“The Shogun’s Silver Telescope: God, Art, and Money in the English Quest for Japan, 1600-1625” by Timon Screech

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Spectators at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1611 thrilled to the scenic realism of the Tempest. In the opening scene, a ship founders to the cries and alarms of her drowning sailors. But among those spectators some would nevertheless invest their private fortunes in the first ships to be sent by a  newly chartered trading company to the farthest known seas. They were the initial investors in the East India Company and their ships were destined to reach Japan. 

The East India Company was formed to take British goods abroad. Wool cloth is what wove Britain together with the wide world, including Moscow, Aleppo, Surat in India and Bantam in Indonesia. Why the British ventured as far as Japan is simply explained: only these cold islands without sheep needed thick British woolens.

Timon Screech’s The Shogun’s Silver Telescope is also the story of Britain’s extracting itself from the Medieval web of trade with Europe. From having a Spanish King (Philip II, husband of Queen Mary) and sending its wool to Spanish Flanders to be finished, Britain, self-confident and newly isolated in its new Anglican religion, embarked on a global quest for new trading partners. It was the original Brexit.

Religion was an inextricable part of the story of the eastern trade. Most readers will be familiar with the huge role played by the Jesuits and Franciscans in the trade between Iberia (then united under the Habsburgs) with Asia. We further learn here that Philip II of Spain and the Roman Curia hoped that conversion of Japan to Catholicism would neatly offset the loss of Britain to the Anglican heresy. Even more remarkable is how the British used Anglican propaganda to undermine Iberia’s prestige in Japan. Both the telescope of the title and the tale of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot were instrumentalized by the British to convince the second Tokugawa Shogun Hidetata (if he needed convincing) to curtail first the activities of the church and later to expel the Iberians altogether. The Japanese recognized in the British narrative of the storm that dispersed Philip’s Great Armada the same divine wind, or Kamikaze, that rescued Japan from Kublai Khan.

The telescope is the pièce de résistance gift from the merchants of the Company to the Shogun.

The Shogun's Silver Telescope: God, Art, and Money in the English Quest for Japan, 1600-1625, Timon Screech, (Oxford University Press, December 2020)
The Shogun’s Silver Telescope: God, Art, and Money in the English Quest for Japan, 1600-1625, Timon Screech, (Oxford University Press, December 2020)

Screech’s story is like a game of chutes and ladders. People disappear and then turn up in the oddest places, sometimes decades later. An Indian woman arrives in London and gets completely lost to history. Objects are gifted, like a terracotta pot to Shogun Hidetata, only to reappear in 1945 when the latter’s tomb is bombed. The merchants offer a handsome lacquer and mother-of-pearl contador (secretary) to one of their noble sponsors, the Marquis of Salisbury, and it turns up in today’s collection of the current Earl.

In the dense fabric of Screech’s erudition, which enfolds the founding of the Bodleian library, the themes of Caravaggio and the Mughals refusal to eat off of silver plates, the threading theme—that of the Shogun’s silver telescope—disappears for so long one wonders sometimes if it or the Shogun will ever resurface.

The telescope is the pièce de résistance gift from the merchants of the Company to the Shogun. It aimed to demonstrate a major difference between the British and their Iberian rivals. Since the Roman Catholic Church was in the process of condemning Galileo, the telescope was simultaneously revolutionary, hugely useful for warfare, and evidence of the failure of the Catholics to embrace science. Other gifts, including paintings after Titian of great classical nudes like Venus, Mars and Cupid, “quite lascivious and wantonly” may have interested some Japanese just as much as the telescope. The Company directors were less pleased to see specimens of Japanese Shun-ga art coming back on their ships.

The profit and loss of the British trade is minutely described. The Company planned to acquire from Japan high quality silver in exchange for plentiful British goods, like woolens and ceramics, as well as lead and tin, which were useful as ballast. The scale of 17th-century globalization is remarkable. The Company considered buying Japanese indigo, bringing it back to Britain and then exporting indigo-dyed woolens to better suit Japanese taste. But for all the efforts of the British in Japan, the Company eventually concentrated on the more profitable India trade, where it prospered and later became notorious for corruption and exploitation. Japan was just too far away and the cost of outfitting yielded disappointing returns. A promised, shorter route to Japan via the Arctic Sea never materialized.

One of Screech’s protagonists, William Adams, inspired James Clavell’s Shōgun.

Screech turns his telescope around to capture the personal ambitions of the men (and a few of the women) of this history. Though the logs and committee minutes are dry and lacunary, these people were clearly full of ambition and passion. This was, after all, the generation of Shakespeare. One of Screech’s protagonists, William Adams, inspired James Clavell’s Shōgun. Another, the emissary with the telescope, tried to smuggle his Japanese goods ashore in Portsmouth before returning to the Company’s docks in London. Some individuals became rich, received knighthoods and joined the “great and the good”.

A specialist in the Tokugawa era of Japan, Screech delves into and recreates the London of the 17th century as well as he recreated Edo (see his Tokyo before Tokyo: Power and Magic in the Shogun’s City of Edo). The symmetries between the two island kingdoms, noted by both the Japanese and the British already in the 17th century, underpins this story and gives it great depth. Anyone interested in this era, at either longitude, will find much to learn from this book.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). He is working on a new book about the horse in Asian history.