Merchant Ship of the Dutch East India Company, 1782. Nagasaki School, published by Toshimaya Hand coloured woodblock print.

On 24 September Specx and his delegation reached Fushimi, an important stronghold near Kyoto, where they discovered Portuguese agents already at work lobbying the Bakufu for a favorable decision. Their presence marked a stark contrast with the Santa Catarina incident, the foundational moment for VOC privateering in Asia, which was resolved within the walls of an Amsterdam admiralty court before Dutch judges. In this instance, representatives from both sides, each armed with their own arguments and allies, converged on a neutral space to make their case before a set of independent adjudicators. As expected, Portuguese representatives argued that the attack had taken place in the “king’s [shogun’s] waters,” that is firmly within the “territory of Japan.” Richard Cocks, the head of the English factory in Japan, who watched the dispute unfold, wrote that the Portuguese “complaine to the Emperour [shogun] because the Hollanders take them w’thin his dominions.”

Such claims hinged on an understanding that the assault on the Santo Antonio must be seen as piracy. Portuguese representatives across Asia had a great deal of experience in making this kind of argument as it was the standard proposition put to local rulers in an attempt to denounce the Dutch and in so doing deny them any foothold in the region. In China the Dutch were described as “Universal Robbers” and the “Arch-Pyrates of all Seas, whom all other Principalities did shun, as the most pernicious Danger in their Dominions.” In Japan Portuguese agents had made similar allegations on a number of occasions prior to the Santo Antonio incident. When the Liefde arrived in Japan in 1600, for example, its crew were loudly denounced as “thieves and robbers of all nations and were we suffered to live it should be against the profit of his Highness and of his country: for no nation should come hither without robbing them.” As part of this, Portuguese representatives argued that any appearance of honest commerce was nothing more than a thin veneer designed to conceal the true nature of the company’s activities. Thus, according to one Portuguese letter, even when Dutch merchants “bring cargo to your country [and claim they have acquired these through trade] this is a complete lie” as all these goods were simply plunder acquired through force.

Their role as pirates, stateless marauders marooned permanently outside the law, pushed the Dutch outside international orders. A later petition submitted to the Bakufu explained the “pirate ships of Holland are infesting the high seas…. Since they are nothing but pirates, no other country allows their ships to anchor in their ports.” If one accepted the attack on the Santo Antonio as piracy, then there could be only one conclusion. Piracy had been outlawed in the seas around Japan for decades, and there was a long-standing ban on pirate groups using the archipelago as a base. In 1588 Ieyasu’s predecessor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had famously banned pirates from operating in the “the seas of the various provinces [of Japan],” while enforcing strict penalties on any group that sheltered or supported maritime marauders. Given these facts, the company was, it seemed, doubly condemned, both for the initial attack, which had taken place in the waters around the “various provinces,” but also because the Jaccatra had brought its prize to Japan, thereby turning the archipelago back into a pirate lair.

In response, Specx put forward his own arguments designed to uphold the company’s rights to the captured ship. Pushing aside any discussion as to whether Meshima was or was not part of Japan, he insisted that the attack on the Santo Antonio was legal regardless of where it had actually taken place. His argument rested on one central assertion, that VOC privateering was a legitimate act of war in the service of a properly constituted state. The Dutch in Asia had, he explained, received orders from their prince, a figure still understood in this period as the “king of Holland,” to “wage war in any way and to do all possible damage [to the Spanish and the Portuguese] on water as well as on land.” Rather than pirate chiefs, the captains of vessels like the Jaccatra were thus soldiers who “have been expressly charged that wherever we may encounter one of their ships not to allow it by any means to pass without fighting but to attempt to capture it even if we die in the process.” In this way there was no room for personal choice and certainly none for individual enrichment; the Dutch were simply at war, and any encounter with a Spanish or Portuguese vessel—even if it was with an unarmed trading ship—must be seen in its proper context as part of this wider conflict.

The presentation was a pale version of Grotius’s submission, lacking the overlapping arguments that made his case so effective. In part this was because one of the key points used by Grotius to justify the offensive strategy, that the VOC was a natural ally for Asian sovereigns in a shared struggle against Iberian tyranny, had failed to make any real headway at the shogun’s court. It was not for want of trying, with Dutch agents in Japan frequently repeating the charge made in Maurits’s December 1610 letter to Tokugawa Ieyasu that Spanish ambitions to universal monarchy were a direct threat to the Bakufu. To buttress the case, they conjured up a vast master plan for domination involving the Portuguese, the king of Spain, and the Jesuits, all of whom were working together to destabilize the Japanese realm. If Spanish tyranny could be made to seem a genuine threat, it turned the Dutch into natural allies because they had faced and overcome precisely the same danger. But although the argument was put persistently to them, Bakufu officials showed no interest in joining the fight against the Spanish, who were still seen in this early period as potential trading partners. Because of this, Specx abandoned any notion of the company as the natural champions of Asian sovereigns and any sense that the attack on the Santo Antonio could be read as part of a shared struggle.

Instead, he worked to divorce the conflict from the shogun, who must, he insisted, not intervene even as the company’s war was brought to his shores: “We reverently seek from His Imperial Majesty [the shogun] that if we encounter the Portuguese or the Castilians somewhere around his majesty’s land [to allow us] to wage war and do all possible damage or to capture their ships.” Although phrased in typically obsequious terms, the proposition represented a bold declaration of the company’s right to wage its global war unimpeded by legal structures in Asia. Encounters such as the one off the coast of Meshima were simply a “matter between enemies at war with each other (vianden oorloge mett malcanderen)” and must be treated as such. Put more bluntly, the shogun should stay out of a conflict that did not concern him by permitting any assault on shipping coming to Japan as a legitimate act of war. In this way the company’s global conflict should, he insisted, take precedence over local legal structures.

The Dutch delegation did not have to wait long for an answer. Far more preoccupied with domestic matters including the winding down of its successful campaign against Hideyoshi’s heir, the regime moved quickly, and on 26 September Bakufu officials informed the Dutch that they had awarded them the “junk, people and everything connected.” The decision was significant for a number of reasons. It affirmed, first of all, that Meshima and the waters around it were part of Japan. When the question as to the island’s status was first raised by VOC agents after the capture of the Santo Antonio, there was a clear hope among the factory’s staff that the Bakufu would simply declare that its authority did not extend out into the ocean to encompass this isolated chain of uninhabited islands. This is what happened, for example, in later instances of VOC privateering that had taken place on more distant sea routes, which Tokugawa officials pronounced as lying beyond their jurisdiction. In 1615, however, the Bakufu did the opposite, moving to confirm that the waters around Meshima were part of Japan and hence fell under the shogun’s authority. The result was to fix the island’s role as the outermost boundary of Japan proper and to confirm to European mariners that it must be treated as part of the shogun’s realm. There Meshima would remain for the rest of the Tokugawa period, appearing in map compilations like the Nihon bunkeizu as the outer marker of Japanese territory.

Second, the decision confirmed the Bakufu’s role as legal adjudicator. Instead of washing their hands of a European conflict involving no Tokugawa subjects, Bakufu officials accepted the petitions presented by both sides, considered their arguments, and came to a decision. In taking this action, the regime effectively marked out its right to act as an arbiter for a maritime dispute between two foreign groups that had taken place hundreds of miles away from its headquarters in central Japan. The result was a confirmation that any act of nonsanctioned violence—regardless of motivation or participant—required adjudication from the center. As was the case with Hideyoshi, this was in effect an affirmation of the central regime’s maritime sovereignty over the waters around the archipelago, although it extended only to a limited set of rights related to the arbitration of violent disputes.

But, if the decision affirmed a basic willingness to adjudicate any maritime dispute that had taken place in Japanese waters, it was paired with a strikingly limited definition as to the extent of Tokugawa legal protection and hence as to which plaintiffs could expect to find redress for their claims. Before issuing its verdict, the Bakufu dispatched an envoy to speak directly with the captured Portuguese mariners at the heart of the dispute. The subsequent interrogation consisted of a single question that illuminated the extent of the regime’s concern: did their vessel carry the shogun’s “seal,” that is, a shuinjō? When the captives confessed that they possessed no such pass, the interview was terminated and their request for protection dismissed. Once it became known that a shuinjō was not involved, the Bakufu showed no interest in draping its protection over the Santo Antonio regardless of the fact that it had been captured in the seas around Japan. The message was clear: the regime’s concern extended only as far as the shuinsen, and it had no intention of either enforcing punishment or mandating compensation if the incident did not involve one of these vessels.

If there was no ambiguity in this regard, the Bakufu’s view on the essential legality of Dutch privateering was less obvious. While Tokugawa officials did not denounce the incident as piracy, something they would do when faced by later instances of VOC maritime aggression, they offered no affirmation of Specx’s argument that the actions of the Jaccatra’s captain should be seen as a legitimate act of war. What is clear, however, is that the decision to award the Santo Antonio to the company did not derive from an especially positive attitude toward Dutch privateering activities but rather from an overriding concern with shuinjō vessels to the exclusion of any other shipping making its way to Japan.

For the Portuguese, the ruling represented a clear setback, but it did at least offer a slender reed of hope. Although the decision had gone against the Santo Antonio’s owners, the Bakufu had confirmed its role as legal arbiter over all acts of violence within Japanese waters, even those stemming from an intra-European conflict. In the aftermath of the Santo Antonio incident, it was clear that the shogun’s court could be pressed into action as an international legal node, a space for petition, investigation, and arbitration of maritime disputes. While this offered scant consolation in the short term, it was possible that the Bakufu might be persuaded over time to expand the boundaries of its protection to include ships that did not carry a shuinjō.

The company, for its part, took a very different lesson. Pushing to one side the possibility that future decisions might go against them, Specx and his superiors read the successful resolution of the Santo Antonio case as a clear endorsement of VOC privateering operations and a wide-ranging dispensation for further action. This was the position taken by the soon to be governor-general, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, who became increasingly convinced that the company could launch extended privateering campaigns against Portuguese ships sailing to Japan, even if it resulted in the extension of the conflict into the shogun’s harbors. Coen’s letters after 1615 reveal a persistent belief that the Bakufu was either clearly sympathetic or essentially indifferent to VOC privateering and that it did not necessarily hold coastal waters or even its own harbors as a special preserve. The result was a reckless pursuit of prizes that would ultimately prompt a Tokugawa backlash.



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