Chinese silk, Japanese silver and Portuguese ships

Lynne Booker


The story of China´s hunger for silver, Japan´s thirst for silk and Portugal´s brief flirtation with Japan.  It is a tale of merchants, missionaries and monsoons. Portuguese pioneers of world exploration first rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488  and then pushing further and further eastwards reached India in 1498 and Malacca in  1511 and soon afterwards China and the Spice Islands.


The navigators on the voyages of discovery were helped by the use of Marco Polo´s map which the Infante D Pedro had bought in Venice in 1428.  Exotic spices, silk and porcelain, the scents and treasures of the east attracted plucky Portuguese thousands of kilometres from home:  the prospects of riches were obviously worth the risk of pirates and of shipwreck.  It is vaguely surprising that it took another 33 years for the Portuguese to reach Japan, and even then they made landfall unintentionally. A monsoon had blown so strongly across the East China Sea that a small Portuguese junk was thrown up at Funai on the forested island of Kyushu.


The governor of Funai sent a message to the governor of the ancient province of Bungo (as the area was called) who ordered that the Portuguese be executed and the vessel confiscated.  Luckily the governor´s son intervened and invited the Portuguese to court, together with the Chinese interpreter who had accompanied them on the junk.  Of the three Portuguese it was Fernão Mendes Pinto who was chosen to convince the Japanese of the fineness and knowledgeability of this small representation of the Portuguese nation.  Pinto was a flamboyant adventurer who later described his travels in A Peregrinaçao.  His presence on the junk was explained by the fact that he was escaping from a year´s hard labour on the Great Wall of China, to which he had been sentenced following his conviction for piracy in the Gulfs of Siam and Tonkin.


How was the outlandish Pinto going to fare in a land where manners and etiquette were everything?  If his narratives are to be believed, Otomo Yoshiaki, Governor of Bungo, greeted Pinto thus: Thy arrival in this my country is no less pleasing to me than the rain which falls from heaven is profitable to our fields that are sowed with rice.  Pinto records that he was taken aback by such a greeting but quick-wittedly apologised for his delay in replying with this explanation: it proceeded from the consideration that I was now before the feet of so great a king, which was sufficient to make me mute an hundred thousand years!  This is the man who claimed that he was made captive 13 times and sold into slavery 17 times.


The canny Portuguese, while admiring his braggadocio, commonly use this pun on his name:

Fernão, Mentes? Minto!Fernão, are you lying?  Yes I am!


It is probable that Pinto mistook the governor for the king of Japan and that the governor did not disabuse Pinto of his error.  The governor was not particularly interested to hear about the land named Portugal which was at the further end of the world.  He was more concerned to find remedies for his gout and digestive problems.  Pinto offered him European and Indian physic, and luckily his potions worked.


The manners of the Europeans and their medieval dislike of bathing and shaving might have been enough for the Japanese to dismiss them out of hand as barbarians, but the Portuguese possessed one article that the Japanese passionately desired.  Japanese were a notoriously warlike people, and they could not wait to lay their hands on Portuguese muskets and arquebuses.  In a country of swords and crossbows, guns were a real prize.  So thought Yoshishige, the son of the governor.  He sneaked into Pinto´s chamber one night, stole a musket and powder and promptly gashed his forehead and nearly blew off his thumb.  Pinto was held responsible, and Japanese justice would have involved his dismemberment and each of the four quarters of his body sent to a different compass point.  Pinto´s luck again held as he cleansed Yoshishige´s wounds and applied white of egg - a cure he had seen in the Indies; the cure worked and Pinto survived.  The adventurous Pinto later returned to Japan in the garb of a Jesuit  together with the Jesuit evangelist Francis Xavier.


Pinto had mistaken the governor of Bungo for the king of Japan.  At the time he arrived in Japan the country lacked central authority and was in the midst of a civil war, in which Portugese firearms proved very useful.  This was not all. For some time, Japanese merchants had been forbidden to trade directly with China, and any Japanese found on Chinese soil risked instant execution.  Apart from coveting Portuguese muskets and gunpowder, Japanese at the time had a nearly insatiable desire to buy Chinese silk. In their turn, the Chinese would do anything for Japanese silver. China wanted Japan´s silver and Japan wanted Chinese silk and the arrival of Portuguese merchants was indeed fortuitous, for they and their trade were now acceptable to both sides. The time was ripe for Portuguese fortunes to be made.


Pinto´s accidental visit was followed by those of other Portuguese adventurers and in 1547, Captain Jorge Alvarez reported of his visit to Japan to the fascination of his countrymen. Francis Xavier, a young Jesuit who had spent more than 8 years in India and Malaya, saw possibilities of new conversions in Japan.  Xavier was introduced to Anjiro, a Japanese Christian refugee and, together with the liar, they voyaged to Japan, arriving at Kagoshima on 15 August 1549.Xavier made his way to the great Fukosho-ji Buddhist monastery where he studied the Japanese language and made converts to Christianity.  He wanted to reach the imperial city of Kyoto to preach to the Emperor and towards the end of August 1550 he set off on a journey that involved a dangerous sea voyage and a long trek over a steep mountain range.  He arrived in Kyoto looking like a tramp and in a country where honour, manners, wealth and dress sense were essential, he was unlikely to be a successful preacher.  He was however determined to impress and dressed in silks, presented himself as ambassador of the governor of Índia to the lord of Yamaguchi. A clock, Portuguese wine and two telescopes, gifts that he had intended for the Emperor he now presented to Lord Yamaguchi. Xavier made an impression as a learned man, in the same way as the Jesuits did at the court of the Ming Emperor. For example, Xavier was able to inform the Japanese that the earth is round.  Such a reputation enabled him to win 500 converts during the two years he remained in Japan.


In 1555 the Portuguese secured a toehold on the tiny island of Macao which gave them access to the great silk markets of Canton. The first ship laden with silk sailed from Macao to Japan under the captaincy of Duarte da Gama and returned laden with silver. All of a sudden, Portuguese merchants in China were in a frenzy, desperate to make their fortunes in Japanese silver.  The merchants of Macao built great ships, naos de trato, which could carry as much as 120,000 cubic feet of silver bullion.  Portuguese merchants and priests found a better and safer harbour at Nagasaki and from 1571 they began trading there.  The Portuguese benefitted from the notion that the China trade enjoyed by the Japanese depended on permission from the Japanese for Christian missionary work in Japan.  When the lord of Nagasaki, Omura Sumitada (who had converted to Christianity in 1562) saw the mountains of Chinese silk, damask and porcelains arriving in his own port, he declared his intention of making his fiefdom a purely Christian one.  Buddhist and Shinto temples were destroyed and 20,000 people converted to Christianity, probably under orders from their feudal lord.


As long as the Portuguese kept their monopoly of the Japan trade, the rewards were potentially huge.  But hot on their trail were Spanish, Dutch and English competitors.  A 1593 shipwreck deposited Spanish Fraciscan friars on the Japanese mainland, much to the chagrin of the Portuguese Jesuits who rightly maintained that Japan was in the Portuguese sphere of influence and that two Christian missions would confuse the Japanese.  Portuguese Jesuits had invested a great deal of time and money in currying favour with the Japanese:  they respected Japanese rituals, showed courtesy and showered them with gifts.  They believed that the friars would inevitably offend their hosts since they knew nothing of Japanese manners and etiquette.  Regent Hideyoshi had other ideas and he aimed to drive down Portuguese prices by introducing competition in the form of the Spanish Franciscans, based in Manila.  When a Spanish treasure ship en route for Acapulco ran aground on the island of Shikoku in the Japanese south east, it was immediately looted by the locals.  Eager to get back their looted cargo, in an interview with the shogun´s representatives, the Spanish pilot boasted to the Japanese that Spanish conquests throughout America and Asia had been facilitated by fifth columns made up of local converts to Christianity.


The Buddhist priesthood of Japan pounced on this intemperate and untrue admission; they had for a long time been accusing Christians of just this intention.  Not only did the Spaniards not get their cargo back,  but Hideyoshi ordered that the Franciscans be crucified.  Although he still believed that the Jesuits were necessary for the Macao trade, the Spaniard´s words had sown the seeds of distrust.  When Hideyoshi died in 1598 his successor Ieyasu appeared also to be pro Christian and believed that the Jesuits were still the essential intermediaries for trade with China.


Christianity in Japan peaked during the years 1600 - 1606 and there were perhaps as many as 750,000 Christian converts not merely in the south near Nagasaki but in the whole of Japan.


The arrival of the red hairs as the Dutch and English were known, led to a challenge to the supremacy of the Jesuits with the Japanese.  Will Adams, an Englishman who had arrived in Japan as pilot of a Dutch ship, was so well accepted by the Japanese that he achieved samurai status in 1600 and by 1608 he had managed to supplant the Portuguese Jesuit interpreters at court of the shogun.  (Giles Milton´s book Samurai William tells the story of Will Adams, the adventurer who unlocked Japan.  Milton refers to my ancestor William Eaton, a member of Adams´ crew, who returned to Staffordshire with his son by his Japanese mistress.  Perhaps this might explain my love of Japanese art and literature.)  Adams is remembered to this day in Japan in two stone memorials.


Worried about Christian plots to overthrow him, the shogun in 1614 decided to expel all missionaries, close all churches and prohibit the practice of Christianity by any Japanese.  Christians who refused deportation were at risk of death.  As many as 20,000 Christians went into hiding all over Japan.  There followed a period similar in character to that of the Inquisition in Europe.  Christians were tortured and burnt alive if they did not recant.  One excruciating form of torture was the pit.  The  tightly bound victim was suspended head first in a pit to the level of their knees. The botton of the pit contained excreta and other filth. The torturers left one hand free so that the victim could signal his wish to recant. The normal survival time during this torture was less than two days. In the 140 years to 1650, more than five thousand Christians were  executed, of whom 71 were Europeans.


The Spaniards were banned from Japan as from 1624 and when the Portuguese great ship from Macao arrived at Nagasaki in 1639, an imperial decree was delivered to the captain.  It banned trade between Macao and Japan on the grounds that the ships were used for smuggling missionaries; that the ships brought supplies to the missionaries; and that the Portuguese had assisted the rebellion in the country.  All of these allegations were true.  No Portuguese was allowed to land and they were thenceforward banned from Japan on pain of death.


The authorities in Macao decided to dispute this ban and sent a deputation to Japan to urge a change of mind.  Realising the risks they ran, all members of the deputation received absolution in Macao before they left.  The shogun put his foot down and insisted on the execution of the whole deputation.  Sixty-one perished to the executioner´s sword and the ship with its cargo was burnt.  To reinforce his message, the shogun sent back to Macao the 13 lowest grade servants of the deputation together with the message that if King Filipe or even God Himself contravened the prohibition, they would pay for it with their heads.  The Portuguese sent two further embassies in 1647 and 1685 but to no avail.  Japan had by this time opened its own China trade and no longer needed Portuguese middlemen.


After the opening up of Japan in the 1860s, many secret Christians came forward.  Like the Marranos, the secret Jews of Portugal, these Christians had retained a faith that was just about recognisable, a faith which had been passed down within family structures and without any form of pastoral leadership for over 200 years.


The Portuguese had entered Japan with a cross in one hand and their purse in the other.  Their success was due in part to Japanese disunity and in part to the chasm between China and Japan which allowed the Portuguese to act as middlemen.  A united Japan no longer needed the Christian Portuguese.  Disagreements between Jesuit and Franciscan demonstrated that Christianity suffered similar schisms to those of Japanese religions, and Christianity lost much of its moral superiority.  The relationship between the Japanese and Portuguese had lasted nigh on a century and was followed by the 210 year period when, except for a tiny Dutch presence, Japan was a closed country.

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