Untold lives blog

44 posts categorized "Writing"

23 March 2021

The search for Franklin in the Barrow Bequest

An intriguing collection of manuscripts known as the Barrow Bequest was acquired by the British Museum in February 1899. The private collection was created by Sir John Barrow (1764–1848) and his son Colonel John Barrow (1808–1898) during their official careers at the Admiralty and as writers and promoters of Arctic exploration.

Sir John Barrow appointed Sir John Franklin to lead the ill-fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. Less well-known than his father, John Barrow Junior has recently been called the ‘quiet hero of the search for Franklin’ for his efforts in coordinating the search expeditions from 1848 onwards.  Franklin’s two ships – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – were last seen by Europeans on 26 July 1845 near Baffin Bay in Greenland.  

The Barrow Bequest includes drawings made during a British diplomatic mission to China in 1792–93 and Sir John Barrow’s expedition to southern Africa in 1801–02 (Add MS 35300), as well as the manuscripts of Barrow’s autobiography and other writings. The largest part of the collection, however, relates to Arctic exploration.

The letters, drawings, maps and printed materials collected by John Barrow Junior while he was Keeper of the Records for the Admiralty tell the stories of the early expeditions which embarked for the Arctic in search of Franklin and his missing expedition. Many of the letters from individuals involved in the expeditions are addressed to Barrow, including several from Jane Franklin, who tirelessly promoted and sponsored the missions to discover her husband’s fate.

Add MS 35304 contains records relating to the voyage of HMS North Star, commanded by James Saunders in 1849–50. The North Star was intended as a provision ship for the Franklin search expedition under Sir James Clark Ross.

Add_ms_35304_f009r cropView of Wolstenholme Sound showing the outlet between Baring’s Island and the northern mainland [Greenland], 1849-50. Add MS 35304, f. 9.

Highlights include five watercolour drawings of Wolstenholme Sound on the north-west coast of Greenland near Baffin Bay. These show a desolate landscape of glaciers and barren islands. Tiny figures explore their surroundings while their ship, the North Star, is locked in the ice. The North Star failed to meet the Ross expedition and returned to England after spending a winter in the ice in what is now named North Star Bay.

Add_ms_35304_f010r crop2View of Wolstenholme Sound showing Wolstenholme Island, Dundas Hill and Baring’s Island, Greenland, 1849-50. Add MS 35304, f. 10.

Another highlight is The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette, a handwritten magazine illustrated with watercolour and pen-and-ink drawings which was 'published in winter quarters, Arctic Regions’ between 28 October 1852 and 12 February 1853. The magazine is written largely in the hand of Sherard Osborn, who was in command of HMS Pioneer in the Franklin search expedition under Sir Edward Belcher. It was created for the entertainment of the crew and the volume includes two playbills for the Queens Arctic Theatre printed on board HMS Assistance. The crews abandoned the ships in the summer of 1854 after spending two winters in the ice and failing to find Franklin.

Add_ms_35305_f032r resizeA scene from Hamlet in The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette, 1852-53. Add MS 35305, f. 32.

Add_ms_35305_f031v resizePlaybill for the The Queens Arctic Theatre, 21 Dec 1852, HMS Assistance. Add MS 35305, f. 31v.

The wrecks of Erebus and Terror were found in 2014 and 2016 and the search for evidence of the Franklin expedition continues to this day.

Catherine Angerson
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts
@BL_ModernMSS

Digital Resources:

The British Library has digitised the ten volumes in partnership with Adam Matthew for Age of Exploration, an online collection of primary sources relating to five centuries of global exploration, trade and colonial expansion.

The following volumes are now available to view in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website:

Vol. I. Drawings by William Alexander and Samuel Daniell [in China, Southeast Asia, South America and southern Africa] (Add MS 35300)

Vol. II. Autograph manuscript of Sir John Barrow’s Voyages of Discovery and Research within the Arctic regions (Add MS 35301)

Vol. III. 'An Autobiographical Memoir of Sir John Barrow, Bart. (late of the Admiralty)' (Add MS 35302)

Vol. IV. ‘A Supplementary Chapter to the Biographical Memoir of Sir John Barrow, Bart.’ (Add MS 35303)

Vol. V. Watercolour drawings and printed materials relating to the voyage of H.M.S. North Star to Baffin Bay and Barrow Straits (Add MS 35304)

Vol. VI. Manuscript of The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette (Add MS 35305)

This list will be updated as further volumes are added. You can also browse the collection and read full catalogue descriptions in our online catalogue.

Further Reading:

The search for John Franklin and the discovery of the Northwest Passage, British Library (2018)
Claire Warrior, New discoveries from the lost Franklin expedition, Royal Museums Greenwich (Feb 2020)

16 February 2021

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: a pioneering writer’s life

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Britain’s greatest woman poet, changed the course of literary history not only as a pioneering, modernising writer, world famous in her day, but as an influential political campaigner.  Born in 1806 in Coxhoe Hall, County Durham, she died in 1861 at Casa Guidi, her home in Florence.  In between, she lived a life of precocious achievement, writing poems from the age of six and verse drama in French at eight, and publishing her first book, The Battle of Marathon, at fourteen.  She did this despite living with a disabling, chronic respiratory illness so severe that – like Marcel Proust in his last years – she couldn’t leave her room for years at a time.

Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett BrowningPortrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from The poetical works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (London,1889-90) British Library flickr

There were other obstacles, too.  Barrett Browning wrote under her own name, at a time when most women published anonymously – Jane Austen as ‘A lady’ – or under male pseudonyms: the Brontë sisters as the Bell brothers, Mary Ann Evans as George Eliot.

As a result, contemporary critical reception was sometimes baldly misogynist: on the other hand, in 1850 she was the first woman to be nominated for Poet Laureate, 159 years before a woman Laureate was finally appointed.  A further challenge to any idea of becoming a writer, at a time with few Black literary role models, may have been that her Jamaican descent made her believe she had black heritage.  She was acutely aware of the appalling violence endured by those enslaved.  EBB, as she styled herself, passionately condemned that violence in her abolitionist poem ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim Point’.

Indeed as her literary fame developed, she deployed it repeatedly to change social attitudes.  She was at the forefront of the shift from Romanticism into an ethical, distinctively Victorian school of writing. In the verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856), the first ever woman’s Bildingsroman, she returned to rape in the form of forced prostitution.  She published in aid of Ragged Schools and against child labour (‘The Cry of the Children’).  Most influentially of all, in two books of political poetry, Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems before Congress (1860), she argued for Italian independence, and Italians viewed her as a heroine of the struggle.

Other key works of Barrett Browning’s maturity included her breakthrough collection The Seraphim (1838), Poems (1844) and Poems (1850) – which included ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’, among them one of the most famous poems in English, ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’.  More to the point than its biographical occasion is the way this lyric shows off the poet’s gift for narrative, and a new informal, conversational style, which are the secrets of its popularity.  Her clandestine marriage at forty to the younger, and less-established poet Robert Browning, with whom she moved to Italy, was a love-match which is too often allowed to eclipse her work.  We gain a much more accurate sense of her legacy from noting the writers she influenced, including Emily Dickinson, John RuskinOscar Wilde, Rudyard KiplingVirginia Woolf.

Professor Fiona Sampson
Author of the first biography of Barrett Browning for more than 30 years, Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Profile, W.W. Norton, 2021) 

 

12 February 2021

Chinese New Year in Canton 1731

James Naish was Chief of the English East India Company Council in Canton (Guangzhou), China.  He kept a diary of ‘Observations and Transactions’ which includes a description of Chinese New Year celebrations in January and February 1730/31.

View of  Canton (Guangzhou) circa 1760-1770View of  Canton (Guangzhou) c.1760-1770 Maps K.Top.116.22.2 tab. BL flickr

Naish’s diary reads –

27th January This being the first day of the new Moon & of the new Year, great ceremony is observed by the Mandarins & all other persons in their visits and congratulations thereupon.

30th January The Foyen or Vice Roy of the Province haveing signified his approbation of all sorts of diversions, costly Pageants are daily carried about the streets, in which the State & Power of Mandarins in high stations are represented, Country & Low life well describ’d, & the seasons curiously discover’d.  At night the streets are finely illuminated, & a vast variety of fire works continually seen in the Air from all parts of the City.

17th February The Foyen hath Affixed a chop in several places which putts an end to the long continued festival, & likewise directs all persons to return to their professions & employments, the Mandarins of Justice may punish such Offenders as have been guilty of any crimes since new years day, from which time to this no sort of punishment could have been inflicted upon any criminal whatever.

Account of Chinese New Year celebrations from James Naish's diary
Account of Chinese New Year celebrations from James Naish's diary IOR/G/12/32 p.1 27 January-17 February 1730/31 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

James Naish was a very experienced China trade merchant.  He was supercargo on East India Company voyages to Canton in 1716, 1722, 1725 and 1730, and had also worked for the Ostend Company.  In 1730-1731 he spent a whole year at Canton instead of returning to England between trading seasons, the only English East India Company supercargo ever to do this.   Naish wrote reports on the tea industry during his extended stay.

When China merchant George Arbuthnot arrived back in England in the summer of 1731, he accused Naish of fraud.  Arbuthnot claimed that Naish had understated the amount of money received for goods sold in China and inflated the cost of commodities purchased there.  Naish was also said to have imported a large quantity of gold bullion from China without paying duty. The East India Company decided that Naish had broken his covenant and considered sending a ship to seize his unlicensed goods and bring him to England under arrest.  Naish’s wife Hester was desperate to prevent this.  She had been given a letter of attorney by her husband in 1729 authorising her to conduct his business, so she agreed to deposit £20,000 with the Company to allow Naish to return as a free man.

The Company began proceedings in the Court of Exchequer.  Naish protested his innocence and lodged counter-claims against the Company in the courts.

The legal process dragged on for years.  When Naish made his will in 1736, he left everything to Hester because the size of his estate was uncertain, dependent upon the outcome of several pending law suits.  He said the family had long experience of Hester’s skilful management of his affairs whilst he was abroad and he trusted her to divide the estate as he would wish.  Although Naish did not die until January 1757, this will was the one submitted for probate.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/G/12/32 Observations and Transactions by James Naish at Canton in China (1926, 1929)
The Political State of Great Britain, Volume 44 July-September 1732
The Athenaeum January-June 1892,p.793
Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Courts of King's Bench ..., Volume 2 Naish v East India Company

04 February 2021

East India Company instructions for keeping records

We’re returning to the ship New Year’s Gift to share some more of the instructions it carried.  This time we’re looking at rules for record-keeping in Asia in the earliest days of the East India Company and the use of codes in correspondence.

The Company merchants in the fleet of four ships which sailed from England in March 1613/14 were told before they sailed that they were expected to record their work with care and ‘exquisiteness’. They were provided with –
• Four pairs of ‘faire bookes,’ i.e. journals and ledgers
• Four large ‘industriall’ or day books
• Books for expenses
• Books for copies of letters
• Large ruled sheets of paper for making copies of the journals
• Eight reams of paper, large and small
• Ink
• Penknives
• Quills
• Hard wax

More books had been sent to the Company’s trading post in Bantam in the ship Concord.

East India Company instructions for record-keeping 1614Instructions to East India Company factors 1614 from Thomas Elkington’s notebook IOR/G/40/25 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Having provided ample supplies of stationery, the Company expected accounts to be kept ‘perfectly’ in all places.  The chief factor at Surat, or someone else appointed to the task, was to keep a fair pair of books for the Company general account.  All factors, whether working at settled factories or employed buying and selling commodities in fairs or markets, were to give their accounts from time to time to the chief factor at Surat so they could be brought into the general books there.  But all factors were also to send to London a copy of their journal and the balance of their ledger whenever Company ships sailed for England.  The chief factor was to send by every shipping a verbatim copy of his journal written on the large ruled paper being supplied.  Since all copies sent would be the same size, they could in future be bound together in one volume in London.  The Company also expected to receive the balance of the chief’s ledger from time to time, and an exact copy of his ledger once a year.

Changes in personnel at Surat must not lead to alterations in the methods of record-keeping.  No factor was to take away Company books as had happened in the past.  Completed books were to be sealed up and sent to London, with copies made to retain in the factory if required.  Local coinage and weights should be used in the accounts, with an explanation provided for London.

Similar instructions were given for the factory at Bantam, with a central record taking in information sent by merchants working away from base.  The Company advised all factors to write down immediately everything that happened – ‘our memory at the best hand is very slippery’.  Moreover, sickness and death could strike at any time.

If factors wrote home about an important matter using a dangerous or doubtful conveyance and passage, the Company asked them to write the letters, or at least ‘poynts of moment’, in ‘caracters’ i.e. a code or cipher.  Then, if the letters were intercepted, trade secrets would not be disclosed and cause damage to the Company.  A copy of the cipher was included with the instructions.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/G/40/25 Instructions to East India Company factors from Thomas Elkington’s notebook
IOR/B/5 Minutes of East India Company Court of Directors 1613-1615

29 December 2020

Suffrage scrapbooks: forgotten histories of political activism

When you picture a scrapbook, you likely conjure up an image of a homemade album dedicated to the family or a hobby.  It’s less likely you’ll think of scrapbooks as records of political campaigns, such as women’s suffrage.  Yet here at the British Library, 37 bulging hardback scrapbooks tell us a personal history of suffrage activism through the eyes of Alice Maud Mary Arncliffe Sennett (1862-1936).

Women's Social and Political Union membership card from the scrapbook of Maud Arncliffe SennettWomen's Social and Political Union membership card from the opening volume of Sennett’s first scrapbook. , British Library C.121.g.1.


Actress turned businesswoman; Sennett was a dynamic, strident suffrage campaigner.  She served time in prison on Black Friday in 1910 and again in 1911 after smashing the Daily Mail’s office windows.  She also set up the Northern Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage.

Article 'Why I want the vote' published in The Vote 26 February 1910An article 'Why I want the vote' written by Maud Arncliffe Sennett in 1910 for The Vote, journal of the Women’s Freedom League.

Through all this campaigning, she scrapbooked prolifically.  She kept the key from her husband’s stay at Bloomsbury Street hotel before he picked her up from prison.  More conventionally, she carefully lifted articles from a plethora of publications, encircling them with annotations.

In one instance, next to an article on Herbert Asquith published in 1910, she criticised his ‘cruel looking mouth and sinister eyes’ and wrote how she would like to ‘shoot Asquith right at the place where his heart ought to be’.  Sennett’s scrapbook facilitated her critical engagement with press coverage on women’s rights.

Sennett also used her scrapbooks to record the support networks underpinning her activism.  One way she did this was through preserving congratulatory letters praising her public speaking.  In her first scrapbook, she included a letter from suffrage activist Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, who described Sennett as the ‘one of the greatest platform successes she had ever known’.

Before this letter however, Sennett pasted in another one.  It was from her servant Bessie.  Working for her mistress since at least 1906, census records identify Bessie as Eliza Punchard, who lived with her husband and three sons in Beckenham.

After hearing Sennett’s speech, Bessie wrote, 'Do you know you made a simply splendid speech, I was so proud of you’.  She continued, writing how she would happily go to prison of her accord if it would help the cause; she would ‘make the sacrifice in my own right not to feel that you will be worrying over me if I should go’.

Lifting the cover of Sennett’s fourth scrapbook powerfully articulates Sennett’s appreciation of her servant’s support.  In a beautiful, flowing font, Sennett dedicates her scrapbook to Bessie, ‘the only one true and trusted friend I have found…the star to which I have hitched by wagon of loneliness’.  Bessie’s support meant a great deal to Sennett, so much so that she immortalised it in the front of her scrapbook.

Sennett’s scrapbooks offer an intensely personal history of the suffrage activism, blurring the lines between the personal and the political. She chronicles the exceptional and mundane, turning to an assortment of materials to offer her history of the suffrage campaign.

Over a century later we are given a tantalising glimpse into the material, emotional histories of suffrage activism, as well as forgotten women such as Bessie, who played a vital part in women’s political campaigning.


Cherish Watton
PhD student studying a history of scrapbooking in Britain from 1914-1980 at Churchill College, Cambridge.  She founded and runs the website Women’s Land Army 
@CherishWatton


Further Reading:
Read more about Arncliffe-Sennett’s scrapbooks.
Read more about suffrage scrapbooks in the American context in Ellen Gruber’s Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. Oxford University Press, 2012, chapter 5.

 

08 December 2020

Mermanjan’s diary

After writing on this blog about Mermanjan, an Afghan noblewoman who had run away from Afghanistan to India in 1849, I studied her diary which was donated to the India Office Private Papers by my grandmother.

The diary is dated from 1868 to 1875, from the time when Mermanjan was in her mid-30s, married for five years to her second husband, an Irish doctor called Francis O’Kearney and living in Mahabaleshwar near Bombay.  Her first husband and great love of her life, Captain Thomas Maughan, had died suddenly seven years earlier.

Unfortunately Mermanjan didn’t write much about her inner thoughts or feelings in the diary, only writing short and factual entries about her daily life immersed in British colonial society.  Her diary entries revolved around her pets - dogs, cats, turkeys, fowls and chickens, plus their eggs and hatchlings; visits for tea from couples with European names (Captain and Mrs Boyd seem to be a favourite); walks down the hill; the weather; town gossip about births, marriages and deaths; social events such as croquet parties, shooting, trips to the theatre; complaints about her ‘bad’ butler or cook who ran away; and lists of expenses.  The diary also contains newspaper cuttings, excerpts from letters and essays, and pencil drawings.

There are some glimpses into the difficulties of her private life.  She mentions twice that her husband Frank was unkind to her when she was sick, not checking up on her all night to even offer her a cup of tea, and offering her some pills that made her very sick, saying he was ‘very unkind to me, never spoken one kind word to me’.

One pencil sketch shows the back of a woman in Victorian dress making tea, which might be a self-portrait from a mirror.

Sketch of woman making teaSketch of a woman making tea Mss Eur E304/4 (Copyright - heirs of Mermanjan O’Kearney)

Nearer the end of the diary she includes a sketch of a girl on a horse, which might be of herself when she ran away from Afghanistan to India to join her first husband. 

Sketch of a girl on a horseSketch of a girl on a horse Mss Eur E304/4 (Copyright - heirs of Mermanjan O’Kearney)

She also writes a word-for-word copy of the account of her late husband Thomas Maughan, telling how he met her in Afghanistan while serving under the flying column of Sir Walter Gilbert, maybe to reaffirm his version of the story.

Although the diary does not reveal great insights into her personal life, it reaffirms Mermanjan’s story of meeting her great love Thomas Maughan in 1849, and shows she was obviously not happy in her second marriage and distracted herself with various pets and social engagements in the present and happy memories from the past.  It is highly unusual to have written accounts from Muslim women from the time, especially in English, although admittedly she was fully integrated into British colonial life.  She is guarded about her innermost thoughts, but there are some glimpses into her difficulties behind the façade of social events.  Her diary and drawings probably provided temporary relief and a source of comfort for her in this unhappy and difficult period of her life.

Felicia Line
Independent researcher

Further reading:
Mss Eur E304/4 Diary kept by Mermanjan, 1 Feb 1868 - 10 Jan 1875 

02 December 2020

Wilfred Owen: One Hundred Years of His Poems

One hundred years ago, the first edition of Wilfred Owen’s Poems was published and established Owen as the enduring lyricist of the Great War.  Some of these poems have seeped deeply into the nation’s psyche.  Poems such as ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ are staples of remembrance ceremonies every year.  They resonate through the decades; they expose to school children, via their English literature curriculum, the pity and devastation of war.  Owen’s contribution to our collective understanding of the Great War has meant his words and image have been referred to, or explored, in all sorts of cultural outputs: in biographies, in novels, TV series and film.  He will be forever remembered as one of our greatest war poets and his premature death will always be used as an example of the ultimate sacrifice.

Photograph of Wilfred Owen in military uniform 1916

Photograph of Wilfred Owen by John Gunston, 1916. Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery  National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence
   NPG P515


Owen’s published poems have been well discussed over the century that followed their publication, but the manuscript drafts of these poems held at the British Library offer even more insights into the motivations and inspirations behind these poems.

These manuscripts held at Add MS 43720 and Add MS 43721 include Owen’s notes, including this fascinating page that collates the themes and threads that run through the series of poems.

Poem notes by Wilfred OwenPoem notes by Wilfred Owen, Add MS 43720. f.2. Friends of the National Libraries: Manuscripts presented by, through or with the aid of:: 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 and 1935.© The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate . This item can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

Owen carefully curates his collection through these notes, selecting poems that highlight the themes he wishes to present.  These themes include the inhumanity, the deceptiveness and the impact of war, as well as the idea that future generations will forget the suffering of these men.

Wilfred Owen's handwritten quote from W B Yeats

Add MS 43720, f.9.  Friends of the National Libraries: Manuscripts presented by, through or with the aid of:: 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 and 1935.© The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate . This item can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

The manuscript volume also contains quotes from W. B. Yeats’ poems, including this from 'The Shadowy Waters'.  This poem is a telling of a supernatural journey to the end of the world and life, where the narrative seems to disappear into the mist and murk of the imagery.  This quotation precedes Owen’s poem 'The Show'.  In this poem, the narrator seems to float from above in the mist and the dank, watching the trails of soldiers below, all journeying on towards the end.  Owen also admired Romantic poets such as Keats and Shelley, as well as Laurent Tailhade, poet of the Decadent movement whom he had met whilst teaching in France before the war.  He would meet many contemporary poets and writers, including Robert Graves, H G Wells and Robert Ross whilst in recovery from shellshock in 1917.  This combination of influences means Owen’s work finds itself at a number of intersections: between the Romantic and the Modern, the heroic and the pessimistic, and between established and the transgressive.

Draft of Anthem for Doomed YouthDraft of Anthem for Doomed Youth, Add MS 43720, f.17.  Friends of the National Libraries: Manuscripts presented by, through or with the aid of:: 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934 and 1935.© The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate . This item can be used for your own private study and research. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.


However, the relationship that perhaps most influenced Owen’s poetry was that with Siegfried Sassoon whom he met in 1917.  Sassoon assisted and encouraged Owen.  He helped Owen channel the horror of his memories into visual material in his works.  Sassoon’s hand in Owen’s poems can be literally traced through Owen’s drafts.  Sassoon has annotated the poem in pencil.  Sassoon edited this and other poems when Owen showed him his drafts at Craiglockhart Military Hospital in September 1917.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

 

17 November 2020

William Adams in Japan– a new digital resource

William Adams, 'the first Englishman in Japan', died on 16 May 1620 at Hirado.  Events planned in Japan and the UK to mark the 400th anniversary of his death have unfortunately had to be postponed because of the pandemic.  However the British Library has been able to contribute to the celebration of a remarkable life.  Letters written by Adams during his years in Japan are preserved in the East India Company archive, and we are delighted to announce that digital copies of these are now available to access freely in our Digitised Manuscripts resource.

Firando (Hirado) from the sea 1669 with a Dutch shipFirando (Hirado) viewed from the sea-  Arnoldus Montanus, Gedenkwaerdige gesantschappen der Oost-Indische Maetschappy in't Vereenigde Nederland, aen de Kaisaren van Japan (Amsterdam, 1669)

Adams joined a Dutch merchant fleet as chief pilot in 1598.  He arrived in Japan on board the Liefde in 1600 and built a new life for himself under the patronage of Tokugawa Ieyasu.  William Adams worked for both the Dutch and English East India Companies after they arrived in Japan in 1609 and 1613 respectively.

Firando (Hirado) Castle 1669The castle at Firando (Hirado)  - Gedenkwaerdige gesantschappen der Oost-Indische Maetschappy in't Vereenigde Nederland, aen de Kaisaren van Japan (Amsterdam, 1669)

The earliest letter written by William Adams in the English East India Company records is dated 23 October 1611 in Hirado.  He had heard that there were Englishmen at Bantam (Banten) in Java and so the letter is addressed to unknown friends and countrymen.  Adams gave an account of his life, explaining how he came to be in Japan, what had happened to him since his arrival, his relationship with Tokugawa Ieyasu and the honours he had received.  He had been refused permission to leave Japan and asked for word to be sent to his family that he was still alive.  Adams gave information about trading contacts with the Dutch.

This letter was received in Bantam by East India Company merchant Augustine Spalding.  He sent a reply via the Dutch, together with a bible and three other books.

On 12 January 1613 Adams answered.  He had received a letter from Thomas Smythe, Governor of the East India Company, promising that a ship would be sent to Japan to establish a factory (trading post).  Adams passed on to Spalding valuable commercial intelligence and advice about the best way of establishing trade with Japan.

Letter from William Adams at Hirado to Augustine Spalding at Bantam 12 January 1613IOR/E/3/1 ff. 157-58  Letter from William Adams at Hirado to Augustine Spalding at Bantam 12 January 1613  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Adams wrote from Hirado on 1 December 1613 to the East India Company in London, announcing the arrival of John Saris in their ship Clove.  He detailed Saris’s reception at court and described how Saris was unhappy when he was not permitted by Japanese custom to hand a letter from King James directly to the emperor but only via his secretary.  Saris asked Adams if he would serve the English East India Company and, after considerable negotiation, a salary of £100 per annum was agreed.

On the same day, Adams wrote to Thomas Best at Bantam updating him with the latest news.  He said that he had intended to go home in the Clove but changed his mind because of discourtesies shown to him by Saris.

Other letters are addressed to English merchants in Japan and to the East India Company in London, with news of people, trade, and Japanese politics.  The final one in the archive was sent in November 1617 from Adams at Sakai to Company merchant Richard Wickham at Hirado.  400 years after his death, the voice of William Adams can still be heard through his written legacy.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator. East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/E/3/1 ff 116-29 William Adams at Hirado to his ‘unknown friends and countrymen’ at Bantam
IOR/E/3/1 ff 157-58 William Adams at Hirado to Augustine Spalding at Bantam
IOR/E/3/1 ff 203-04 Contract between William Adams and the East India Company, Hirado
IOR/E/3/1 ff 209-11 William Adams at Hirado to the East India Company in London
IOR/E/3/1 ff 212-13 William Adams at Hirado to Thomas Best at Bantam
IOR/E/3/2 f 43 William Adams at Hirado to Richard Wickham at Edo
IOR/E/3/3 f 78 William Adams at Shizuoka to Richard Wickham at Edo
IOR/E/3/4 f 143-44 William Adams at Hirado to Sir Thomas Smythe in London
IOR/E/3/5 f 189 William Adams at Sakai to Richard Wickham at Hirado

Anthony Farrington, The English Factory in Japan, 1613-1623 (London: British Library, 1991)

William Adams - from Gillingham to Japan

 

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