Arrival of a Portuguese ship, one of a pair (Nanban screens), Six panel folding screen, 1620–1640.

After they appeared in Japan in 1542, the Portuguese quickly established themselves as an important part of the archipelago’s commercial networks. They did so almost by chance, moving into a fortuitous vacuum created by the collapse of official commercial links between China and Japan after the breakdown of the tally trade (kangō) system, which had previously permitted limited ties, in 1547. This gap was filled by Portuguese merchants, who were able to provide a reliable conduit for Chinese goods through their newly established base in Macao. After experimenting with a number of domainal partners, they eventually settled on Nagasaki as their primary terminus in Japan and the town quickly emerged as a thriving commercial entrepôt. Although other goods flowed along it, the Macao-Nagasaki route, the mainstay of Portuguese trade in East Asia, hinged on a straightforward silk for silver exchange. The carracks that arrived in Nagasaki imported Chinese silk and silk goods that were subsequently traded for a cargo of Japanese silver bullion. The quantities involved were impressive. A single carrack captured in 1603 yielded over eighty thousand kilograms of silk, while one traveler estimated that the Portuguese bring out of Japan “every yeere above six hundred thousand Crusadoes: and all this Silver of Japan.”

Although they played a key economic role, the Portuguese were, by the early seventeenth century, a controversial presence within Japan, and their relationship with the Tokugawa Bakufu increasingly strained. The tension stemmed in large part from their close connection with the Jesuits, who had engaged in an aggressive proselytizing campaign that had culminated in their expulsion from the archipelago in 1614. As its hostility toward Christianity mounted, the Bakufu became more and more suspicious of Portuguese merchants, who were accused, often with no real basis, of aiding the Christian community in Japan and of secretly ferrying in priests to continue missionary work. As much as it might have preferred simply to expel the Portuguese along with the Jesuits, the regime could not afford cut the Macao-Nagasaki route without finding a reliable alternative to access Chinese trade. As a result, it was forced to tolerate the Portuguese presence, but there was little trust on either side. Instead both parties found themselves locked together in an uneasy embrace made bearable only by their shared desire to preserve the steady flow of Chinese goods into Japan.

The strained relationship between the Bakufu and the Portuguese provided the backdrop against which the company attempted to carry its global war into Japanese waters. When the Dutch arrived in Japan in 1609, Portuguese shipping that sailed between Nagasaki and Macao was already firmly in their sights. As previously discussed, the company’s factory in Japan was only established as the result of a failed privateering expedition, and, for much of its early history, maritime predation was given at least equal and often far higher priority than trade. Considering the potential prize, this was not surprising. The sheer value of the cargo carried aboard the Macao-Nagasaki carrack, a single slow-moving vessel that plied a fixed route along a predictable time line, made it an irresistible target for company administrators and one that would continue to obsess them for decades. The first actual incident of VOC maritime violence in the waters near Japan did not, however, involve the great ship from Macao. Rather it centered on a small Portuguese vessel, the Santo Antonio, of no great value or importance. Its capture provided the first test of VOC efforts to bring its campaign against the Portuguese into Japanese waters, and it sparked a bitter legal dispute in which both sides converged on the shogun’s court determined to argue their case.

In August 1615, six years after the opening of the Japan factory, a VOC yacht, the Jaccatra, seized the Santo Antonio as it made its way from Macao to Japan. The incident took place against the backdrop of a renewed escalation in the company’s war with the Portuguese brought about by the collapse of a temporary truce that had come into effect in 1609 but had quickly broken down after both sides accused the other of violating its provisions. When it was seized, the Santo Antonio was near the island of Meshima, part of a small chain of five islands called the Danjo guntō that are located just over a hundred miles off the west coast of Kyushu. Uninhabited and lacking any economic value, Meshima possessed two attributes that made it disproportionately significant to its size. The island functioned, in the first place, as a key navigational signpost marking the correct approach to the archipelago. With its distinctive shape, described by one observer as “high and ragged,” it was easily recognizable, with the result that it featured prominently in contemporary sailing directions, both European and Japanese. Meshima was, for example, well known to the Dutch and appeared in Jan Huygen van Linschoten’s Itinerario, a famous 1596 manual that was an indispensable aid to the company’s mariners in Asia.

Alongside this role as gateway, Meshima had a second, less well-defined function. For European mariners, the island marked the outermost boundary of Japan proper. Approaching the archipelago after days out of sight of land, it was eagerly sought out by sailors as a concrete marker that they had reached the archipelago; sailing past Meshima meant moving out of the open ocean and into Japanese waters. From Edo, however, the view was far less clear. While the island was a familiar landmark to Europeans, who had all at one time or another approached Japan by sea, it lay on the furthest peripheries of the Tokugawa realm. Because of this, Japanese official records from this period are—in contrast to the confident declarations that appear in European sources—far less clear about Meshima’s status. Indeed, it was only after the Santo Antonio case that we see the first affirmation from the center about the island’s place as part of Japan.

After it was captured, the Santo Antonio was brought into Kochi harbor, a secondary port located a few miles away from the Japan factory, on 18 August.82 The arrival of the company’s prize prompted a flurry of activity both in Hirado, where the factory’s governing council convened to discuss its capture, but also in Nagasaki, where Portuguese merchants and their allies sprang into action. Tellingly, their response was not a military one, to assemble warships or launch reprisal attacks on VOC shipping, but rather legal, and it took the form of a protest demanding Tokugawa action. The logic of the argument was simple: the Dutch had no right to capture a Portuguese vessel in what were clearly Japanese waters and hence the Bakufu must intervene not only to punish the company but also to force it to provide restitution.

In making this argument, the Portuguese and their Japanese supporters could draw on crucial precedents related to the nature of the regime’s juridical prerogatives. During the sengoku era (1467–1568), the absence of any policing from the center and the easy availability of weapons combined with a “habit of violent recourse—sanctioned by traditions of private justice and self redress of grievances”—to create endless space for conflict. The result was a period of endemic conflict that pitted families, villages, and warlords against each other in a series of seemingly endless confrontations. When Toyotomi Hideyoshi came to power, he worked to establish a more general state monopoly over the use of force. This process, which was subsequently continued and expanded upon by the Tokugawa Bakufu, involved the elimination of the physical means to wage war—through edicts such as the famous sword hunt order of 1588—as well as the legal basis for private redress. As they worked to first curtail and then to suppress private violence, the unifiers placed a high premium on their own role as legal arbiters over any violent clashes that took place within the archipelago. The point is well made by Elizabeth Berry who notes that the “unification regimes were politically aggressive … in only one arena: peace keeping.”

This process of pacification and the concomitant insistence on legal arbitration for any clashes was not limited to the land. As Peter Shapinsky has so clearly shown, it extended to the seas around Japan, where Hideyoshi gradually stripped away the rights of formerly autonomous “sea lords,” maritime daimyo based especially in the Seto Inland Sea, to engage in non-state violence. In his words, once “Hideyoshi had largely succeeded in unifying the country, he began enforcing his position as the sole sanctioning body for violence.” He did so by asserting his own sovereignty over the seas around Japan via an insistence on the central regime’s role as the arbiter of all violent clashes in Japanese waters. Given this overarching concern with peacekeeping, and assuming one accepted the Portuguese argument that the Santo Antonio had been captured in Japanese waters, there was thus a strong case to be made that the incident necessitated, like any other act of nonsanctioned violence, adjudication from the center.

But if there was an obvious parallel in Japanese history, the capture of the Santo Antonio also represented something quite different. The episode marked the first intrusion of the company’s global war, an essentially European conflict imported from a distant continent, into Japanese waters. Because of this, VOC representatives were fully prepared to defend the legality of the seizure, arguing that the incident should be seen as a properly sanctioned and lawfully pursued act of war—violence yes, but not violence that fell within the Japanese regime’s legal remit. In these ways the Santo Antonio incident looked markedly dissimilar from past episodes of maritime violence involving pirate groups or individual warlords, and there was no certainty how the Bakufu would respond.

At stake was much more than just the vessel itself. The Santo Antonio was not, by any criteria, a rich prize, especially when compared to the Macao-Nagasaki carrack, and it carried an entirely unremarkable cargo consisting primarily of ebony wood and pewter. Rather both sides were concerned with the question of precedent. If the Bakufu ignored the episode, opting not to assert its role as arbiter, or signed off on it, then the stage would be set for future attacks against the Macao-Nagasaki trade route, which was acutely vulnerable to VOC maritime predation. If, on the other hand, the regime ruled in favor of the Portuguese, the result could be disastrous for the company, which might be forced to halt its privateering operations in Japanese waters while paying out for Portuguese losses.

The company’s case was led by the incumbent opperhoofd, Jacques Specx, the same VOC official that subsequently orchestrated a shift in the organization’s diplomatic strategy toward Japan. As soon as he received word of the incident, Specx moved to prepare “letters of advice in the Japanese language” to defend the company’s position. One of these went to the governor in Nagasaki, the relevant local official, while a second document was dispatched to Honda Masazumi, who was described as the “president of the [shogun’s] council.” As the Bakufu had some knowledge of the 1609 truce with the Portuguese, which had been described in an earlier letter sent to Japan, Specx’s first step was to explain the resumption of hostilities by informing Honda that the Spanish and the Portuguese had not kept their promises, “but had falsely broken their word and tried to do all possible damage to us.” As a result, the Dutch in Japan had received explicit instructions from “our prince [Maurits] … to wage war and to do as much damage as possible.” If any the company’s ships encountered Iberian vessels at sea, they could not, therefore, allow them to pass but were duty bound to attack.

After the letters were sent on 18 August, the factory returned to normal business, but by the time its governing council met again on 10 September it was clear that something more needed to be done to combat Portuguese pressure. The solution was to dispatch a delegation to Kyoto, where the Bakufu was temporarily based, to “argue our matters against the Portuguese” directly before the shogun. As opperhoofd, Specx was tasked with leading the delegation, but the council also called in Jan Joosten, one of the original Liefde mariners who had been in Japan since 1600. To secure a favorable decision, Specx was authorized to spend whatever it took, but, even though it was prepared to open its cashbox, the council struggled to find appropriate gifts that might lure Bakufu officials over to its side. As the warehouse in Hirado yielded little of any value, it was necessary—as it had been in 1609 when the first VOC embassy arrived in Japan—to dispatch an agent to purchase some “beautiful” goods from Portuguese merchants in Nagasaki. There was of course an obvious irony, that it was necessary to secretly purchase goods from the Portuguese in order to defend their rights against the same group, and the council instructed their agents to do so in the most discreet way possible through multiple intermediaries to ensure that no word of the transaction leaked out. To make doubly sure of obtaining the right decision, the council resolved to present a cannon from one of its ships to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had displayed a sustained interest in European military technology. Once these items were added to the gifts intended for other Bakufu officials, the final total came to 2,734 guilders, a large sum for a factory that had yet to turn a profit.

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