A Brief History of William Adams


Why you are already familiar with Will Adams

Anyone who has ever read James Clavell’s “Shogun,” or seen the movie, has already been indirectly introduced to William Adams. The fictional heroics of John Blackthorne were loosely based on Adams’ exploits.


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From seaman to samurai

William Adams was born in Gillingham, Kent, England on Sept. 24, 1564. After losing his father at age 12, he was apprenticed to shipyard owner Master Nicholas Diggins at Limehouse. He spent the next 12 years learning shipbuilding, astronomy and navigation.

After serving in the Royal Navy under Sir Francis Drake, Adams became a pilot for the company Barbary Merchants. During this service, he took part in an expedition to the Arctic that lasted about two years in search of a Northeast Passage along the coast of Siberia to the Far East.

In 1598, Adams, then 34, went to Holland and was chosen as Pilot Major for a five-ship expedition to the Far East.

He set sail from Rotterdam in June 1598 on the ‘De Hoop’ and joined up with the rest of the fleet (‘De Liefde,’ ‘Het Geloof,’ ‘De Trouw,’ and ‘Blijde Boodschop’) on June 24. During the voyage, which took them via the west coast of Africa, across to the east coast of South America, through the Magellan Straits, and up the coastline of Chile, the fleet was scattered and several ships were lost. Adams changed ships to the ‘De Liefde’ (originally ‘Erasmus’ because of the wooden figurehead of Erasmus on her bow) and waited for the other ships at Santa Maria Island. Only the ‘De Hoop’ arrived. It was late November 1599 when the two ships sailed westwardly for Japan. A typhoon claimed the ‘De Hoop’ in late February 1600.

When the ‘De Liefde’ made landfall April 19, 1600, off Bungo (present-day Usaki City, Oita Prefecture), only nine of the remaining 24 crew members could even stand. Allegations by Portuguese priests that Adams’ ship was a pirate vessel led to seizure, and the sickly crew was imprisoned at Osaka Castle on orders by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

But the Shogun took a liking to Adams, eventually making him a revered diplomatic and trade adviser and bestowing great privileges upon him. In 1604, Ieyasu ordered Adams to build a western-style sailing ship at Ito, on the east coast of Izu Peninsula. An 80-ton vessel was completed and the Shogun ordered a larger ship, 120 tons, to be built the following year.

Ieyasu’s rewards for Adams’ service and loyalty were grand, and included a large house in the new capital of Tokyo. The most impressive, however, were two swords. A badge of rank and authority, the swords transformed Adams the English pilot into Miura Anjin the samurai. Along with this came a fief at Hemi, within the boundaries of present-day Yokosuka City, a handsome salary, and the means to marry Oyuki, the daughter of Magome Kageyu, a noble samurai and official of Edo Castle, which stood in present day Tokyo. (1)

Adams and Oyuki settled in Hemi and had a son, Joseph, and a daughter, Susanna. The Anjin, however, found it hard to rest his feet and was constantly on the road. Initially, it was in the vain attempt to organize an expedition in search of the Arctic passage that had eluded him previously. But in 1613, he became preoccupied with trading after helping the British East India Company set up a trading post near Nagasaki, then setting up his own. Under contract with the English company, Adams sailed to Okinawa, Thailand and Indochina.

Adams died at Hirado, north of Nagasaki, on May 16, 1620. He was 56.

NOTE (1): Adams had a wife and children in England, but Ieyasu had forbidden the Englishman to leave Japan. In a true stroke of wisdom, the Shogun decreed that William Adams was dead and that Miura Anjin, a samurai, was born. This made Will’s wife in England, in effect, a widow, and “freed” Adams to serve him on a permanent basis. Also, only as a samurai, was he eligible to marry a samurai’s daughter.