|A reflection on cultural interaction through European-Chinese relations in Seventeenth-Century Hirado: Gift-giving in a context of blurred borders between social relations, trade and smuggling|
De Winter, W. (2013). A reflection on cultural interaction through European-Chinese relations in Seventeenth-Century Hirado: Gift-giving in a context of blurred borders between social relations, trade and smuggling. Crossroads 7: 95-120
In: Crossroads (Grossheirath): Studies on the History of Exchange Relations in the East Asian World. Ostasien-Verlag: Grossheirath-Gossenberg. ISSN 2190-8796
Already from the sixteenth century onwards, the port of Hirado 平戸 in Kyūshū 九州 became one of the most important centres for consistent exchange and active commerce, and served as a base for Chinese, Dutch, English and Japanese mariners and pirates, as Clulow has historically charted in a recent article. As the English East India Company started developing its trade ventures throughout Asia, its chosen foothold in Japan was Hirado. Through the support and letters of William Adams (1564–1620), an Englishman already employed in Hirado, captain John Saris (c. 1580–1643) established a factory or trading outpost there in 1613. Employing Adams as interpreter and tailor Richard Cocks (1566–1624) as chief merchant, his final instructions were to develop trade from Japan towards the Korean coast, Siam and China. He left with full confidence in its future prosperity, encouraged by his highly favourable initial encounters in Japan. However, English textile almost completely failed to sell in Japan, and other trade aspirations did not fulfil expectations. Eventually, the company’s directors decided the Hirado outpost presented a financial failure, and a ship was sent to carry off the remaining personnel in 1623. Several reasons are usually cited for this commercial failure, amongst which were Dutch lobbying, the high cost of living in Japan due to gift-giving, and an elaborate Chinese system of cheating which profited from so-called “English inefficiency”. This inefficiency has often been attributed to the chief merchant, as a victim of an elaborate deception from the “piratical” Chinese community. I partially disagree with this explication, and would rather point to cultural issues, and the contrast between local practices and the macro-economical perspective of the EIC-directors. Even if economically unsuccessful, the short English history in Japan is very revealing on daily life and customs in seventeenth-century Hirado, including the role of its Chinese community. Especially the diaries and correspondence by captain John Saris, who established the English settlement in Hirado, and his chief merchant Richard Cocks, who ran the factory during ten years, show us some interesting perspectives. The sources from these accounts will form the main support of this article.