The Shogun's Silver Telescope: God, Art, and Money in the English Quest for Japan, 1600-1625

ISBN : 9780198832034

Timon Screech
336 Pages
153 x 234 mm
Pub date
Oct 2020
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  • Tells the little-known story of Britain's first trade with Japan - Japan is a massive economic power today, but few people are aware that King James sent a present to the shogun already in 1611
  • Reinterprets the early history of the East India Company, the world's biggest trading organisation until the 20th century
  • Puts early seventeenth-century English art and culture into an international context

The East India Company, founded in London in 1600, was the world's biggest trading organization until the twentieth century. It was originally a spice trading organization, and its existence was precarious in its early years. But its governors soon began to think bigger. A decade after its foundation, they started to plan voyages to more adventurous places, notably Japan. Japan had silver, was cold in winter, and had no sheep, so was a perfect market for England's main export, woollen cloth. The Company planned to add to its spice-runs, sailing back and forth to Japan, exchanging wool for silver. This could be done quickly and easily, over the top of Russia - or so the maps of the day suggested (these same maps also showed Japan twenty times too large, about the size of India).
Knowing the Spanish and Portuguese had got there before them, the Company prepared a special present to impress and win over their Japanese hosts. They chose as their first gift a silver telescope. The expedition carrying the telescope departed in 1611, and the Shogun was finally presented with the telescope in the name of King James I in 1613. It was the first telescope ever to leave Europe, and the first made as a presentation item. Before this voyage had even returned, the Company had dispatched another with an equally stunning cargo: nearly a hundred oil paintings.
This is the story of these two extraordinary cargoes: what they meant for the fortunes of the Company, what the choice of them says about the seventeenth century England from which they came, and what effect they had on the quizzical Asian rulers to whom they were given.


Note on Money
1:The Company, the Spice Trade, and Japan
2:Preparing London
3:Sending the Telescope
4:The Cargo of the New Year's Gift
5:Japan and Back
6:The English Factory in Japan
7:The Cargo of the New Year's Gift in Japan
8:The Company Must Decide
Appendix: List of Company Voyages

About the author: 

Timon Screech is Professor of the History of Art, SOAS, University of London. He is the author of some dozen books on the art and culture of Japan's Edo Period (1603-1868), in English and Japanese, including most recently Tokyo Before Tokyo: Power and Magic in the Shogun's City of Edo, 1590-1868 (2019).

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