Thursday, October 16, 2014


By the end of the year 1608 the crew of two Japanese shuinsen or vermillion seal ships, at dock in the port of Macau, got involved in a fight with the Portuguese.
Most probably not even then one could know for sure who started the fight, but the captain-general of Macau and owner of the annual trip to Japan – made by the large ship known as kurofune or black ship – surrounded and punished severely the Japanese crews.

The following year, the Daimyo owner of the vermillion ships complained to the Shogun and demanded that the black ship be seized on arrival at Nagasaki. The captain-general refused to be judged by the Shogun and fortified himself on the ship. On the first days of 1610 a samurai force of the Daimyo gave the assault.

Unable to leave the harbor from lack of wind, the ship became a fortress under siege. The Japanese population of Nagasaki and the foreign community, mainly Portuguese merchants with their families and priests who didn’t want to embark, gathered on the shore and watched the long and systematic night assaults led by one junk and a flotilla of small boats, repealed wave after wave by the extensive use of gunshot and firepots.
In meanwhile, the loaded ship was slowly and painfully being towed towards the exit of the harbor by her shallops, while the days were mostly spent in useless negotiations.

After three nights of fierce fight, when the ship had almost reach her goal, the explosion of the gunpowder magazine finally sank her and all the valuable cargo, killing most of the crew and part of the attacking samurai.

The increasing presence of Dutch and English ships in the area would soon lead to the demise of the Portuguese black ships, in favor of a sail and most probably oar ship known as galeota, of cheaper and quicker construction, smaller, faster and easier to maneuver.
In less than ten years another kurofune would be the last to make the trip between Nagasaki and Macau.

This time it was not a dramatic and heroic trip but an agonizing one. During the entire month of January and part of February of 1618, the big ship, loaded with riches, sailed close to shore hesitating whether to put to sea or to return to the safety of the port, under the threat of an invisible Dutch corsair.

The destiny of these two large and obsolete ships, looking like huge whales extravagantly adorned with sails and colorful banners, is not only linked by the commerce of silk and silver between Macau and Nagasaki, by the similarities and differences among several cultures present on board and by the shadow of corsairs and typhoons, but also by the scars in the body and in the memory of the boatman.

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