Living in Japan
The first English ship to reach Japan?

The first English ship to reach Japan?

Added In: Living in Japan › Culture

James F. Goater

In late 1610, Dutch adventurers Peter Floris and Lucas Antheunis arrived in London and soon succeeded in gaining the financial backing of Sir Thoman Smythe, governor of the East Indies Company, for an English expedition to the Far East to conduct intra-regional trade. Both men had considerable experience in trade with the Orient and convinced the venerable governor that there were considerable profits for all concerned. Their idea was to shun the conventional “spice trade” of the time and trade in goods within the Southeast and East Asian region, in particular to trade luxury commodities with Japan, still an unknown entity for the English at that time. Even the English King, James I, expressed his support and wrote letters of introduction to various eastern potentates to be carried on the voyage.

There is little doubt that both Dutchmen were aware of the existence of an Englishman, Will Adams, right at the heart of authority in feudal Japan. Adams’ frantic efforts to contact his homeland, particularly his wife and family in Limehouse, East London, had been frustrated by the Dutch traders in Japan for the entire decade since his arrival in the country in 1600. Fearing English competition to their lucrative Japan trade, Dutch traders had withheld all Adams’ communications with England, choosing not to deliver his letters - thus no-one in England knew that their countryman had risen to a position of considerable importance in the Tokugawa court. Having left Rotterdam in 1598, as chief pilot with a Dutch fleet aiming to circumnavigate the globe, Will Adams had long been given up for lost by all who knew him. The Dutch had also managed to keep Adams in ignorance of the fact that his countrymen had established a permanent trading post at Bantam on the western Java coast, a few months’ sailing to the south. In 1603, a hardy band of adventurers had succeeded in building a base in this nightmarish coastal region and were eking out a living from their trading activities. It was not until 1611 that Adams discovered the presence of this base, and the extent of Dutch treachery! He immediately addressed a letter to “Unknown friends and countrymen “ in Bantam and endeavoured to relate his experiences during his extraordinary existence in Japan. This communication was at last successful in reaching its intended audience – Augustine Spalding, the director of the English trading post in Bantam.

Meanwhile, by early 1611, Floris and Antheunis were ready to embark upon their expedition, partially financing the journey themselves. Their ship, the Globe, set sail from southern England in February that year and made good time to the Cape of Good Hope, rounding southern Africa. Attempts to buy tradable goods in India, however, met with only limited success, although the Globe did acquire “chintzes, wraps, and painted goods”, enabling the Dutchmen to continue in the direction of Java. In April 1612, the ship arrived in Bantam harbour and received a warm welcome from the beleaguered Englishmen based there – they had not seen an English ship for more than a year. It was here that Floris and Antheunis were informed by Spalding of the full extent of Adams’ accomplishments in Japan. He urged the Globe to proceed to Japan with all haste. This was not possible however, as the Dutchmen first had to trade their goods from India, which meant heading north for the Malay Peninsula and the Siamese port of Pattani.

It was here that Floris met a Dutch trader about to sail for Japan, and, realizing he could be trusted, requested him to deliver a letter to Adams notifying him of the Globe’s voyage and intended course. But fortune was not with either Dutchman. Wars and other upheavals had affected the region and no-one wanted the luxury items aboard the Globe, necessitating a further voyage north to the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. Things went from bad to worse. Antheunis set out for the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya where he hoped to acquire Sappanwood (Japanese suou, used both for medicinal purposes and as the source of a strong red dye) for the Japanese market. Incredibly, he encountered two more countrymen who were crew members on a Japanese vessel anchored nearby. Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn and Melchior van Santvoort were both surviving members of Will Adams’ ship, the Liefde, which had arrived in Japan eleven years earlier. Each had prospered from trade within the region. Antheunis gave the letter from King James I to Santvoort for delivery to the Shogun, upon his return to Japan, paving the way for the Globe’s arrival.

But it was not to be. Further misfortune befell Floris and the remaining crew of the Globe. The deteriorating condition and increasingly drunken behaviour of the English crew was slowly sapping his will to continue. Severe tropical storms affected the area and the oppressive heat and rampant disease was taking a further toll on the long-suffering men. After lengthy and laborious efforts to sell his cottons in Pattani, he finally turned the ship around and headed for India. Antheunis remained in Ayutthaya, patiently building his stock of Sappanwood for the Japanese market and no doubt hoping that an English ship would someday return.

But while the Globe was abandoning its efforts to reach Japan, another band of intrepid Englishmen had arrived in Bantam aboard a ship named the Clove, and were eager to continue their voyage to that elusive country. Under the colourful captaincy of one John Saris, the Clove had left England in the spring of 1611 and headed for Madagascar and Arabia, presenting letters from King James I along the way. Saris had been in Bantam in 1609 and was therefore anxious to continue to Japan as quickly as possible, before too many of his men fell sick from the diseases rampant in the settlement. By January 1613, the ship was ready to continue its voyage. Once out of Bantam and headed on a northeasterly course around southern Borneo, the vessel was in unknown waters, although during a brief stopover off the southern coast of Celebes, the captain was astonished to learn that the king of the local head-hunting tribe had an Englishman as its ambassador – a Mr. Welden!  After further battling hostile natives and avoiding unhelpful Dutch traders in the Spice Islands, the Clove at last reached the open waters of the South China Sea. She was the first English ship to sail in this region. It should be noted that Saris had been fully apprised of the presence of Will Adams and hoped to utilize the latter’s good offices (and status) in furthering trading opportunities between Japan and England.

After a voyage lasting six months, the Clove finally sighted Japanese territory – Miyakojima, the most outlying of the Ryukyu (Okinawa) islands. The Kingdom of Ryukyu had been an independent trading nation (albeit a tributary of the Ming dynasty in China) until 1609, when it was invaded and occupied by the Satsuma clan from Kagoshima in Kyushu. Attempts to land were thwarted by strong winds and the ship was forced to continue north to Kyushu. At the entrance to Nagasaki harbour, the ship was met by Japanese fishing vessels, which were then hired to guide the Clove to the island of Hirado where, Saris knew, the Dutch had their main trading post. Hiradojima was a day’s sail to the north west, along the rocky coast of Japan’s third largest island, and the first European base in Japan. The Portuguese had first established a trading post here in 1550.

And thus it was, on 10 June 1613, that Captain John Saris and his crew aboard the Clove, after a voyage lasting more than two years, finally came to anchor in Hirado Bay, southern Japan. It was the first visit to Japan by an English ship.

The English were at first welcomed to Japan and were able to set up a trading post at Hirado soon after their arrival. With Adams as an intermediary, initial progress was made in establishing favourable trade relations between the two countries, but a combination of factors – including the ever-present rivalry with the Dutch, the gradually changing political situation in Japan and rising distrust of foreigners, and, not least, the generally appalling behaviour of the English traders themselves – contributed to the unhappy history of the English venture. After Adams’ death in 1620, the post’s director, Richard Cocks, continued his efforts, but orders to close the unprofitable venture came within three years, and on 22 December 1623, the small party of Englishmen who remained sadly trooped aboard the Bull, sent from Bantam for the purpose, leaving their womenfolk and children behind. After ten years, six months, and thirteen days, the English abandoned Japan. It would be 231 years before another Englishman set foot in Japan.
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The first English ship to reach Japan?
Hirado in 1669
The first English ship to reach Japan?
Japan in 1605
The first English ship to reach Japan?
Dutch settlement of Hirado