The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

V. Seafaring and Travel

§ 7. William Adams in Japan

One of the most interesting narratives included in the collection is that of William Adams, descriptive of his voyage to Japan and his long sojourn there (for he never returned), written in the form of two letters, addressed severally to his “unknown friends and countrymen” and to his wife. These, Purchas has placed with his accounts of voyages to the east, although Adams reached Japan by way of the strait of Magellan. He was born at Gillingham in Kent, and, having been an apprentice at Limehouse, became pilot in the queen’s ships and served twelve years with the Barbary merchants. Being desirous of gaining greater experience, he took service in 1598 as pilot of a fleet of five sail for the Dutch India company. They entered the strait of Magellan on 6 April, 1599, and, suffering much from cold and sickness, remained in the strait until September, when they proceeded to the coast of Peru. In February, 1600, the expedition reached a port in northern Japan, which Adams names Bingo. The chief there showed them great friendship, giving them a house on shore and all needful refreshment, Jesuits and Japanese Christians being their interpreters. The emperor of Japan, hearing of their arrival, sent for Adams, apparently having had news that he was a man of skill; and he was conveyed to Osaka, accompanied by a seaman. The emperor asked him many questions—“there was nothing that he demanded not, both concerning war and peace between country and country.” Adams was held in captivity, but was “well used.” On a second occasion, the emperor interrogated him, asking him why foreign ships came so far.

  • I answered, We were a people that sought all friendship with all nations and to have trade of merchandise in all countries, bringing such merchandises as our country had, and buying such merchandises in strange countries as our country desired; through which our countries on both sides were enriched.
  • The Portuguese endeavoured to prejudice these strangers in the minds of the Japanese; but the emperor answered that, as yet, they had not done any damage to him or his land.

    Adams was allowed to rejoin his ship, and she went round to Yeddo, where the emperor then was; and there she was detained, her company being dispersed in Japan. When Adams had lived four or five years in the country, the emperor asked him to build a small ship for him, to which Adams pleaded that he was no carpenter: “Well do it as well as you can, saith he; if it be not good, it is no matter.” The vessel was built, with a burden of 80 tons, and was well liked, so that Adams was received into greater favour, and put on a good allowance. He often saw the emperor and even taught his majesty “some points of geometry and mathematics.” So influential did he become that his former enemies asked him to befriend them in their business through the emperor, and both Spaniards and Portuguese received more friendly treatment in consequence.

    Five years elapsed, and Adams besought his imperial patron to allow him to return to his own country; but this request was not granted, and he remained, apparently acting as nautical adviser to the emperor. He was presently building a vessel of 120 tons for imperial use, which, however, was lent in 1609 to enable the governor of Manila to proceed to Acapulco, the governor’s own ship having been cast away and completely wrecked on the coast of Japan. For this service Adams had what he likened to a lordship, with eighty or ninety husbandmen, “who are as my servants and slaves.” Of the Japanese, Adams said that they were

  • good of nature, courteous above measure, and valiant in war; their justice is severely executed without any partiality upon transgressors of the law. They are governed with great civility—I think no land better governed in the world by civil policy.
  • This letter, addressed to Adams’s unknown friends and countrymen, was dated 11 October, 1611. The second letter, to his wife, is also a recital of his experiences, but is not complete. Adams died in 1620.