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How Two Japanese Sailors First Arrived in England

The young Japanese boy named Otokichi landed in London, England in 1835, but an earlier account suggests that he may not have been the first Japanese to have visited England.

The story of the two other Japanese named Cosmas and Christopher, their Christian names, centers around Sir Thomas Cavendish, English explorer, and begins with the hunt for a Spanish galleon.

The Capture of the Santa Ana

On the morning of November 4, 1587, Sir Thomas Cavendish sighted the Spanish galleon Santa Ana at 23 degrees to the northward, just off the coast of Cape of St. Lucas. The admiral, also the trumpeter cried out, “A sail! A sail!”

Others on board rushed up to the maintop to get a better view. Cavendish gave the orders to prepare the ship to give chase. If he could capture the Santa Ana, his ill-repute of squandering his family’s fortune on “gallantry, and following the court” would be long forgotten. He could be revered like his hero Sir Francis Drake, whose voyage around the world captivated all of England.

For the next four hours, their ship the Desire of 120 tons quickly caught up with Santa Ana and gave her a broadside; the wood of the galleon’s hull splintered and cracked sending shards of wood that pierced the men inside. Cavendish also poured on a volley of musket shots and prepared to board with 60 of his men. The crew on the Santa Ana stood in close formation armed with lances, javelins, rapiers, and a number of stones, which they threw overboard onto the heads of Cavendish’s men. Two men died and four others were hurt.

Cannons were once more loaded, muskets readied and fired back “raking them through and through” and killing many of the Spanish sailors. The captain still did not yield and continued fighting back. After a third round of cannon fire and with Cavendish spiriting his men on with blasts of the trumpet, the captain finally held up a flag of truce and parleyed for mercy.

The Captured Crew

Although he attacked a town and burned town 150 houses in Sierra Leone, shot at sea lions in the belly or head and ate their young pups at Port Desire, killed cannibals on San Felipe, pillaged and burnt the town of Guatulco, kidnapped a carpenter from his family in the Bay of Chaccalla, Cavendish with “his great mercy and humanity,” pardoned the crew of Santa Ana. To show his submission to Cavendish, its captain fell “down upon his knees, offered to have kissed our General’s feet, and craved mercy.”

In the hold of the Santa Ana was the King Philip’s fortune of 122,000 gold pesos, and “laden with...silks, satins, damasks, with musk and divers other merchandise.” In addition, Cavendish and his men ate well that night with “all manner of victuals, with the choice of many conserves of all sorts to eat, and sundry sorts of very good wine.”

The crew of the Santa Ana were put out at Puerto Seguro, but before departing, Cavendish took with him two young men born in Japan, who were probably hired on the Spanish ship. Because they were able to read and write in their native language, in addition to some Portuguese, they could prove useful as Cavendish headed west into Asian waters.

The oldest Christopher was twenty years old, while the other Cosmas was seventeen years old and probably converted to Catholicism in Japan, a time when missionaries were still able to preach Christianity.

Cavendish also took three boys born in the islands of Manilla named Alphonso, Anthony de Dasi, and the other of unknown name, aged 15, 13, and 9 respectively. The youngest would be presented to the Countess of Essex as an attendant. There was Nicholas Roderigo, a Portuguese man, who had experience navigating the waters around Canton, and other parts of China, Japan, and the Phililppinas.

The last to be taken was the Spaniard Thomas de Ersola, a pilot from Acapulco, who knew much about sailing the coast of Nueva Espana. Of the seven members, a Judas was among them waiting for the opportune moment to deceive Cavendish and the whole crew of the Desire if he could. But Cavendish was too blinded by Spanish gold and glory to see the vengeance in the eyes of the one who would betray him.

The Betrayal

On January 15, 1588, when the Desire was anchored off the coast of the Capul, an island of the Philllipinas, the traitor was secretly writing a letter to the governor at Manilla. In that letter, he described how the English captured the King’s ship the Santa Ana and how he himself ended up onboard—taken forcefully by that Cavendish.

But all could be rectified if only the Spanish should “make strong their bulwarks with their two galleys” and surprise the ship, which had a small and weakened force. If the governor did not come, the letter warned, then the English would return and besiege and sack their town with an army.

If he had foolishly signed it, it would have read Thomas de Ersola, the Spaniard no less who would not betray his own country despite the pledge of servitude to his conqueror Cavendish.

Nicolas Roderigo, the Portuguese, who was captured alongside Thomas de Ersola disclosed this plot to Cavendish. The next morning, being confronted with his treason, Thomas de Ersola denied the charges, but when the hidden letter was found, he could no more deny it and remained silent.

Ersola’s hands and feet were tied and with twelve men, they strung him on an upper yard and hoisted him up until he died.

If he were lucky, his neck snapped, but if not, it would have been a slow painful death, his legs thrashing about in the air. In his last breath, he may have cursed Cavendish and the taunting crew, for in later years, Cavendish and some of his crew too would suffer as much, if not more.

Fame and Glory

The ship continued its course through Java to Cape of Good Hope and then north up to Island of St. Helena. On the way up north, they heard that the Spanish Armada to overthrow Queen Elizabeth had been defeated. It was a good year for England. When they arrived in Plymouth Harbour on September 9, 1588, the cheering crowds along the shore saw the ship Desire outfitted with sails of silk. Cavendish had enough wealth in the hold “to buy a fair earldom.”

Later, he wrote to his patron Lord Hunsdon how he had “burnt and sunk nineteen sails of ships small and great. All the villages and town that ever I landed at I burned and spoiled.” Such boastfulness would be unacceptable in Victorian England as evident in an account given of Cavendish’s voyages published in 1831:

Whatever blame may in a more enlightened age be imputed to this navigator, for the wanton outrages committed on the Spanish settlements and on the subjects of Spain, he appears to have though himself entitled to credit for their performance.

It was also a special day for Christopher and Cosmas, for they would be the first recorded Japanese to arrive in Britain. They stayed for the next three years with Cavendish, probably helping him plan for his next expedition to China through the Magellan’s Straits. He expected to obtain more riches to there to cement his fame and glory, but unfortunately, it ended up to be a disaster that would claim his life and much of the crew.

The next time that another Japanese would step onto England would take place two hundred and forty-seven years later.

In the afternoon of June 16, 1835, the three named Otokichi, Ryukichi, and Iwakichi were continuing their tour of the ground floor of the British Museum. They were seeing remnants of great civilizations that also like Cavendish wanted to be immortalized in time.

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