Friday, January 29, 2010


The main cargo of the ships was by far silk and silver. The reason the trip existed was the commerce of Chinese silk to Japan, exchanged for silver. The profit was enormous and covered losses by bad weather, attacks by other ships, and all sorts of legal troubles with Japan. The Senate from Macau thought several times they would go bankrupt but every time they recovered with profit.
Human losses were also great, but that was an accepted fact, usually attributed to the will of God. When an embassy from Macau was condemned to be executed by Iemitsu (after repeated warnings and the prohibition that Portuguese set foot again in Japan), the people of Macau staged a religious feast claiming they were happy that so many of their people became martyrs. Considering this psychological frame it is easy to understand why the Portuguese could not stop proselytizing, despite the risks that they incurred.

But there were other things besides the profits of the silk trade and the joys of martyrdom. We can see, through the eyes of the author of the screens, people enjoying life. We also know that Portuguese merchants stayed in Nagasaki for long periods and even married there, and there was more to the cargo than just silk, like fine wines and dried fruits. Wine, olives and olive oil arrived in Macau almost at the same price as when they left Lisboa, the profit being reserved for the fabulous commerce of spices, silks and a few items more.

In this matter I follow my main written source for this story, the very detailed work of Charles Boxer (O Grande Navio De Amacau, ed. Fundação Oriente, translated from The Great Ship From Amacon, 1959) about the Black Ship from Macau. In the end of this post you will find the pages relative to a list of goods the Portuguese ships took to Japan in 1637 (by that time several smaller ships were being used instead of the big nau), made by a Dutch.
In this list, besides the great quantities of textiles that occupy four out of six pages you will find spices, precious woods and ivory, needles, fishing hooks, combs, padlocks, tobacco boxes, porcelain jars and even two live white mice.

There is also in this book a list of the goods sent by the Jesuits to Japan in 1618. As expected it is mainly occupied by detailed descriptions of huge quantities of silks and other textiles: 19 crates of textiles and 1 crate of “pao china” (the root of a plant of the genus Smilax).

This was the merchandise bought with the silver sent by the priests staying in Japan. Then, there is the list of the provisions for the priests, including a common cotton fabric (six hundred fifty seven pieces) in black or blue, a load of sugar, nineteen “buyões” of non specified preserves and fifteen boxes of “perada” (probably pickled fruits), eleven pairs of shoes of two different types (six “lay” and five “our way”, from here we may guess priests, or at least Jesuits, used a characteristic type of shoe) and twelve pairs of (my guess) slippers of two sorts (two “chinelas” and ten “servilhas”) along with three pieces of leather, needles, three recipients (“botijas”, probably a sort of amphora with a flat bottom widely used in all sizes and shapes by Portuguese and Spanish for transporting these type of goods) of olive oil and two of olives, one (“buyão”, probably smaller and rounder than the “botija”) of raisins from Ormuz and one of prunes, an amount (“fardinho”, which implies a medium size package) of almonds, two sorts of cheese (four “flamengos”, and one “de Alentejo”) two boxes (probably Chinese or Japanese) with a writing set, one with three partitions and one with four partitions, nine boxes for letters and six containing ink tablets for writing, towels and sheets, one thousand and forty strings of rosary beads and (whatever these are) one thousand nine hundred “nominas”, one hundred fifty “cordões”, two hundred sixty copper “veronicas” and five “emzes”, twenty four glass “nominas” and, inevitably, an additional small load of silk.

What is missing in these lists that we could find in case we were pirates and took one of those ships?
The booty would surely include weapons, some elaborately decorated, gold (like the large gold chains seen in the screens), pepper pots and mills, pets besides the two white mice and personal belongings the kind of porcelain and silverware.
Also not listed in there are the personal merchandise taken not only by associated merchants, but also by soldiers and sailors. Forbidden items wouldn’t make part of such lists, although they would be shamelessly smuggled, like Japanese weapons after a certain period, and even people. One of the most irritating things for the Japanese authorities was that Portuguese insisted on smuggling Catholic priests inside Japan after these were banished.

If we enlarge the area of commerce, we also increase the diversity of products. Not only the Barbarians roamed the far eastern seas, Japanese were installed a little here and there and had ships for trade and war sailing along the same routes. But that is a different story.

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