January 28, 2007

Stephenson -- The Diamond Age

Stephenson, Neal, The Diamond Age Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, Bantam, (Originally published 1995)

[cross-posted on Chicagoboyz]

[Spoiler Alert!]

With the recent announcement of a new science fiction TV series based on author screenplays from this ten year old book, it seems like a good time to take a second look at Stephenson's vision of the next century. Diamond Age contained the first use of the term "Anglosphere," a neologism which Jim Bennett put to more specific use in 2000.


The story, in all its Rabelaisian glory, revolves around an interactive book created out of nanotechnological substances drawn from The Feed (a nanotechnological substrate carefully controlled by a handful of cultural groups). The setting is a time in the not-too-distant future ... perhaps 70 to 100 years ... and events occur over the space of just over a decade. The place is a high-tech enclave, a manufactured island called Source Victoria off the coast of Shanghai, maintained by a society of neo-Victorian "Equity Lords" as a entrepot of trade and manufacture. These meritocratic folk create a safe, idyllic enclave high on this island, and recreate the cultural milieu and material style of the Victorian era, based however upon very advanced nanotechnology. Transportation is now by airship, and various mechanical de*vices travel the ground bearing no resemblance to automobiles. The "Vickies" have economic ties with a vast array of different ethnic and sociological tribes or "phyles" around the world under the terms of a Common Economic Protocol -- which manages their civil and criminal legal relationships. They are dominant amongst a wider set of high-tech tribes (including the Nipponese), who are in turn are surrounded by a vast swarm of less fortunate peoples under authoritarian rule of various kinds or bound by ethnic and racial ties.

Nanotech has solved the problem of providing for the basic needs of humankind, but hasn't solved any of its social appetites.

The book in question (The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer) is designed and constructed for a leading Equity Lord who has become worried about the close-mindedness of his offspring. Unlike his own entrepreneurial past, and his whole-hearted adoption of Victorian mores as a solution to cultural drift, his children (and now his grandchildren), are simply following instructions, rather than actively contributing to a dynamic, if emotionally restrained and hierarchical, culture. The Primer is meant to be his gift to his five year-old grand-daughter. It will be her gateway out of the rut and a controlled experiment, for the grandfather, in creating a risk-taker.

In a series of twists and turns, a copy of the book is stolen before it can "imprint" on its intended young owner. That copy finds its way into the hands of a thete, or lower class girl, in the midst of a slum. From that point on, we see the book begin the education of the young five-year old, giving her the physical, mental and cultural coaching necessary to escape her dire circumstances and find an educational opportunity in the high-tech enclave of the neo-Victorians, high up on Source Victoria.

In the meantime, conditions on the Chinese mainland's Celestial Kingdom (and the rampantly corrupt Coastal Republic commercial zones) are getting increasingly desperate. The different Chinese Confucian and authoritarian cultural systems are struggling unsuccessfully to keep up with their high-tech competitors. The Diamond Age (reflecting the widespread nanotechnological use of diamond as an inexpensive construction material) is placing them further and further behind. To leap-frog the high-tech tribes, the Chinese are in search of an alternative technological approach to matter conversion -- a decentralized "Seed" or agricultural manufacturing process that would be suitable for top-down, authoritarian agrarian culture. Discovering the keys to the Seed will require them to blackmail the designer of the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, sending him off on a decade-long espionage assignment through the most secretive of the hacker communities that have found a way to use human bodies (and sexual intercourse) as a method of elaborate computation and encryption. Perhaps the secret of the Seed will be found there. Her Majesty's Joint Intelligence Services make an appearance to assure that the Seed is nipped in the bud, as it were.

Along the way, a Confucian judge from the Coastal Republic has managed to coerce the Primer's designer to build multiple inexpensive copies of the Illustrated Primer for thousands of abandoned Chinese female infants. These thousands will play a role in the denouement of the book when the Celestial Kingdom re-establishes control over the corrupt Coastal Republic and expels all non-Chinese tribes from the mainland.

Anglosphere Musings

Stephenson's book has been a favorite focus for discussion and reflection by a handful of contributors to this blog. The author's insights into a future era where the tribalism of geopolitics, universal commercial law, and the lethality and potential of nanotechnology hold sway, seems prescient. Unlike many of his colleagues in science fiction, Stephenson seems comfortable with the nuts-and-bolts of human culture, and actually writes about human beings in a way that seems credible for those of us who live in a mature, functioning, economically productive society.

There's much that is attractive in his writing. His characters and scenes are vivid. His use of technology and plot are excellent. His writing is laced with small pop-culture references that create a sense of fun but don't intrude on the story if you miss them. Like earlier and later books by the author, the social environments are compelling, and though he might be considered in the same cyberpunk genre as William Gibson, Stephenson successfully applies common sense to his social groups, far better than the overweening and morbid "man against machine" dystopic style of Gibson.

I have noted a repeated pattern in Stephenson's book. Inevitably some kind of "emergent phenomena" appears to wrap up disparate story lines but most people will find that less irritating than I do. Resolving a problem with the unforeseen or the super-natural seems like a pretty cheap gimmick when tacked on to a fully realized social fiction. Stephenson is selling you a book, however, not a food supplement, diet, or government program. He can be forgiven for getting himself stuck in a corner that he can only resolve with a magic wand or mcguffin. A bit.

Now it is telling that the 19th century neo-Victoriana of Diamond Age was replaced when Stephenson wrote his recent massive Baroque trilogy (Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. Here he turns to the truly dynamic period in English history at the end of the 18th century and ironically it is here we see some of the cultural and economic attributes that make their reappearance in Jim Bennett's historical analysis underlying the Anglosphere. Certainly his Baroque trilogy is a far better match with our current era's openness to social change than the Victorian period -- which evidenced a lot of cultural rigidity and weakened economic dynamism when compared with the Americans and other European states. After 1850, the British were on the decline and were not to see an economic resurgence for a century. A great summary of the economic and social climate from the time of publication of Newton's Principia through til the Crystal Palace Exhibiition of 1851 is reviewed here.

As outlined in historian David Hackett-Fischer's Albion's Seed, America's cultural foundation owes little to the High Church Victorians imagined for the Diamond Age, but can find many similarities with the various cultural groups in Britain between 1650 and 1750. As a result, Diamond Age loses a bit of its utility as social commentary. It is a serious misunderstanding of the conservative and/or libertarian strains of American (and Anglosphere) culture. The Victorians, we can say with some certainty, lost World War Zero to the US and paid a substantial economic and social price for it through the twentieth century. We don't see this reality or weakness effectively foreshadowed (or realistically compensated for) in Diamond Age. But Stephenson is certainly on the right historical track. Ten years ago, he just landed a bit too late in English history. He needed to look to Australia, South Africa, Canada, and the US for how the Victorians inadvertently overcame the narrowness of their social milieu.

What to make of Diamond Age as a potential TV series?

A simple mirroring of the neo-Victorian nanotechnologists onto an American or Anglosphere cultural template (which is what TV science fiction is all about) would be a historical mistake, I think. After all, political power across the English-speaking world is largely shared between political parties with patchwork quilts of constituencies that don't resemble the elite imperial bureaucracies of 19th century Britain.

And finding a compelling story about neo-Victorians in an pseudo-American context might require stereotyping the cultural right wing in ways that are historically nonsensical. The established church Episcopalians of early America have long since left the scene on the American Right. The Methodism and Presbyterianism of the 18th century have morphed into Baptist and Pentacostal denominations ... and entirely new 19th century manifestations like the Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah's Witnesses have appeared. The suburban mega-churches of the American South, satellite broadcasting in multi-ethnic glory on the Trinity Broadcasting Network seem a long, long way from stodgy Victorian drawing rooms, neo- or otherwise. The cultural and moral conservatism of these substantial portions of American society, at least, have *nothing* whatsoever to do with the class-based society of late 19th century urban Britain. Nothing.

The grim nature of China's imagined future in Diamond Age seems a little less likely than when Stephenson was writing his book during the early 90s. His prediction about Chinese nativism and collapse however may ultimately ring true if books such as The Tyranny of History: The Roots of China's Crisis and China's Trapped Transition turn out to be accurate.

But let's face it ... there'll be no overt theme in a TV series based on the Diamond Age that translates as impending Yellow Peril. Too politically incorrect. And too worrisome. Regrettably, it may be easier to morph the neo-Victorians of the book into straight-laced Republicans with fancy CGI (computer-generated image) gizmos, and elaborate art direction, glossing over the ahistorical assumptions that must be made. That would be very unfortunate.

If the insights Stephenson drew in his Baroque trilogy do not outline the particular weaknesses of the Victorians, an opportunity will be lost. There are Anglosphere solutions to cultural stagnation, even if the Victorians did not find them. Without a fundamental appreciation into the deep historical roots of Anglosphere decentralization, implied but not illustrated in the Diamond Age, then any TV presentation will become an excuse for fancy props (nanotech special effects and some elaborated interactive media in the "illustrated primer") without making any contribution to a toolkit of coping with the modern world, with its attendant social and technological change. There's an opening for the author to add to the public policy argument. Hopefully he'll take it, otherwise ...

It'll just be more "genuine [historical] junk food for juveniles" to paraphrase Joni Mitchell.

Posted by jmccormick at 07:07 PM | Comments (10)

January 26, 2007

That elusive national identity

If it’s not Big Brother, it’s a report on diversity and citizenship. Suddenly, it is quite trendy to talk about what British national identity is (ooops, sorry, one must not use the word national) even if more heat than light has been generated during all these discussions.

There is nothing terribly wrong with Sir Keith Ajegbo’s review of the teaching of “diversity and citizenship”. It is, presumably, not his fault that the remit was phrased in that unsatisfactory way.

Sir Keith has himself been a teacher and a headmaster in difficult parts of South London and knows that the problem extends a long way beyond disaffected Muslim youngsters. He also, it would seem, understand the phenomenon of Jade Goody and the chavs or white English underclass who are seen as fair game to the great and the good as well as just articulate middle class (unlike pretty, weepy Indian wannabe stars).

His introduction is sensible enough:

"In order for young people to explore how we live together in UK today and to debate the values we share, it is important they consider issues that have shaped the development of UK society – and to understand them through the lens of history.”

Who can argue with the need to teach history to all our children – history of this country, history of other countries, history of the British Empire?

Curiously enough this is a subject some of us discussed yesterday with a remarkable man, Sheikh Musa Admani, the Imam at the London Metropolitan University. Sheikh Admani is concerned with many things that can all be summed up in one important question: how to create a British Muslim identity. These are his words.

There are various problems according to him. One is that the Muslims have not gone through the process of being outside main stream society and becoming part of it in the way Jews and Catholics had to.

Then there is a lack of knowledgeable Islamic teaching in this country, a gap that has been successfully exploited by various well-funded organizations with Wahhabi links. Added to that there is the government’s incomprehensible insistence on talking only to self-styled “community leaders”, which makes it impossible for any Muslim, such as the Sheik himself, to get through different ideas and different experiences. Most Muslims in this country come from the Indian sub-continent, that is, from a cultural and historical tradition that is very different from the Arab one. Yet an alien, oppressive and anti-Western tradition is being imposed on them through ignorance and reluctance to understand.

Two points in our various discussions remain with me. One is the Sheikh saying that people from the East find the concept of liberalism difficult and that is something they have to deal with. To that one has to add the difficulty of dealing with the concept of separation between state and religion, an idea that is fundamental to western historical development.

Secondly, he asked me how I saw the role of Muslims in the very necessary British narrative. Actually, that’s easy. Given the history of the British Empire, it is not hard to define a strong and honourable role for Muslims in the British narrative. Anyone who doubts it should visit some of the British war cemeteries.

It is, indeed, appalling to think that in two world wars people of all religions volunteered to fight for a country they had never seen but was present to them as an idea while their descendants who actually live here, are turning to a completely alien Islamist (I stress that word) tradition because they see nothing for themselves here.

The problem is wider. What do non-Muslim children see for themselves in Britain? And that brings us back to the point Sir Keith has made: it is essential for all our children to learn history, to understand how this country came to be, to grasp the ideas that have shaped and continue to shape its descendants, the Anglospheric countries. (Our newspapers and media could do its bit by trying to understand the United States instead of producing endless ignorant calumny.)

As always, if you pose a question and leave the answer to the government, you end up with a most appalling mess. Ideally, of course, the whole system of education would be taken away from it. As this is unlikely to happen for a little while (until the Conservative Party manages to pull itself out of the morass it is in at the moment), at the very least, there should be some requirement that history be taught in schools beyond the age of 14 and in a recognizably historical fashion. That, of course, is almost impossible to define.

Instead, the government with the approval of Sir Keith Ajegbo, I am sorry to say, is going for yet another version of the discredited “citizenship lessons”. These, if you please, would focus on “core British values”. As nobody knows what those core values are and anyone can pretend what they like on the subject, this is going to be an exercise in futility.

Allow me to reminisce a little about some of my chequered educational career. In the last two years of my schooling all of us, A-level students, had twice weekly compulsory Civics lessons. To this day I am grateful for them. These were most emphatically not citizenship classes or lessons in British values (it did not occur to anyone that we needed them). The lessons were in political structures.

Thanks to the headmistress of my school who took these lessons, we all found out how Parliament works, how the British Constitution works (oh yes, we do have one), how the United States Constitution works, how NATO and the United Nations are structured and so on. Some of it I have forgotten but whatever knowledge of these subjects I possess is rooted in what I was taught by Mrs Alison Munro, now Dame Alison.

Such lessons could be called hard-core knowledge-based ones and might be essential counterparts to those compulsory history lessons. Of course, teachers would have to tell the truth that is no longer convenient. They would have to tell that Parliament legislates in only a small proportion of cases in this country; they would have to tell that the House of Lords is no longer the highest appeal court in this country; they would have to explain that our democracy is something of a joke and not because President Bush is such a nasty man.

On the other hand, the teaching of English in its full and manifold glory (that includes American English, Strang and Indian English among others), the teaching of history together with a serious and truthful course in civics should open many eyes what being British should be about and what it is about these days.

Cross-posted from EUReferendum

Posted by Helen Szamuely at 11:07 AM | Comments (14) | TrackBack

January 19, 2007

Milton -- Samurai William

Milton, G., Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002, 400 pp.

[cross-posted on chicagoboyz]

Some thirty years ago, beach readers basting themselves in the sun were reading the fictional adventures of an English sailor, a navigator or "pilot", cast ashore after a Dutch shipwreck off Japan in the early 17th century. John Blackthorne was the ultimate "fish out of water," making his way in an alien violent land through physical strength, mental acuity and prodigious love-making, rising finally after various reversals of fortune to become the trusted confidant and friend of the military supremo of the time -- the Shogun. Battling ninja, the Portuguese, Jesuits, scheming Japanese lords, cultural confusion, and romantic tragedy, the novel left Blackthorne an older and wiser man at the peak of his powers.

Like many fans of James Clavell's Asian novels, I enjoyed the story for what it was ... laced with the critical potboiler elements of exotic settings, sex and violence (followed closely by clothes and food) ... a great yarn ... an uninspiring 1980 TV mini-series -- but I thought no more about it until I glanced recently at the cover of a paperback version of Milton's Samurai William in a bookstore. Hmm. That tale looks familiar.

It turns out that Clavell's fish-out-of-water story was based broadly on actual events. Englishman William Adams was a crewman on a small fleet of Dutch ships attempting to open trade with the Far East by passing through the Cape Horn and sailing across the Pacific. Adams and a handful of starved, sickened survivors of the single Dutch vessel to make it to Japan were curiosities at first to the reigning shogun (Tokugawa Ieyasu). They were saved from crucifixion on a whim, despite the best efforts of the Jesuits to see that Adams and his crew met an immediate and very bad end. Adams was tossed into a Japanese prison after his first interview with the Shogun.

But the shogun quickly realized that the anjin or pilot was an unusually intelligent, skilled, and self-possessed man. Though not formally educated, his technical and geographic knowledge was substantial. And his ability with languages was to become a key factor in the subsequent history of Japan. For William Adams, English Protestant pilot, formerly of Limehouse in London's docklands, was to become the European translator for the most powerful man in Japan.

He was to give the Shogun dramatic new insights into the world of the Europeans (especially the ongoing war between Protestants and Catholics). With encouragement and funding from above, Adams began a program of ship-building and mapmaking that gave the Japanese a familiarity (if not expertise) with oceanic travel for the first time. And the Japanese were then able to take part in the trade wars of southeast Asia as independent mercenaries for the first time, rather than merely being lethal cargo moved around the Pacific and Indian Oceans at the whim of the Portuguese. But for Adams, all this was at a cost. Though given lands, honours, and a new family in Japan, the Shogun forbid William Adams from returning home to England.

Milton's challenge in telling William Adam's tale is two-fold. First, the era is poorly known and even less remembered by the English-speaking world. And secondly, our knowledge of events in Japan are restricted to a handful of documents that reflect the 17th century incentives of the authors. The author must set the stage for Adams incredible life, but also recount as much of the personality and day-to-day events of Adams' life as possible to keep the book biographical, rather than broadly historical.

Samurai William, after introducing the protagonist, takes the reader on a quick "voyage of discovery" in late 16th century Europe. The English were coming late to the oceanic exploration game. Initially, in the 1580s, they sought to reach the Orient by either a Northeast or Northwest Passage. Meeting no success, they turned to duplicating the earlier efforts of the master mariners of the time, the Portuguese and Spanish. Sir Francis Drake was to be the first English captain to reach the Pacific and circumnavigate the world in the 1570s.

The Portuguese had rounded the Cape of Good Hope much earlier (1498), and after Magellan passed through the straits at the southern end of South America in 1520, those two nations had established the Indian and Pacific Oceans as their own fiefdoms. Vicious competitors with each other, they controlled information and access to the Protestants even more ruthlessly. By 1511, the Portuguese were established in Malacca on the Malay Peninsula, and began disrupting the Muslim spice trade that had brought Arabs east from India and the Middle East for over 500 years. Then Magellan claimed the Philippines for Spain (1521) and the Portuguese were forced to hop-scotch their way up the Asian coastline to China (and Macao), acquiring harbour rights there by 1535.

The Japanese had established themselves as terrible pirates in the South China Sea, so much so that trade between Japan and the mainland had dwindled to whatever could be arranged through middle-men in the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa). Into this void stepped the Portuguese. The Japanese wanted Chinese silk. The Chinese wanted Japanese silver. The Portuguese had large ocean-going vessels, armed to the teeth. It was a match made in heaven. In 1544, the Portuguese opened their first trade venture to Japan, to be followed by annual trade voyages of a "Great Ship" that made fantastic profits for all concerned. By 1549, Portuguese Jesuits had appeared in Japan (including the famous St. Francis Xavier) , and along with the mendicant orders (primarily the Franciscans), they began proselytizing in the harbour areas surrounding Portuguese trading sites. Rapidly, over the next few decades, the Portuguese and Japanese developed a very profitable trade and with the Jesuit decision to "go native" (adopting Japanese customs and focusing on converting the elite). the pace of Christianization of southwest Japan advanced quickly. By 1580, the port city of Nagasaki was heavily influenced by European technology, culture, and religion. This was the high point of Portuguese influence in Japan. A Japanese delegation visited Rome soon thereafter, and the first Japanese Jesuit priests were ordained.

When Sir Francis Drake passed through the Spice Islands in the late 1570s, heading westward, the local sultans and chiefs were already chafing under the treatment by Portuguese and Spanish traders and soldiers. The English were immediately seen as a potential ally and were encouraged to return. By 1586, English Thomas Cavendish was raiding the west coast of the Americas and seizing Spanish treasure galleons (and Japanese youths).

It would not be long before Dutch and English Protestants were acquiring both the funds and the critical information to venture forth. By the end of the 16th century, Dutch sailors on Portuguese ships had brought back enough information on the Spice Islands of southeast Asia to allow the merchants of London and Rotterdam to consider making some forays of their own into those regions. These private ventures, often subsidized by piracy, were to be the basis of a very rapid expansion of Dutch and English influence in Asia. Many such ventures failed or were financially unsuccessful but the Dutch and English republics could fund repeated efforts ... all in the knowledge that a single successful voyage would repay many failures.

And the local peoples were very much on the look-out for alternative trading partners. The Japanese, in particular, considered themselves superior in every way to their Portuguese trading partners ... except in two areas: oceanic shipping and military armament. The Spanish and Portuguese rebuffed repeated Japanese requests for training in shipbuilding or oceanic navigation. The Japanese were deeply frustrated.

Now Milton returns us to the story's central character.

William Adams, sailing with a Dutch fleet, was but one small part of a historical shift that was to shake Asia and Japan. In order to maintain an appearance of strength and dominance, the Jesuits had led the Japanese to believe that Catholicism was unopposed and triumphant in Europe. When Adams and his crew drifted up to the coast of Japan on the 12th of April 1600, and quickly proved that they were far more than heretic pirates, the Portuguese (and the Jesuits) had some serious explaining to do. It's of considerable credit to Adams that he managed to stay un-crucified during his early months in Japan when the people translating his words for the Shogun were his deadly enemies. Whether the Japanese sensed Portuguese anxiety, or Adams found some way to convey his real intent, we'll never know. Whatever the case, the Shogun rapidly began to realize that Adams was either the world's biggest liar or Japan's most useful source of information on the European world.

The first years after Adams' arrival in Japan were right in the middle of a savage civil war in Japan. The Shogun's Sekigahara campaign (1598-1603) was to culminate with the crushing of his main rival (Ishida Mitsunari) and the use of Dutch naval cannon (and Dutch musketry) on Japanese fortifications.

By 1605, Ieyasu had William Adams building small scale versions of European shipping to develop local shipbuilding expertise, graduating step-by-step to larger vessels. As early as 1601, the Dutch had learned that at least one of their vessels had survived the trip to Japan (others from Adams' small fleet had made it as far as the Spice Islands). From then on they were determined to expand from their newly-established bases in Java toward a lucrative trade with Japan and China. By 1609, Portuguese arrogance and destructiveness in Nagasaki had led the Shogun to dismiss his Portuguese Jesuit translator permanently. Adams took his place. And when, in 1611, the first Dutch trading ships had ventured north from Java to reach the Japanese port of Hirado, Adams was in a position to be an immediate liaison and protector for this new group of Europeans.

Within two years, an English trading ship, the "Clove", had also reached Hirado, and now Adams became an employee of the English East India Company for a two-year period. Here the tale, if possible, becomes even more tangled. Like the Jesuits, Adams had adapted to his isolation and vulnerability in Japan by adopting Japanese customs, dress, and language. When his Dutch and English colleagues arrived in Japan in small ships filled with items of no use to the Japanese (who wanted silks not woolens), the Europeans thought William Adams must have been turning the Japanese against them for his own gain. Little did they know. Within a year, Ieyasu had issued a suppression edict against Catholic Christians and it was with great effort that Adams kept both the Dutch and English traders from joining the thousands that were expelled or crucified on official order.

Ieyasu fought a climatic battle with the young lord Hideyori (for whom he was nominal regent) at Osaka castle in December 1614. After the edicts issued earlier in the year, the Christian lords (daimyos) understood that they were fighting for their very existence. They joined Hideyori against Ieyasu, and the subsequent battle for Osaka castle was particularly horrific, consuming tens of thousands of lives. The outcome for Japanese history in the 20th century certainly bears noting. This battle was the capstone of the Shogun's military victories and was to cement control of Japan by the Tokugawa shogunate (and a policy of a "closed" anti-Christian Japan) for almost 250 years.

Adams' success in supporting the Protestant trading factories ultimately came through his voyages to Malaya and Thailand. The Europeans may have brought nothing of value to the Japanese but they could act as brokers for items of value throughout southeast Asia that did interest the Japanese (such as sappanwood). Through his efforts at constructing, captaining, and piloting ships under Shogunate seal, Adams was to provide enough income for the English and Dutch to keep the traders solvent. It was during one of Adams' trips to southeast Asia in 1616, that the Shogun Ieyasu died.

This was a crisis of serious proportions and it was fortunate for the small community at Hirado that Adams returned from his voyage only a week or so after the Shogun's death. As in most dictatorships, transition is perilous, and Adams and the European trading chiefs spent anxious months in audiences waiting for the new Shogun to decide on their future. In the end, the new Shogun Hidetada, Ieyasu's son, ordered that all European trade was in future to be restricted to Hirado, except for personal trade by Adams (who'd earlier been given noble rank of hamamoto). This, understandably, caused further suspicion by the European community that Adams was self-dealing. Nonetheless, it was Adams' language skills and reputation at the Shogun's court that allowed the Dutch and English to avoid the suppression and expulsions experienced by Catholics and the other European nationals.

To further complicate things, the Dutch and English were themselves at war soon thereafter and did much to disrupt each other's trading success at Hirado. The local Europeans lived in terror of assassination and it was only the intervention of the local Japanese lord (with Adams' pleas) that kept the smaller English contingent alive during this period.

By 1617, the Shogun began to receive confirmed reports that the Jesuits had begun sneaking back into Japan after their initial suppression, military defeat, and expulsion by Ieyasu in 1614. Now Hidetada began a much more methodical extermination of Christians in the Nagasaki area at all levels of society. Public torture, crucifixion, and burnings were meant to emphasize unrelenting official will. This created a powerful martyr's movement that took some years to crush. In acts of communal punishment, entire families were burnt alive in conditions so terrible that even the Japanese, for whom such punishment was an accepted part of life, were deeply shocked. For the Europeans, no strangers to the horrors of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the actions of Hidetada and his even more sadistic son, the Shogun Iemitsu, were beyond the pale.

The exterminations continued through 1619 and disrupted trade with the Europeans dramatically. Here our story veers from James Clavell's swashbuckling tale into a far less uplifting finale. After twenty years of life in Japan, and successive voyages to southeast Asia, Adams health began to break and he died at Hirado harbour in 1620. Without his sponsorship and court finesse, the already ten*uous finances of the English trading settlement were in jeopardy. Despite the outbreak of peace between the Dutch and English, which created a safe environment for Hirado traders for the first time in years, the restrictions placed by the Japanese on trading activities generally made life precarious. A combined Anglo-Dutch "Fleet of Defence" in the early 1620s did little to actually increase safety or trade in the region.

In December 1623, the English trading factory at Hirado was closed forever. The Shogun's Ieyasu instituted even more pogroms for Japanese Christians, expelled the Portuguese finally and completely in 1637, and soon thereafter moved the Dutch from Hirado to the tiny artificial island of Deshima just off Nagasaki, from which Japan was to engage the outside world for the next two hundred years.

As for William Adams, despite his failure to establish an English trading empire, or to return home to his family in London, his fame in Japan survived the Tokugawa shogunate. Americans coming ashore in Edo (Tokyo) in the mid-19th century were to stumble on memorials to his name and achievements (Anjin Sama - Mr. Pilot). Williams Adams' letters to England (and that of his contemporaries), stored in the archives of the East India Company, were the foundation upon which historians reconstructed his amazing story ... and stimulated a novelist like James Clavell to write a rousing tale of exotic adventure at "the ends of the earth."

Milton's Book

As noted above, Milton's book on William Adams had some big hurdles to overcome. Educating readers, and engaging their interest, are not always compatible. Having read Shogun, I found Samurai William very satisfying though. It fleshed out the "back-story" of Dutch and English exploration with historical detail and it provided a more mundane, but no less amazing, biography of an English pilot at the turn of the 17th century.

Initially, I thought this book would be an excellent read for teens or precocious pre-teens with an interest in Asian history. Start with Shogun ... finish with Samurai William. But Milton is judicious in making this an adult story. The European sailors and traders of the era were big fans of alcohol, prostitutes, greed, and violence, so the story of Samurai William must be dispensed by parents selectively. It's not a prurient story but it is a harsh one.

For adults however, the tale is fascinating and I found myself consulting the atlas and Wikipedia often and repeatedly as Adams' story unfolded. The decades of the early 17th century in east Asia were times of tremendous change under horrific sailing conditions. It is a world so unlike our own as to seem completely alien. William Adams' voyage with the Mahu-de Cordes fleet in 1598 forms just one part of a broader story of ocean exploration that took far more than its share in humans and humanity.

Readers who are interested in the subject area are also directed to other great tales of ocean adventure and tragedy:

The The Wreck of the Batavia off the west coast of Australia in 1629. That of shipwreck survivors on south-east coast of Africa in 1782. De Bougainville's explorations of the Pacific Ocean, or those of Magellan in his 1520 circumnavigation in Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen. and those of William Dampier (A Pirate of Exquisite Mind) in the 1680s.

When matched with books by economic historians who focus on the global economy over the last five hundred years (chicagoboyz review here), a whole world of fascination opens up that fully exceeds anything from a novelist's pen.

Here are the Anglosphere's first faltering steps to establish global influence ... not just following the Catholic world but leading it. Disease, ignorance, and inexperience were to plague English exploration for further generations yet but William Adams' courageous and exceptional character led to his extraordinary achievements in the face of much adversity.

Many decades later, after civil wars, and a scientific and industrial revolution, the English were to reassert themselves in east Asia -- in force -- and this time, for good.

Table of Contents

1 At the Court of Bungo [8]
2 Icebergs in the Orient [34]
3 All at Sea [61]
4 In the Name of the Father [91]
5 Samurai William [121]
6 Into Unknown Lands [147]
7 Greeting Mr Adams [174]
8 At Home with Richard Cocks [206]
9 Clash of the Samurai [235]
10 A Question of Language [269]
11 Killed Like Fishes [301]
12 A Ruptured Friendship [320]
13 Last Orders [345]

Posted by jmccormick at 08:11 PM | Comments (3)

January 17, 2007

Welcome, Barone readers

Thanks to Michael Barone for his link! readers wishing to find out more about our outlok are invited to check out my book website, which includes substantial excerpts from the book available to read on line or download.

Michael poses an interesting question:

The Index of Economic Freedom for 2007, sponsored by the Wall Street Journa and the Heritage Foundation, is out. Here is Mary Anastasia O'Grady's article in the Journal on it, and here is the Heritage website entry, the data, and the rankings. Only seven countries receive "free" ratings, with a score above 80, and every single one of them is primarily or substantially English-speaking: Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. The next nine countries, with scores between 75 and 80, are mostly smaller European countries: Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, Chile, Estonia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, and Finland. Canada, of course, is primarily English-speaking, and my impression is that knowledge and use of English is widespread in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Iceland.

Why are English-speaking countries at the head of this list? Because they–we–ar the inheritors of England's traditions of representative government, rule of law, an economic freedom.

A question that has interested me ever since I first studied these types of statistics is that the large (roughly, five million plus inhabitants) nation that occupy the head of these lists tend to be mostly or entirely Anglosphere. The smaller states are a mix of Anglosphere nations and others, primarily the Scandinavian/Baltic states and the "Calvinist bookends" of the Germanosphere -- Switzerland and the Netherlands. All of these states are characterized by having strong civil societies -- marked by a high radius of social trust (willingness to trust strangers, treat strangers fairly, and expect fair treatment from strangers) and extensive networks of association that are neither based on blood kinship or organized by the state. But the non-Anglosphere states are always quite small. It seems that one can be small, free and prosperous, or large, bureaucratic, and stagnant. But not large, free, and prosperous -- unless you are English-speaking and use Common Law. In the middle are a group of nations that have reasonably strong civil societies and are reasonably prosperous, are relatively large, and have effective federal systems -- Germany is the best example of such.

The why of this is an interesting riddle. It's what much of the discussion on this website is about. I've been busy with other things over the past few months so I've posted hardly at all over that time. But that should change soon, and meanwhile other of our Seedlings (the name is an homage to David Hackett Fischer's book Albion's Seedlings have interesting things to say on the matter.

Posted by James C. Bennett at 10:14 AM | Comments (6)