Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Adams, William (d.1620)

For works with similar titles, see Adams, William.

ADAMS, WILLIAM (d. 1620), navigator, was born, as he himself tells us, ‘in a town called Gillingham, two English miles from Rochester, one mile from Chatham, where the king's ships do lie.’ At the age of twelve he began his seafaring life, being apprenticed to Master Nicholas Diggins of Limehouse, with whom he remained for twelve years. He afterwards entered the navy, acting as master and pilot, and for about eleven or twelve years served the company of Barbary merchants, until the opening of the Dutch trade with India tempted him ‘to make a little experience of the small knowledge which God had given him’ in that ‘Indish traffick.’ Accordingly in 1598 he joined, as pilot-major, a fleet of five ships fitted out by the Rotterdam merchants and commanded by Jacob Mahu. The vessels were small, ranging in size from 75 tons to 250 tons, but were overcrowded with men. The Charity, the ship in which Adams sailed, was of 160 tons and carried 110 men. Sailing from the Texel on 24 June, the expedition began a voyage which was to prove one long series of disasters. Sickness broke out, and on reaching the Cape Verd islands on 21 Aug. a rest of three weeks was found necessary. Then the commander Mahu died, and the fleet was driven to the coast of Guinea, and another landing to refresh the sick took place at Cape Gonsalves, south of the line. But here fever attacked the crews, so that their leaders determined at once to sail for Brazil, which they did, and coming on the island of Annabon in the Gulf of Guinea, they attacked the town and obtained supplies. Thus were lost two months on the African coast, and from the middle of November to the beginning of April 1599, the ships lay tossing in the South Atlantic. At length they entered the Straits of Magellan, but only to be caught by the winter and to remain there till 24 Sept. before they entered the South Sea. Hardly clear of the straits, the fleet was scattered by a storm. Two of the ships were driven back into the straits, and eventually returned to Holland. Of the others, one was captured by a Spanish cruiser, and the Charity and the admiral-ship Hope finally met again on the coast of Chili. But the commanders and a great part of the crews of both ships were killed in ambushes by the natives, and among them Thomas, the brother of William Adams. Thus reduced to extremity and fearing to be taken by the Spaniards, the survivors took council and finally determined to stand away boldly for Japan, where they hoped to find a market for the woollen cloth which formed a large part of their cargo. Leaving the coast of Chili on 27 Nov., the two ships sailed on prosperously for some three or four months; but then bad weather came on and they were separated. The Hope was never heard of again; the Charity held on, and at last, with most of her crew sick or dying, and with only some half-dozen men able to stand on their feet, she sighted Japan, and on 19 April 1600 anchored off the coast of Bungo in the island of Kiushiu. The unfortunate mariners were received with kindness, and notice of their arrival was at once sent to the capital city Ozaka, from whence orders were soon after received for Adams to be despatched thither. In 1598 the famous soldier Taiko Sama (or Hidéyoshi), who had raised himself to the head of affairs, had died, leaving an infant son. The chief guardian of the young prince was Iyéyasu, an old fellow-soldier of Taiko Sama, and the influence and power which he speedily acquired roused the jealousy of his rivals. A civil war broke out, and at the very moment when Adams set foot in Japan, the two factions were preparing for action, which resulted a few months later (October 1600) in a decisive victory for Iyéyasu. The conqueror became the actual ruler of the country, although he did not receive the title of Shogun till 1603.

Before Iyéyasu, then, ‘the emperor,’ Adams was brought and examined as to his country and the cause of his coming. He was then kept in prison for nearly six weeks, and, although kindly treated, lived in dread of death, expecting to be led out to undergo the native punishment of crucifixion. Indeed the Portuguese of Nagasaki tried to persuade the Japanese that the Dutch were pirates and deserved to be executed; but Iyéyasu, with the fairness which always distinguished his dealings with foreigners, refused to punish men who had done him no wrong. He set Adams at liberty and restored him to his comrades, and ordered a daily allowance of rice and a small annual pension to be given to them. But the ship could not be cleared; and so, after some waste of money in the cause, the crew divided what remained ‘and every one took his way where he thought best.’

Then began the intercourse between Iyéyasu and Adams which led rapidly to the advancement of the latter. The practical Englishman had found favour in the eyes of the sagacious ruler. In simple language Adams tells the story of his success. He built for the Shogun a small ship of 80 tons, ‘by which means I came in more favour with him, so that I came often in his presence, who from time to time gave me presents and at length a yearly stipend to live upon, much about seventy ducats by the year, with two pounds of rice a day, daily. Now being in such grace and favour, by reason I learned him some points of geometry and understanding of the art of mathematics with other things, I pleased him so that what I said he would not contrary.’ He also built a second ship of 110 tons, which was seaworthy enough to carry home the Spanish governor of the Philippine Islands, who was wrecked on the coast of Japan. Finally, to requite his services, Iyéyasu bestowed on him an estate ‘like unto a lordship in England, with eighty or ninety husbandmen that be as my slaves or servants.’ This estate was at Hémi near Yokosuka, and has been described as having ‘100 farms or households upon it, besides others under them, all which are his vassals, and he hath power of life and death over them, they being his slaves, and he as absolute authority over them as any tono (or king) in Japon hath over his vassals’ (Cocks's Diary, i. 181). But whatever favours Iyéyasu might grant, there was one which he steadily denied. After five years Adams asked leave to return to England, where he had left a wife and two children, but was refused. Another application, when the inspiriting news came that the Dutch were at Achin and Patani, fared no better.

At length, in 1609, Dutch ships appeared in the port of Firando in the extreme west of the kingdom, and got leave to establish a factory. Two years after another vessel arrived, and two commissioners were sent up to court, and by Adams's influence obtained ample trading privileges. And now for the first time the exile learned that Englishmen were trading in the East, and so indited his well-known letter ‘to my unknown friends and countrymen,’ telling the story of his misfortunes and calling for help. This letter was written in October 1611, and reached the English factory in Bantam early in 1612. But Adams's story was already known in England through reports of the Dutch, and a trading fleet of three ships had sailed in April 1611 to open trade with Japan. On 12 June 1613 the Clove, under command of Captain John Saris, sailed into the harbour of Firando. Adams was summoned, and at last, on 29 July, found himself again among his countrymen. Next followed a journey by Saris in company with Adams to Suruga, Iyéyasu's head-quarters, in order to obtain trading privileges; and by the end of November an English factory was formally settled at Firando. Adams, in one of his letters, had advised the choice of a place in the eastern parts of the kingdom, nearer the great cities, instead of a port where the Dutch were already in possession of the market. However, the advice came too late; Firando was chosen, and eight Englishmen were appointed members of the factory. The chief, or cape-merchant as he was called, was Richard Cocks, whose diary has survived to give us the history of this early English settlement in Japan. Next in rank came Adams himself, who, postponing his long wished-for return to England, now entered the service of the company. When he accompanied Saris to court, he had at last got Iyéyasu's leave to return to his country. He did not choose to do so and take passage in the Clove, then on the point of sailing, according to his own account, because of ‘some discourtesies’ received from Saris. The latter, indeed, was unduly suspicious of Adams, and tried to drive a hard bargain with him on the terms of his proposed service. But there were pressing reasons why he should remain, at least for a time, in Japan. He had a Japanese wife and two children, and he was ill provided with money. He was ambitious, too, to discover the north-west or north-east passage to England, and this may have influenced him. In the end he agreed to enter the company's service for 100l. a year, payable at the end of two years. His actual term of service extended from 24 Nov. 1613 to 24 Dec. 1616, and during that time he was chiefly employed in trading voyages and in accompanying the English to the court of the Shogun when they carried up the customary presents or on other occasions. In 1615, in a voyage which was intended for Siam, but which failed in its object, he put into the Loochoo Islands, which had been lately added to the Japanese dominion. The next year he made a successful voyage to Siam, and in 1617 and 1618 he twice visited Cochin China.

In 1616 Adams's patron Iyéyasu died and was succeeded by his son Hidétada, who soon gave proof of hostility to foreigners; and although Cocks states that Adams was in favour with this Shogun also, his influence was evidently of no great weight. The privileges of both English and Dutch were curtailed, and the persecution of Christians, which for some time had practically ceased, now broke out with renewed violence. The English venture in Japan had also by this time proved a failure, and to make matters worse the Dutch declared war and took English shipping and attacked our factory at Firando. Peace was scarcely restored when, on 16 May 1620, Adams died. A little more than three years after, in December 1623, the English factory was dissolved and our countrymen withdrew from Japan. There is no record of Adams's age at the time of his death, but it was probably more than sixty years, as he could hardly have been under forty when he landed in Japan. He left about 500l., which he bequeathed in equal portions to his wife and daughter who survived him in England, and to his son and daughter in Japan. His will was preserved at one time in the archives of the East India Company; but it has now disappeared. He lies buried on the summit of the hill above the village of Hémi-mura (the site of his estate) and overlooking the harbour of Yokosuka. In 1872 Mr. James Walter discovered his tomb with that of his Japanese wife, who survived him thirteen years. Adams's memory lived in Japan. A street in Yedo, Anjin Cho (Pilot Street), was named after him, Anjin Sama having been his Japanese title; and an annual celebration is still held in honour of the Englishman who was ‘in such favour with two emperors of Japan as never was any christian in these parts of the world.’

[Adams's Letters printed in Purchas his Pilgrimes, part i.; Rundall's Memorials of the Empire of Japon (Hakluyt Society), 1850; Hildreth's Japan, 1855; Griffis, The Mikado's Empire, 1876, p. 262; Diary of Richard Cocks (Hakluyt Society), 1883; The Far East Newspaper (Yokohama), vol. iii. No. 1.]

E. M. T.