Go to navigation
Will Adams - Gillingham's famous blue-eyed Samurai
Will Adams was born in Gillingham and was baptised in the Parish
Church of St. Mary on 24 September 1564.
It is fortunate that this event is recorded in the Baptism
Register, because it is the only documentary evidence which links
Will Adams to Gillingham. It is likely that his father John was a
seafarer or shipwright and that the family were living in
Gillingham because of the shipyards and early naval docks along the
Medway at Gillingham. Little is known of Will Adams’ early life; it
is not known how long the family lived in Gillingham.
The next recorded event was when he was 12. His father had died
and he was apprenticed to Nicholas Diggines, a shipbuilder on the
Thames at Limehouse.
Here he learned his trade and in 1588 he was appointed captain
of the ship Richard Driffield. His remit was to carry
supplies to the ships engaged with the Spanish Armada.
In 1598 he married Mary Hyn at Stepney, by which time they
already had at least two children. On hearing of the plans by the
Dutch East India Company to send an expedition to the Far East,
Will Adams travelled to Holland with his younger brother Thomas to
seek work. Both were appointed to the flagship of a fleet of five
ships, De Hoop (Hope) Will was employed as Chief Pilot to
The names of the other ships in the fleet were:
- De Liefde (Charity);
- Het Geloof (Faith);
- De Trouw (Fidelity); and
- Blyde Boodschop (Good News).
The fleet sailed from Holland in June 1598. It was to prove a
difficult, dangerous and disastrous journey for most of those
involved. Of the five ships which set out only De Liefde
completed the journey to Japan. Of its 110 crew only 24 were alive,
and of these only six were capable of standing up without
After nine days the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu summoned the captain
of De Liefde. He was far too ill to obey, so Will Adams
the pilot and Melchior Standvoort were taken in his stead by ship
to Osaka. After lengthy imprisonment and interrogation in Osaka
Castle, it would seem that leyasu was drawn to them. He showed
interest in their experience of a world beyond the shores of Japan,
of their homeland and its history. Will answered questions with
great clarity which appealed to leyasu.
In October 1600 Tokugawa leyasu won a decisive battle over his
enemies which gave him the position of Shogun. He had seen from the
outset that Will Adams would be a valuable tutor. He was given a
house near Nihombashi so that he was close to leyasu’s castle in
In 1602 Will Adams asked for permission to repair the De
Liefde and sail back to England to his wife and children. His
request was firmly refused.
In 1604 Will Adams was ordered to build a sailing craft like
De Liefde for the Shogun. At first he would not, but it
soon became all too obvious that this was not a request to be
declined. The ship was constructed at Ito, one of the places where
Will Adams and his memory are still honoured in Japan by an Anjin
In 1609 the Dutch East India Company made another attempt to
open up trade with Japan. They set up a factory in Hirado. It was
their intention to manage all trade between Holland and Japan.
There was intense rivalry with other European ventures. The
merchants from the English East India Company, for example, also
set up a trading post at Hirado.
The Honourable (English) East India Company had been founded in
London on 21 December 1600. The aim of the company was to navigate
the largely uncharted East Indies, Asia and Africa and to open up
trade routes. All such activities were to be undertaken at the
Company’s expense. In 1613 the Company set up the English Factory
at Hirado with Richard Cocks as its Manager.
Will Adams was employed by the English East India Company as a
Pilot and Captain but it would seem that his advice on trade was
not heeded by the directors of the factory.
The viability of both the Dutch and English factories was always
in doubt. The Japanese were not open to the idea of foreigners
living and trading in their country. They were concerned that
Christian missionaries would infiltrate the country with the
In 1616 the English and Dutch were ordered to restrict their
trading activities to Hirado and Nagasaki and to make complete
reports of all cargoes. Such severe restrictions caused dissent
between the English and Dutch and by all accounts, much distress to
From 1617 Will Adams was trading independently. He bought a junk
from the English Factory which he renamed The Gift of God.
He obtained the necessary charters to allow him to trade. Many
obstacles, including the continuing problems between the English
and Dutch, made this difficult.
His last voyage was made in August 1619, when his health was
In May 1620 he sent for Richard Cocks and William Eaton and
appointed them as executors. His testament or will sets out
provision for his family in England and his family in Japan. Will
Adams died on 16 May 1620. A copy of his will was carried back to
England by Martin Pring on board the James Royal in August
Close links have been forged between Gillingham and Ito. In 1934
Gillingham’s own monument to Will Adams was unveiled. It was
attended by an august array of dignitaries, including the Japanese
The Mayor of Gillingham and Borough dignitaries travelled to
Japan in 1987 to take part in festivities.
Add this page to my Quick Links: Add page
Send this page to a friend: Send