William Adams on Okinawa (1614-15)

The first Western eyewitness accounts of Okinawa originated from Richard Wickham and William Adams (1564–1620). Adams became famous as a counselor of Tokugawa Ieyasu, was promoted to samurai status by the Shōgun, and provided with an estate. His Japanese name was Miura Anjin 三浦按針. Adams came to Japan as the navigator of the Dutch ship Liefde, was the first Englishman in Japan, gained the trust of Tokugawa Ieyasu, taught geometry, geography and shipbuilding, became diplomatic advisor, was awarded a fief in Sagami, and provided the inspiration for the novel “Shogun” by James Clavell.

Both Wickham and Adams at the time were working for the British factory of the East India Company, with headquarters in Hirado, Kyūshū. In August 1614 the factory bought a junk for 2,000 Tael, naming it the Sea Adventure. Although another 2,312 Tael were spent for repairs and outfit, she was said to not have been very seaworthy. Actually, Richard Wickham had to be persuaded to board as the head merchant, assisted by Edward Saris, and with William Adams as the pilot. Their first voyage was intended for Siam. The ship carried merchandise for barter and ₤ 1,250 for the purchase of Brazil wood, deerskins, raw silk, etc. from Siam. There were also several Japanese merchants on board, among them a certain Shobei Dono. Adams set sails at Kawachi harbor, south of Hirado, on December 17th, 1614.

It was just when they had left the coastline behind,

when she was battered by a ferocious electric storm. The wild seas lashed at the recent repairs, loosening timbers and pouring water into the hold. For a day and a night the Japanese crew labored ‘to heave out and pumpe the water continually’,

Cf. Purnell 1916: 167

but the waters continued to rise. The attitude of their reckless English captain only increased their sense of terror. Adams appeared to be enjoying their predicament, urging them on in their endeavors and putting

the merchants and other idle passengers unto such a feare that they began to murmure and mutiny.

As the winds howled and the waves crashed over the deck, the crew rebelled and told Adams that they would refuse to pump unless he headed immediately for the Ryūkyū Islands in the East China Sea. Adams had little option but to agree and, with heavy heart, he steered the vessel towards the subtropical island of Great Ryūkyū–today’s Okinawa–which lay some 500 miles to the south of Hirado ( Milton 2002: 248–249).

On their way they reached the port of Oxima (Amami-Ōshima) on the 22nd. The local governor and others came aboard and assured their friendship, for which they were presented a “Langanatt” or lance. The governor recommended Wickham

to goe for Nafe, being the cheefe harbor on the iland of Lequeo Grande, where the king is resident […]

Farrington, Anthony (ed.): The English Factory in Japan 1613–1623. Letters of Richard Wickham from Amami-Oshima and from Okinawa. William Adams’ voyage to the Ryukyu Islands in the Sea Adventure. The British Library: 273–74. 1991. In: Beillevaire 2000, Vol 1.

Richard Wickham, in a letter from December 23rd 1614, wrote

& seing ourselves in extreame peril of death yf that our leakes should increase never soe little more, having now not above 15 men, being the officers, w’ch could stand upon theire legges, the rest being ether seasicke or almost dead with labour, so that the 20th, about 10 of the morninge, we shaped our course for the Leques Grande [Great Ryūkyū]…

In this way, in December 1614, five years after the invasion of the Satsuma and three years after the return of Ryūkyū king Shō Nei from captivity, Adams reached Naha, Okinawa:

The 27 in the morning we steered so’ fort the harbor & cam in about 10 a cllok, thank be to God, in ssaffety, w’ch harbor lyeth 9 lleges from the narrow passedg w’ch is from the no’ p’t of the illand soum 18 or 30 ll’. This daye wass Twessdaye, ressonnabell wether, much wind & soumting littell shoowres.

Farrington 1991, 1051. In: Beillevaire 2000, Vol 1.

There they met with “marvelous great friendship” and were given rice, meat and turnips. Adams was permitted to bring his cargo ashore, while the Sea Adventure was to be repaired in the following five months.

During this time, Adams tried to make the best out of the involuntary situation and worked towards the establishment of a trading base. The local authorities, however, under instructions of the Satsuma fief, could not and would not comply with this request: Satsuma would neither allow interference in the trade relations between China and Ryūkyū, nor the possible suspicion of occasional Chinese visitors raised by the presence of a Japanese vessel in the port of Naha, even if it was led by Europeans.

On the strategy implemented by the locals, Beillevaire wrote,

“If asked about their relations with Japan, the Ryūkyūans were supposed to answer that there were none, and that everything that might look Japanese came in fact from the Tokara Islands […]. The same explanation would continue to be in use with nineteenth-century western visitors.”

Beillevaire 2000, I, p. 5.

The British, however, had already learned on Amami-Ōshima that Ryūkyū recently had been “subordinated” to the Daimyō of Satsuma:

the inhabitantes of these ilandes are descended from the race of the Chines, wearinge theyre hayre longe but tyed upp on the right sid of the head, a peacable & quiet people but of late yeares conquered by Ximus Dono [Lord Shimazu], Kinge of Satchma [Satsuma], soe that now they are governed by the Japon lawes & customes […]

Farrington 1991, 326–27. In: Beillevaire 2000, Vol. 1.

Satsuma tried everything to avoid that these kinds of information, with all its inherent meanings, were made available to third parties:

This day the gentellmen of Ceeooree [Shuri] cam to Natta [Naha] to p’sswad me to go w’th our ship to Woshima [Amami Oshima] becass about 3 mounth hence a ship or funia would come from China, and yf we weer heer it would bee an occacion to cass them looss ther trade w’ch only theay by ther mens did lyve uppoon. But I awnssered that I wass but on, I did not car where I died, eayther in heer or in the sseea […]

Farrington 1991, 1057. In: Beillevaire 2000, Vol. 1.

Meanwhile, Adams’ crew got out of hand, caused much trouble and even rose up in arms. They demanded the payment of half the guerdon. Adams refused more than once, but under request of the merchants, who feared to lose their trade, he would yield at last. With the money the sailors then bought liquor and soon slashed at one another ( Milton 2002, p. 250 ):

This day all our offessers, mariners & passengers risse up in armes to a ffought on w’th another, but by my great p’sswasion and Mr Wikham & Sr. Edward Saris did so p’sswas on both sides as ther wasse no bludshed of no p’tty, thankes bee to Allmyghty God for ever amen.

Adams noted, that the Japanese merchant traveling on his ship, Shobei Dono, with sixteen to twenty men entered the market all armed with swords, lances, halberds, and bows and arrows,

but w’th ffair woourds I did keep our men that theay cam not together, who weer about 40 p’ssons.

Farrington 1991, 1057. In: Beillevaire 2000, Vol. 1.

Wickham and Damian Marin also fell out and fought and were not reconciled till thirty days later (Purnell 1916: 168). This Damian was a Portuguese who was afterwards made prisoner at Nagasaki by his fellow-countrymen for having served with the English. A special command for his release had to be obtained from leyasu by Adams.

In the following days, Adams tried to calm the parties, just like on March 9th,

butt made not an end, still Shobe servant werynge ther wepones in braving our men for peece.

Farrington 1991, 1057. In: Beillevaire 2000, Vol. 1.

This continued until March 15th, when at last

the principall of Ceeooree [Shuri] cam to the town of Nata [Naha] to take up the quarrell bettwen the merchants and mariners, who make peece and a gennerall agreement.

Farrington 1991, 1058. In: Beillevaire 2000, Vol. 1.

The situation eased, and two days later Adams, along with the merchants, was invited to a banquet by the Three Ministers (sanshikan). The following day he even received an invitation by the King in Shuri, who wanted to show him the capital and hold a banquet–a privilege which Basil Hall, two hundred years later, tried in vain to obtain–, however, Adams did not avail of doing so, because he had to make his ship seaworthy again (Purnell 1916: 169).

The mentioned dispute seemed to have been settled, when the ringleader in the night of the 26th of March again instigated unrest; the Japanese merchant Shobe Dono found out about it, pitched on the troublemaker and slashed the man into pieces with his sword:

This day at night he that had been the cass of the great muttini being still fooull of desperate partes, this night Shobe Donno killed hime. This day fayr wether, the wind northerlly.

Farrington 1991, 1059. In: Beillevaire 2000, Vol. 1.

The misbehavior of his crew was a continual cause of trouble to Adams, and he had much difficulty in saving the lives of two of the men who had been condemned to death for stealing, etc (Purnell 1916: 169.). After these incidents the hospitality of the local authorities was exhausted and they ordered the departure of the Sea Adventure.

Picture: Stripaap.nl.

During his stay on Okinawa, Adams was constantly worrying on account of news brought by junks from Satsuma of the war between Ieyasu and Hideyori at Ōsaka. Although he had heard, on January 21, 1615, that the

Emperor had goot the victory of which newes I wass gllad,

yet a rumor reached him in May that

the emperor is like to loosse his countri

so he delayed a few days longer in order to have an interview with some officials from Satsuma who had brought the latest news (Purnell 1916: 169). Adams’ logbook furthermore gives reason to believe that individual Samurai probably having served under Toyotomi Hideyori sought refuge in Okinawa shortly before or during the ceasefire in January 1615:

The 21, being Satterdaye, heer cam a nobellman to Ceeoree [Shuri] w’ch flled from the wares in Ossaka [Osaka]. His name was [blank]. W’ch daye I heerd that the Emperor had goot the victory, of w’ch newes I was gllad to heer.

Farrington 1991, 1053. In: Beillevaire 2000, Vol. 1. Purnell 1916: 196.

Hence, apparently Japanese Samurai, facing the looming defeat against the Tokugawa forces in mainland Japan, sought refuge in Okinawa, perhaps even with the knowledge and toleration of Satsuma.

Later, after Adams return to Japan, in late September 1915, he received a letter from Ieyasu, demanding his presence:

Adams said that he thought the Emperor wished to hear about a fortress newly built in the Riu Kiu, where it was suspected that Hideyori might retire after his defeat.

Cocks, Vol. I: 49. Purnell 1916: 170.

Finally, Adams also noted that he bought weapons on Ryūkyū (Purnell 1916: 219), namely four Katana, an unknown number of Wakizashi (but more than one as he used plural), and two Yari for the total amount of “106 Mas,” which today would correspond to an estimated 3,430 €, or 5,145 € considering deflation, which is a good price.

Ultimately this travel of the Sea Adventure costed more than 140 pounds and trading-wise it was a fail. The only person on board able to make profit from the situation was Richard Wickham: he had discovered that ambergris was considerably cheaper in Ryūkyū than elsewhere in Asia, and that it was traded for high prices in Japan: “here is great store of ambargrys, the best that ever I sawe & equall to that of Melinde, but is deare, at 90 & 80 tays a catty.” He bought two pound in the name of the trading post in Hirado, and two hundred sixty pound for himself. One batch of his amount he later sold with 50% surcharge to the trading post in Hirado, another batch through an intermediary in Nagasaki, and a third batch went to Bantam. This earned him huge profits.

Adams collected a number of Ryūkyūan words and phrases which enabled him to “be polite to the officials of the island.” In this way he produced the first Western micro dictionary of the Ryūkyūan language, although “many of the words are unrecognisable” (Purnell 1916: 170). He left Naha on the morning of May 20, reaching Kawachi harbor on June 10. One of the results of this voyage was the introduction of the sweet potato from Ryūkyū to Japan (Purnell 1916: 169).

More than one hundred fifty years would pass until the next direct contact of western travelers with Ryūkyū.

© 2019, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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