Forbidden kingdoms made for rich kingdoms in the minds of gentlemen adventurers, and distant Japan -- the Land of the Rising Sun -- was believed to glisten with gilded splendor. "The quantity of gold they have here is endless," wrote an excited Polo, "for they find it in their own islands." The emperor's palace was "entirely roofed with fine gold:' while the windows glittered and twinkled, "so that altogether the richness of the palace is past all bounds and all belief."
Dozens of English adventurers were lured into uncharted seas by such tantalizing riches, placing their trust in the good Lord and a fair breeze. They studied their maps, consulted their charts, and concluded -- quite logically -- that the frosty Arctic Ocean offered the shortest route to the East. They little imagined that their fragile galleons would be battered by monstrous icebergs and translucent cliffs of ice. Sir Hugh Willoughby's 1553 expedition to the East had been the most spectacular failure. His vessel had been. trapped in the icy jaws of the White Sea, to the north of Muscovy, and his men had frozen to death in an Arctic blizzard.
The Northwest Passage across the top of North America was believed to offer an even shorter route to Japan and China. But it, too, had displayed a voracious appetite for Elizabethan sea dogs. The route, wrote the Arctic adventurer George Beste, was so "freezing cold [that] not only men's bodies, but also the very lines and tackling are frozen." The seas were choked with ice even in midsummer, for tremendous storms would crack the polar ice cap and fling mountainous cliffs into the paths of their wooden vessels. "The ice enclosed us," wrote the mariner on one expedition, "that we could see neither land nor sea."
George Beste urged his countrymen on in their endeavors to reach the East, encouraging them with the lure of unimaginable wealth: "Whole worldes offer and reach out themselves to them that will first vouchsafe to possess, inhabit and till them." The riches of the world were there for the taking in the sixteenth century, and there were vast tracts of ocean that had never been crossed. "Yea, there are countreys yet remaining without masters and possessors, which are fertile to bring forth all manner of corne and grayne." Beste might have displayed slightly less enthusiasm had he known the perils of tropical seas. Elizabethan galleons were frail and entirely dependent on the whim of the winds and the swirl of the currents. There were no charts of the shoals and sand-banks of the East China Sea, and the mysterious island of Japan was said to be surrounded by unpredictable storms that swallowed ships with one watery gulp.
From Samurai William by Giles Milton. Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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