The Shogun’s Silver Telescope and the First English Voyages to Japan, 1611-16

September 21, 2018
04:00 PM - 05:00 PM
Fraser (Law) Building, Room 157

About the talk:

The English East India Company was founded in 1600, and for the first decade of its existence sailed between London and Banten (Java) trading silver for spices. However, the English government disapproved of silver exports to purchase these products, and sought other ways to conduct trade. England's only commodity of value was woollen cloth, a product that would not sell in hot places, such as Java. The English therefore sought a colder export market, ideally one that could supply silver, to make a three-way trade for spice.

Japan fitted perfectly. There was another expectation, too, that in due course ships would be able to sail the Northwest Passage direct to Japan, then down to Java, a route much shorter than going via Africa.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, Shogun of Japan
Tokugawa Ieyasu, Shogun of Japan

The Company decided to send its first ship to Japan in 1611. All were aware that a fine present for the Japanese ruler, whom today we know as Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Company commissioned and sent a telescope in silver gilt, an extraordinary and unprecedented gift, unlike anything seen anywhere before. This was the first telescope ever made to be worthy of a royal gift, and the first to leave Europe. Ieyasu received it in Sunpu Castle in 1613.

Documents are lacking, but this talk seeks to understand why this particular present was sent, and what it meant.

Even before news returned, the Company sent another ship, in 1614, loaded this time with oil paintings and prints, to be sent to Japan via the Mughal port of Surat. Professor Screech’s second project is to assess the likely appearance, and meaning, of this follow-up cargo, which arrived in 1616.

About the speaker:

Timon Screech is a professor of the history of art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is a specialist in the art and culture of early modern Japan.

Timon Screech

Jonathan Woods