In the history of ocean navigation and exploration, names like LeifEricsson, Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama shine as brightly as Venus on a clear night. But what of those lesser-known, European-born navigators who have not made the first string in the pages of history?
One of those second-stringers was William Adams, an English navigator born at Kent, England, in 1564 – the same year as William Shakespeare. Young Adams apprenticed at a London shipyard, learning shipbuilding skills by day and studying navigation at night. By the time he was 25 he was already an experienced navigator, having served with Sir Francis Drake’s victorious Armada-routing navy.
Adams evidently tired of life in England, possibly sensing that more interesting adventures awaited him overseas. At a time when other English seamen were looking to make their fortunes by sailing west (to the lucrative Newfoundland fishery, perhaps), Adams chose to shape a course to the east.
With résumé in hand, Adams bade his wife, children and England adieu, and set off for Holland, where his credentials earned him a position as Pilot Major (chief navigator). In 1598 he sailed with a five-ship convoy for the East Indies via the Straits of Magellan. As fate would have it, Adams’ ship was the only survivor of this five-ship flotilla. Eventually, with a crew sick with scurvy but guided by Adams’ competent navigation, the Dutch ship made landfall at the Japanese island of Kyushu in 1600.
Adams was possibly the first Englishman, although certainly not the first white man, to reach the land of the rising sun. Portuguese traders were already established there and feared Adams’ arrival might jeopardize their trade monopoly. The Portuguese convinced the local strongman, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, to imprison Adams and his crewmates because they would pose a serious danger to Ieyasu’s regime.
Ieyasu met and questioned Adams many times while he was in prison, and each time they met, he became more intrigued with the Englishman’s store of nautical knowledge. These interviews led to friendship, with the result that Adams and his men were finally released from detention. Adams began to teach Ieyasu the rudiments of geometry and navigation. Eventually, Ieyasu also asked Adams to instruct his shipwrights in the latest western shipbuilding techniques. In response to that request, Adams designed and built an 80-ton ship with which his Japanese host was very pleased – so much so that Ieyasu granted the navigator a 12-ducat-per-year retainer (about $28) to act as his advisor.
As time passed, Adams became homesick for his family in England. Ieyasu, shrewd enough to recognize Adams for the valuable political asset he was, flatly refused him leave. But in a clever move, Ieyasu decreed that Adams was officially dead. The Englishman was then given the Japanese name Miura Anjin, with the rank of samurai. Ieyasu also arranged for Adams to marry the beautiful Oyuki, daughter of a senior bureaucrat, and presented the newlyweds with an impressive country estate.
In the years that followed, Adams fathered a son and daughter by Oyuki and supervised the building of numerous western-style vessels. He also became Ieyasu’s trusted advisor on all matters of diplomacy and foreign trade. Adams’ influence became such that even his old Portuguese enemies solicited his assistance in gaining Ieyasu’s ear.
Adams, who was the real-life, rough model for the hero of James Clavell’s book Shogun, died near Nagasaki in 1620, after years of loyal service to his Japanese lord, but without ever having returned to England.