3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
A Dutch Privateer in Choson Rebellion at Shimabara


Ch 14 - Western Contacts

Missionaries, Martyrs and Merchants

Portugal, Holland, Spain and England competed for Japan's wealth, while Jesuit, Franciscan and Dominican missionaries competed for Japan's soul. Toyotomi Hideyoshi pursued his second invasion of Choson while turning against Christianity and foreigners at home.

In theory, China's superiority and authority as Choson's suzerain were absolute. In practice, Choson had complete independence in the management of its own affairs. Unfortunately, Choson's geographic and cultural isolation and the chauvinistic attitude of its ruling class made it inconceivable that anything of value could be obtained from any foreign country except China. Choson never established an independent foreign policy to deal with foreign nations and its people knew very little about the Western world before the late 18th century.

Except for the few officials and diplomats who traveled between Seoul and the courts of China and Japan, no Choson citizen was allowed to travel outside the country and contacts with other nations were strictly limited by law. The occasional European ship that did appear in the waters off Choson frequently arrived unintentionally in the wake of a fierce storm in the East China Sea. The main trade routes developed by Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and British shipping in East Asia linked seaports in India, Indonesia and the Philippines with a few open ports in China and Japan. Few maritime traders had any occasion to sail beyond Japan to the northwest or to sail north-northeast from Formosa or Macao. As a result, knowledge about the West entered Choson indirectly through the growing influence of Christian missionaries in China and Japan.

Spain occupied the Low Countries in 1580 and repeatedly confiscated ships from Holland and Zeeland found in Portuguese seaports. Unable to import spices and other oriental goods from Portugal, the Dutch were forced to seek these products directly from the East Indies. The problem was how to get there. The Dutch adventurer Jan Huyghen van Linschoten spent five years investigating conditions in the East Indies as an employee of the Portuguese in Goa. In his travel notes, Reisgheschrift van de Navigatien der Portugaloysers in Orienten, "Travel Document of the Navigations of the Portuguese to the Orient," published in 1595, van Linschoten wrote:

"... so stretches the coast from Japan again to the north, recedes after that inward, northwestward, to which Coast those from Japan trade with the Nation which is called Cooray, from which I have good, comprehensive and true information, as well as from the navigation to this Country, from the navigators (he calls them pilots) who investigated the situation there and sailed there."

The following year, he published, Itinerario: Voyage ofte schipvaert van Jan Huyghen van Linschoten naar Oost ofte Portugaels Indien ... 1579-1592, "Stories of the Voyage by Ship from J.H. van Linschoten to the East or the Portuguese Indies," complete with maps, sailing instructions (rutters), and information about local commodities. In this indispensible book, van Linschoten noted that,

"A little above Japan, on 34 and 35 degrees, not far from the coast of China, is another big island, called Insula de Core, from which until now, there is no certainty concerning size, people, nor what trade there is."

The Portuguese, who established a trading post on Hirado Island in 1543, were the first Europeans to learn of Choson's existence. Through their trade contacts among the Japanese, they no doubt learned that northwest of Kyushu, beyond Tsushima Island, there existed a nation called Couray. Thus the Portuguese, and through them the Dutch, knew that the Lord of Tsushima held the monopoly on Japanese trade with Choson.

Using their own navigational intelligence backed by logistical support from bases in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, the Portuguese held a near monopoly of their own on trade and exploration in Japan from 1543 to the end of the sixteenth century. In their drive toward Asia, the Portuguese established an impressive string of forts stretching from Africa's east coast to India and from the Malay Peninsula to Macao at the mouth of China's Pearl River. Portugal made a huge investment in financial and human resources in East Asia, an investment that returned handsome profits and made immense fortunes for Portuguese noblemen and commoners alike. For years, the most notable feature of this trade was the annual voyage of the large, heavily-armed cargo vessel known as the "Black Ship." Between May and November each year, the Black Ship sailed on favorable winds from Macao to Japan carrying Chinese goods. In the alternate season, it made the return voyage to Macao loaded with Japanese silver.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi's eagerness to trade with the Europeans was tempered by a strong desire for stability in Japan and he kept close watch over the activities of the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch merchants and traders who traveled to and from Japan. He was particularly concerned about the spreading influence of Jesuit missionaries who accompanied European trade missions and the reaction of his daimyo to their presence. Omura Sumitada, Lord of the Sonogi region, became the daimyo of Hizen Province (now part of Nagasaki) in 1551, and strengthened his authority in Kyushu by forming ties with Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries. When Francis Xavier left Japan in 1552, he put the Japanese mission in the hands of the Spanish Jesuit Cosme de Torres and Brother Juan Fernandez. The Jesuit focus on converting Japan's upper class paid off richly in 1563, when Father Torres baptized Lord Omura, Japan's first Christian daimyo.

The motives behind a daimyo's conversion were as varied as their level of devotion to the Church. Some were drawn to Catholicism by the model of a valued friend, and their example in turn influenced others. The key to Lord Omura's conversion was the Jesuit's promise to ensure that Portuguese Black Ship would call at harbors in his domain. Lord Omura made a number of local concessions to the Jesuits, actively assisted them in their work to find converts in his domain, and gave Father Torres permission to search for a good harbor where the Portuguese might establish a trading base. In 1570, just one year after the Jesuits arrived in Japan, Portuguese traders discovered an insignificant coastal village in western Kyushu beneath Mount Mubonzan. Nagasaki, which means "long cape," had a fine natural harbor and the Portuguese moved in for a long and profitable stay.

Lord Omura warmly received the Portuguese when they began trading at Nagasaki in 1571. His warm welcome was likely motivated more by the desire to secure an exclusive trade agreement and prevent his enemies from acquiring European firearms than by any great love for Christianity. For the most part, men such as Lord Omura were daimyo first and Christian second and, when pressed, they tended to put their own interests ahead of the Church. When the Portuguese insisted that Lord Omura recognize ecclesiastical authority over Nagasaki, he hesitated, yielding only after they threatened to pull out and move to another port if he refused. Soon after the Portuguese set up shop, Japanese merchants seeking to enrich themselves through foreign commerce began settling in Nagasaki, turning the sleepy little village into something of a boom town.

Japan's developing internal political struggles and the fragmented political landscape of the mid-sixteenth century made it relatively easy for the Jesuits to spread Christianity. To protect his economic windfall and deter attacks by rival daimyo that could destroy the growing Portuguese trade, Lord Omura compelled the populace to convert to Christianity. In addition, on June 9, 1580, he transferred Nagasaki "in perpetuity" to the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits made remarkable progress in Kyushu, evident by the fact that the last traces of Buddhism and Shintoism had vanished from the district by 1587, the year Toyotomi Hideyoshi had a sudden and dramatic change of attitude towards Christianity. Japan's Christian daimyo never presented a united front against Hideyoshi however, and in the end, the Jesuit's faith in the daimyo's allegiance to the Catholic Church proved to be badly misplaced.

In the spring of 1586, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Taiko-sama, conqueror of Japan, first expressed his dream of a great Oriental Empire ruled by a Japanese sovereign to the Jesuit Vice-Provincial Gaspar Coelho. His plan was to form an alliance with Choson's King Sonjo, march northward up the Korean peninsula with Choson troops in the vanguard, and conquer the Chinese Ming Empire "as easily as a man rolls up a mat." After ordering the construction of 2,000 ships to carry his expeditionary force, Hideyoshi asked Father Coelho to provide his navy with two Portuguese carracks. The Jesuit not only agreed, but offered to ask Portuguese authorities for help with the campaign against China. The injudicious offer proved to Hideyoshi how dangerous these foreigners were. If the Portuguese promised warships to him this year, they might arm some other daimyo next year and trigger another civil war. Hideyoshi began to suspect the presence of the Jesuits could lead to subversive cooperation among the Kyushu daimyo.

In July 1587, shortly after his successful campaign against Shimazu Yoshihisa on Kyushu, Hideyoshi had a second meeting with Father Coelho at Hirado Island off northwest Kyushu. The two men celebrated Taiko-sama's victories late into the evening with generous amounts of wine and friendly conversation. Hideyoshi turned on the Jesuits literally overnight. Influenced by alcohol and the insinuations of Buddhist monks concerning the ultimate aim of the missionaries, Hideyoshi sent a stunning message to Vice-Provincial Coelho accusing the Jesuits of treason. He demanded to know why the Portuguese forced Japanese to become Christians and urged their followers to destroy Buddhist temples? Why did they offend Japanese by killing and eating such useful animals as horses, and who gave them authority to carry Japanese off to India as slaves? The befuddled Jesuit denied the charges, but to no avail. On July 24, 1587, Hideyoshi issued a decree from his headquarters in Hakata (modern Fukuoka) that commanded the missionaries to collect at Hirado and to be out of Japan within 20 days. The port of Nagasaki, which had been placed under Jesuit control in 1580 by Lord Omura Sumitada, was returned to Japanese jurisdiction.

Hideyoshi seemed to lose interest in the matter after issuing his expulsion order. Despite the destruction of a few Christian Churches, Hideyoshi did not rigorously enforce his edict and no missionaries left Japan, although many went into hiding as a precaution. In the weeks that followed, Hideyoshi calmed down and consented to permit ten Jesuits to remain at Nagasaki. So long as outward respect was shown for his decrees, no active measures were taken to suppress Christianity. Hideyoshi had made his point and put the Jesuits on notice that their status was insecure, but his lack of enforcement gave them the mistaken impression that he would not enforce his edict at all. The Jesuits continued their work with great care trying not incur his wrath again.

The Spanish in Manila were eager to acquire a piece of the profitable Japanese trade. After an encouraging start, serious trouble began in 1593 with the arrival of Franciscan and Dominican missionaries from the Philippines. Unfamiliar with the state of affairs in Japan, they joined with the 130 Jesuits then cautiously working in Japan under the guidelines of Father Alessandro Valignano, one of the few who understood that Christianity had to loose its European flavor in order to become acceptable to the Japanese. The Jesuits estimated that there were about 300,000 Christians in Japan by 1595, twenty percent of whom converted in the years following Hideyoshi's earlier decree against Christianity. The Jesuits concentrated on converting the upper classes. The Franciscans won more converts among the lower classes, but their zealous disregard of every bit of charitable advice given them and their indiscreet methods violated the terms of Hideyoshi's edict, even in the capital itself. Beyond differences in their methods, the acute awareness of the national antagonism between Portugal and Spain and the competition for trade with Japan contributed to growing friction and bickering between the religious orders. It did not take long before a strong rivalry developed, but so long as the two groups kept themselves under reasonable control Hideyoshi permitted them to carry on their work.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi was confronted with a situation in the fall of 1596 that brought the Jesuit-Franciscan rivalry to a head and completely changed his mind about the foreigners. On October 20, the Spanish galleon San Felipe, en route from Manila to Acapulco, Mexico, foundered off the coast of Shikoku and ran aground in Urado Bay. Ignoring protests from the ship's captain and Spanish missionaries in Kyoto, Hideyoshi confiscated the San Felipe's rich cargo, including a number of artillery pieces and ammunition. By tradition, the ship's cargo became the property of the emperor. While Hideyoshi was deciding what to do with the ship, the San Felipe's pilot-major boasted that Spanish conquistadors usually followed Franciscan missionaries to a new land. The Franciscans immediately denied the story, insisting it was a Jesuit lie contrived to drive them from Japan. The ignorant boast threatening a Spanish conquest of Japan aided by Franciscan "spies," though never proven, did not intimidate Hideyoshi. Instead, it aroused his fury and suspicions regarding all Christians in Japan.

The Buddhist monk Nichijoshonin zealously protected his religion. Playing on Hideyoshi's fear of Christianity and its insistence on the primacy of individual conscience, he persuaded Taiko-sama to order the arrest of all missionaries for execution, thus instigating the start of a new era of persecutions. Twenty-six residences and 140 churches were destroyed in the winter of 1596 and numerous Christians were dispossessed of their goods and reduced to poverty. Within three months, Japanese authorities had a list of every Christian living in Miyado and Osaka. Jesuits and Franciscans alike were taken prisoner, although the Jesuits were soon released because of their connections with the imperial court. Six Franciscan friars and twenty Japanese converts remained in custody, including two children aged 12 and 13 years The Twenty-six Martyrs. After being tortured, the prisoners were force marched for thirty days from Kyoto to Nagasaki, where they were publicly crucified as common criminals on February 5, 1587, becoming the first Christian martyrs in Japan Death on Nishizaka Hill. Six-thousand more deaths were to follow.

Meanwhile, during Japan's second invasion of Choson, Japanese General Konishi Yukinaga, a Christian convert from Sakai, held a nearly untenable position along Choson's southern coast. Constantly threatened and harassed by Choson troops and with the menacing presence of Admiral Yi Sun-sin's fleet on his western flank, General Konishi remained perpetually apprehensive through the winter of 1596. The strain of the defensive winter campaign took a terrible toll on troop morale, prompting General Konishi to send a request for chaplains to Army Headquarters. In the summer of 1597, Father Gregorio de Cespedes, a Spanish Jesuit priest, and Brother Foucan Eion, a Japanese monk, were dispatched to Choson. At the age of forty-six, Father Cespedes became the first Westerner known to have set foot in Choson. He and Brother Foucan not only tended the religious needs of the Japanese troops, but brought comfort to many war prisoners and orphans during their stay on the peninsula.

Fortunately for the Christian community, Toyotomi Hideyoshi died before he could start large-scale persecutions. The missionaries enjoyed a brief period of relative freedom as Japan went through the transition that brought Tokugawa Ieyasu to power as the Shogun. Like Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu was interested in expanding foreign commerce. Eager to attract European trade, he opened all of Japan's ports to unrestricted trade and even permitted the Spanish Franciscans to build a mission at Edo in his own home region. By 1600, new and significant events were underway that eventually compounded the foreign political tensions building in Japan.

Dutch and English traders, their appetites whetted by the 1596 publication of Jan Huyghen van Linschoten's landmark exposť on East Asia, began plotting courses to Japan and other promising ports of call throughout Asia. Since Portugal dominated the principal route to the East Indies around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, Dutch ships needed another course. Ferdinand Magellan had theorized that Tierra del Fuego was actually an island south of South America and world maps by Ortelius (1570) and Hondius (1595) showed a narrow passage between South America and Tierra del Fuego. In June 1598, five ships commanded by Jacques Mahu sailed from Rotterdam, Holland, on an ambitious expedition to find a new passage to Asia.

Sailing via the Africa's west coast, the ships De Hoop, De Liefde, Het Geloof, De Trouw, and Blijde Boodschop, crossed the Atlantic to the east coast of South America, turned south and followed the coastline in search of a westward opening. The five ships entered the Strait of Magellan on April 6, 1599, and scattered during the voyage north along the coastline of South America. The expedition's pilot-major, a thirty-four-year-old Englishman from Gillingham, Kent, named William Adams Pilot-Major John Blackthorne from James Clavell's novel 'SHOGUN', transferred from the De Hoop to the De Liefde, which anchored at Santa Maria Island off the west coast of South America to wait for the others. Only the De Hoop arrived.

In late November 1599, the two remaining ships sailed into the Pacific towards Japan. Three months into the voyage, a typhoon claimed the De Hoop, leaving only Captain Jacob Jansz van Quaeckernack's De Liefde piloted by Will Adams to continue. One evening in mid-April 1600, one hundred thirty-three days from Santa Maria Island, the De Liefde staggered into the Bungo Strait while sailing through heavy seas in a strong wind. The ship struck a reef off the Usuki Peninsula near Oita on the east coast of Kyushu. The first Englishman to set foot on Japanese soil arrived in Japan aboard a Dutch ship. The shipwrecked crew of the De Liefde were not at all welcome in Japan by the well-entrenched Portuguese, who made every effort to turn Japanese authorities against the Protestant interlopers. Allegations by Portuguese Jesuits that the De Liefde was a pirate vessel led to its immediate seizure. Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu, then the most powerful daimyo in Japan, ordered the 24 surviving members of the crew imprisoned at Osaka Castle.

Not long after his imprisonment, Will Adams was taken before Lord Tokugawa, who soon took a liking to the strange Englishman, known as anjin-san, or pilot. Adams was not a scholar, nor a statesman, nor a diplomat, but a humble man from a very ordinary background with unique knowledge of world geography, navigation, astronomy, firearms, and shipbuilding. Within a matter of months Adams won the daimyo's trust and admiration, eventually becoming Lord Tokugawa's honored advisor. Ieyasu's rewards for Adams' service and loyalty included a large house in Edo and a small fief that covered most of the Miura Peninsula in Sagami Bay south of the capital. The most impressive reward however, was a pair of swords, the revered badge of rank and authority in Japan. William Adams, the Pilot-Major from England, became the samurai Miura Anjin, the Pilot of Miura. Forbidden to ever leave Japan, Adams established his home at Hemi in the modern city of Yokosuka and married the daughter of a noble samurai official of Edo Castle.

Tokugawa Ieyasu tolerated much of this early foreign presence in Japan to keep the profitable trade they brought with them. Ever since the turn of the century, it was only a matter of time before Dutch and English trading ships sailed beyond Sumatra, Java, and the Moluccas to the islands of Japan. Both Tokugawa Ieyasu and his son, Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada, viewed Christianity as essentially subversive, and as early as 1606 had begun to issue decrees against it. Raised with a hatred for the "papist countries" of Portugal and Spain, the Protestant Dutch and English did their best to poison Japanese opinion against the Catholics. It was not long before these rivalries came to the foreground and dramatically changed the position of the players. Both the Protestant Dutch and Will Adams informed the Shogun that there were Europeans who were quite ready to trade without conducting missionary activities.

The Dutch merchantmen Roode Leeuw met Pijlen and Griffioen, commanded by Nicholas Puyck, were the first to arrive in Kyushu. Having been detached from a thirteen-ship fleet that sailed from Amsterdam in December 1607, the two vessels arrived in the vicinity of Nagasaki in July 1609 with a cargo of silk, pepper, and lead. Japanese pilots sailed both ships directly to Hirado, where the Dutch were given official trading privileges and encouraged to establish a warehouse district. Jacques Specx, the first Dutch administrator at Hirado, was given instructions to keep on good terms with the Shogun's advisor, Will Adams. Although Adams played no role in negotiating the Dutch trade agreement, the Dutch at Hirado held him in high regard.

The Roode Leeuw met Pijlen returned to Hirado in August 1611 with a cargo of cloves, muscat, and pepper. Following close on its heels was the Dutch ship Hasewint, which carried a letter from Sir Thomas Smythe of the British East India Company to Will Adams expressing London's interest in sending a ship to compete with the Portuguese and Dutch. Adams wrote back with enthusiasm, not only endorsing the idea, but advising Sir Thomas how (through handling Chinese goods), why (abundant gold and silver to finance trade in the Indies), and where (Edo, near his estate) the English business should be conducted. Unfortunately, Adams' letter reached the Englishman at Bantam, Java, in April 1613, some three months after the Clove set sail for Hirado. Sailing with a copy of the English edition of Linschoten's Itinerario, complete with maps, sailing instructions and information about local commodities, Captain John Saris approached Kyushu in June 1613, much as Nicholas Puyck had done some four years earlier. Once again, Japanese pilots directed the ship to Hirado, where Captain Saris began negotiating trading privileges with the Japanese. With the lukewarm assistance of Will Adams, a trade agreement was reached in six months. After appointing Richard Cocks the British administrator at Hirado, Saris returned to England.

The Dutch and English trade in the Far East and could not match the profitable, well-entrenched Portuguese monopoly. The British discovered that without established support facilities or secure sources of goods within several thousand miles of Japan, they could not sustain their trading base at Hirado and abandoned the facility after only ten years. The Dutch factory at Hirado however, came to play a role in Japanese history that went far beyond the profits it generated for the VOC.


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A Dutch Privateer in Choson Rebellion at Shimabara