The real story behind Shogun is even wilder than the series

Cosmo Jarvis in Shogun
Cosmo Jarvis in Shogun - Katie Yu

By the time William Adams’s ship the Liefde limped into Usuki Bay in Japan in 1600, nearly two years after it left Rotterdam, only five of its remaining crew could stand upright. The rest were laid out with sickness, scurvy and malnutrition so severe that some resorted to gnawing the rawhide strapping used to cover the ship’s ropes. They were the lucky ones.

The other four ships in its fleet, with their hundreds of sailors, had met grislier fates. One ship didn’t even make it out of port before it began to sink. The others disappeared, ran aground or were captured by the Portuguese. Adams himself, a veteran pilot and one of the most experienced sailors, had watched his brother hacked to death by treacherous natives on the beach as he bobbed, helpless, in the surf metres from the shore.

Raised on a complacent diet of Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean, I’d assumed that the golden age of exploration was a nasty, uncomfortable affair liable to make you late for dinner – but fundamentally fairly swashbuckling and jolly. Instead, the life of a 17th-century sailor appears closer to Dantean punishment: lavish in its unnatural suffering and baroque trauma. It’s a wonder anyone ventured past their front door.

Yet what struck me reading Frederick Cryns’s biography of Adams – the “blue-eyed samurai” who traded shipbuilding in Stepney for service as the majordomo of the most powerful warlord in Japan – was the cosmopolitanism of his world. As today, far-fung wars, such as the slippery entanglements between the Spanish, Portuguese and British, shook economies on the other side of the globe; a truce between the Dutch and Portuguese, for instance, had a material effect on the Japanese silk trade.

Born in 1564 in Gillingham, Kent, Adams was apprenticed aged 12 to a shipwright, Mr Diggins. (Incidentally, the first occasion your correspondent’s surname graces the historical record: ever the handmaidens of destiny, we Digginses.) Bored of merely designing ships, Adams took to sea himself, serving as part of Drake’s fleet which repulsed the Spanish Armada. He then joined the Barbary Company, plying his trade along the lawless North African coast. After that, he sailed for the Far East as part of a fleet of Dutch merchant-adventurers, with the Liefde becoming one of the first ships to successfully thread the Straits of Magellan in Patagonia (though success is a relative affair when more than half one’s crew are murdered, starve or die of exposure). In doing so, the Liefde bypassed the lengthier – but far safer – passage around the Cape of Good Hope.

A scroll painting of the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, Adams's patron, 17th Century
A scroll painting of the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, Adams's patron, 17th Century - Pictures from History

When he finally washed up in Japan, he fell in with the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu. Learning Japanese, he became Ieyasu’s advisor and confidante, shuttling across the archipelago as his master consolidated his authority, putting an end to the turbulence of the Sengoku (Warring States) period. Adams also helped maintain the delicate balance of power in the region as Ieyasu became Shogun, Japan’s de-facto ruler, and sought to open the kingdom up to foreign trade. Despite frequently protesting that he wished to return home, Adams spent the next three decades of his life in Japan, until a change of regime tipped him out of favour into exile, penury, illness – and death. It’s an arc to inspire any number of fictional treatments.

As, of course, it already has. From James Clavell’s ripe 1970s series of historical novels via Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence to this year’s excellent Disney+ TV show Shōgun, Adams’s thrilling life has supported a rich, robust and now surely all-but-exhausted seam of dramatic interest. A book would have to do something pretty special to stand out amidst the clamour of that crowd.

Cryn’s take musters barely a squeak. Pitched as the “real story” of William Adams, Cryns has drawn on his background as a Dutch professor at a Japanese university, to explore a multilingual array of sources. Yet he tells his story in such a plodding manner – dragging the recalcitrant reader from cradle to grave like the lanyard-bedecked Ghost of Biographers Past – that by the time Adams “depart(s) this world” on the final page, while his friends’ eyes “fill with tears”, you’re tempted to hop in there with him. There’s a gelid quality to Cryns’s prose – such a blizzard of unfamiliar names, dates and one-damn-things-after-another – that more than once I found myself frantically paging back, trying to work out exactly when a key character had been killed. There are, I fear, whole tracts of Adams’s life which will forever be obscure to me.

Detail from a painting of William Adams paying tribute to the Shogun
Detail from a painting of William Adams paying tribute to the Shogun

This is a great pity as Adams seems, from the few sources Cryns quotes directly, to be an unusually interesting character at an unusually interesting time. His decades in Japan coincided almost exactly with the country’s brief period of openness to the world. Ieyasu’s successor would banish foreign merchants, pulling down a drawbridge which would remain shuttered for the next 231 years. Adams – in his life, character, and example – represents a more hopeful, expansive perspective, brutally truncated.

Perhaps what illustrates the failings of Cryns’s approach the best is his silence on Adams’s family. He had two wives – one back in Stepney, the other in Edo; both bore him children. His will divided his diminished estate equally between them. Were they aware of each other? It’s unlikely. But Cryns doesn’t investigate how they felt about this extraordinary, restless man either.

There is a great biography to be written of Adams – but In the Service of the Shogun isn’t it. Until it arrives, my advice is to sink back into Clavells’s romping novels. Or just hold out for Shōgun season two.

In the Service of the Shogun is published by Reaktion at £16.99. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books