The English Samurai

The Will Adams Memorial.
The Will Adams Memorial in Gillingham.

Voyaging around the world was not for the faint-hearted in the Elizabethan era, as Will Adams of Gillingham in Kent knew only too well.

Apprenticed to a Limehouse ship builder, young Adams spend twelve years learning his trade and also dabbling in the art of navigation before joining the navy under Drake and fighting against the Spanish Armada, something which may have influenced his later attitude towards Catholics. In 1598 he joined a Dutch fleet for a voyage to the Far East, with a stop-over in South America to sell manufactured goods for silver. Then they were to head for Japan or the Spice Islands and exchange the silver for silks or silver.

Alas, things went wrong. An encounter with hostile natives in South America led to the death of the ship's captain and Will Adams' brother Thomas and twenty other sailors. They set off post haste across the Pacific without completing their provisioning, with the result that after nearly two years at sea the ship limped into Osaka harbour with nine survivors out of an original crew of one hundred!

Discovering that they were Protestants, Jesuit missionaries already established in Japan made a spirit attempt to have the men executed, but the discovery that Adams knew how to build ships saved their lives. After Adams constructed two ships - and doubtless passed on his ship-building knowledge to Japanese workmen, he was rewarded with the position of samurai and forbidden to leave Japan. He later married a Japanese girl, though he continued to sent money to his English wife via Dutch and English traders.

Fourteen years after he arrived in Japan, Adams was powerful enough to influence the Japanese ruler to expel the Jesuits and unleash persecution against the Catholics. Although understandable, it was not the most laudable thing that Adams ever did. He died six years later and was buried in Hirado, north of Nagasaki. The figurehead off his ship can be seen in the Tokyo National Museum!