marooned in a far off land without any resource, recourse or influence. Perhaps the English expected him to be grateful that they came looking for him. For his reserve in availing himself to the English first arrivals he was considered haughty and suspicious.

So his overall aide to English interests was to solidify their trading position in Japanese courts time and time again; especially when the local factors disgraced themselves either through debauchery, wantoness, or improprietry.

Adams witnesses the Jesuit growth in Nagasaki, subsequent rebellions, massacres and repressions due to power plays and failed uprisings of Christians. As well, the trade in silk and sappan wood with Southeast Asia, namely the ports of Bantam, and Pattani are fascinating journeys into the sea routes and English designs of the period.

The Dutch, the Portuguese, and the Spanish fleets also sail to and fro through the backdrop to fuse the realism and ongoing interplays of war, factionalism, corruption, intrigue, and peace which plagued British fortunes in Japan.

A reader of Samurai William enjoys the thrill of first-hand accounts, and Milton has built a masterpiece of drama, narration, period setting, and interconnectiveness that gives real significance to the characters and lives of Japan's earliest European traders.

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