‘Limehouse Bill’: The Legend of William Adams
“What do you know of William Adams?” I ask Dave.
“Never heard of him, who is he?”
“He died several hundred years ago, therefore, was.”
“Alright, smart arse, who was he?”
William Adams was not born in London but in Gillingham, Kent; he was born on the 24th September 1564. He didn’t move to London’s Limehouse until he was twelve when he relocated there to become an apprentice to shipyard owner Master Nicholas Diggins. Adams father died when the boy was twelve and Adams spent a further twelve years learning his chosen trade. He learnt of shipbuilding, of navigation, of knots and astronomy and as he learnt so his longing to go to sea and explore grew in him. He joined the Royal Navy and served under Sir Francis Drake where he saw action in 1588 as England battled against the Spanish Armada. Not that Adams fought alongside either Lord Howard or Sir Francis Drake; Adams was master of the supply ship the Richard Dyffylde (Duffield) and so he ferried victuals and supplies to support the battling mariners.
After this, having shown himself a courageous man and able master, he became a pilot for the Barbary Company where he took part in an Arctic expedition that lasted some two years. The expedition’s intention was to search and locate the Northeast Passage.
Adams was a devout Christian and a Protestant by choice. As a patriot, he disliked with a passion, as did many of his countrymen, the Spanish and Portuguese not just because England was often at war with them but also because they were Catholic nations, papists and as such were much hated by the English.
He married Mary Hyn in St. Dunstan, Stepney, not far from Limehouse. Mary fulfilled her wifely duties, blessing William with a daughter, Deliverance but Adams had restless feet and the call of the sea ached within him. Hearing of secret plans being laid in Rotterdam of a fleet being made ready to sail to the legendary Spice Islands near the East Indies, and of the entourage’s need of a capable pilot who could lead them through the harrowing Oceans of the Atlantic and Pacific, Adams pushed himself forward. If he succeeded he would return with a ship filled to the brim with riches all of his own. So, at the age of thirty-four Adams again set sail. He didn’t seem overly bothered by familial duties but even if he had, he wouldn’t see his wife or daughter for many, many years; it was now 1598.
Having arrived in Holland Adams saw for the first time the impressive fleet prepared and ready to sail. There was a total of five ships: the Hoop, Geloof, Trouw, Liefde and finally the Blijde Boodschop. Adams took the Hoop and on June 1598 the five vessels left Rotterdam.
The voyage turned from impulsive joy to sheer nightmare when, as they navigated around the west coast of Africa then through the Magellan Straits following the coast line of Chile, the fleet became scattered and lost sight of each other. Adams changed ships and was now aboard the Liefde. Not wanting to continue without his company, Adams waited for the rest of the fleet at Santa Maria Island. The wait proved virtually pointless as only one ship, the Hoop, finally appeared. After a brief stay on the island, the two vessels again set sail; it was now November 1599; together they sailed westward toward Japan where disaster struck again, this time in the form of a typhoon that destroyed the Hoop. When Adams finally arrived in Japan it was April 19th, 1600.
Europeans had been seen before in Japan so the sight of Adams and his storm-beaten crew were no surprise for the Japanese who had grown accustomed to the unwashed Europeans with their gaudy clothes and discourteous, crude manners. At first, Adams and the ships sailors were thought to be pirates and were duly arrested before being imprisoned in Osaka Castle. The orders had come from the Shogun, the overlord of all the feudal lords and therefore came from the singularly most powerful man in Japan. The Shogun who imprisoned Adams was Tokugawa Ieyasu.
By the time the first Europeans landed in Japan, the country’s golden era had long gone. The Emperor lived in squalor surrounded by peasant-like courtiers who sold antiques, and anything they could find, in the back streets of Kyoto. Various groups ran riot, feuding, robbing and slaughtering each other as the impotent Emperor watched powerlessly. The only man with the wit and wherewithal to meet their challenge was Tokugawa Ieyasu, a formidable man with an incisive, tactical mind.
Adams, along with his men, was detained for many months in Osaka Castle although Adams was interviewed several times by Tokugawa Ieyasu. Eventually, the Shogun began to warm to Adams, admiring the mathematical ability that Adams had but also impressed by the technology England and Europe were able to offer. When the Japanese had captured Adams and his crew they had found aboard their vessel nineteen bronze cannons, 5,000 cannonballs, 500 muskets, 300 chain-shot along with three chests filled with chain mail armour. Tokugawa Ieyasu was impressed by this vast array of power but lacked the knowledge of how to use it, whereas Adams, who Ieyasu genuinely had taken to, had knowledge enough for both men.
Osaka was a big city, bigger than London and, like London, had a river running through it but unlike London there was more than one bridge, there were dozens. The men of the west thought themselves civilised and decorous but compared to the Japanese they were crude and smelly. The Japanese that met the crew bathed at least twice a day and had their hair oiled and prepared by women whose role was to wash then dress them; they were horrified when Adams and his shipmates arrived unwashed for several months having been at sea. To the Japanese, the English were little better than their European cousins and they had not been overly impressed with them.
Tokugawa was a man with a huge reputation with an equally huge stomach. Portraits of the man show him as being a giant who wore elaborate silks with beautiful designs woven into them. He was a dandy but also ruthless and fearless in battle, sharp witted with a knowing eye. His stomach though was a thing of legend and of mirth. One contemporary said this of him: “He has such a fat belly, that he cannot tie his own girdle.” A fact to which Tokugawa readily agreed, “The fact is I have a fat belly and cannot mount a horse with armour on.”
By 1604, Tokugawa gave orders to Adams along with his men to build Japan’s first western style ship. It was an instruction Adams gladly complied with using his and the crew’s knowledge. So happy with the resultant 80-ton vessel was Tokugawa that he ordered another, bigger ship to be built. Again Adams and his men did as they were told but this time built an even bigger ship, one weighing 120 tons. Upon seeing it Tokugawa was visibly pleased, so pleased that he invited Adams to visit his palace whenever he liked, an invitation rarely given and never before to a westerner. Adams favour had vastly gone up in Tokugawa Ieyasu’s estimation.
So great was the value placed on Adams by the Shogun that the Englishman was made a diplomat and trade advisor with many privileges heaped upon him. Eventually, he became the Shogun’s personal advisor on all things either English or European even acting as an interpreter, having learnt Japanese, in Tokugawa Ieyasu court.
When Adams asked for leave to return home to see his wife and child the Shogun forbade him insisting that he remain in Japan. To sweeten the pill Adams was made a Samurai and was built a huge house set in a vast estate. Adams stayed in Japan and, due to his revered position, eventually married a local woman from a lower class. Oyuki was the daughter of Magome Kageyu, an official of the highway office whose duties were to deal with cargo from foreign ships. Although an important role it was not one that was of royal breeding which in itself says much of Adams prestige and position within the Royal court to allow him to marry outside of his rank. Adams and Oyuki had two children, a boy, and a girl with both being given English names, presumably due to Adams devout Christian upbringing, of Joseph and Susanna.
During his time in Japan, Adams oversaw the establishment of an English trading factory and greatly assisted in relations between the two nations. He also helped East India Company with much of their far eastern business. He even organised an expedition to Siam on behalf of Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Adams died on 16th May 1620 at the age of 55. He was buried in Nagasaki-Ken where his grave marker can still be seen to this day. He left his vast wealth and estates to his children, both those in Japan and his daughter in England. He was an incredible man, one of a rare breed of adventurers that the world will probably never see the like of again.
His story was used by James Clavell in his Shogun novel and should you want further, more detailed information on William Adams then I recommend Giles Milton’s excellent book, ‘Samurai William.’
all words and art are copyright © of C.J. Duffy.