Monday, December 28, 2020

Timon Screech's "The Shogun's Silver Telescope"

Timon Screech received a BA in Oriental Studies (Japanese) at Oxford University in 1985 and completed his PH.D in Art History at Harvard University in 1991. He has been at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, since graduation from Harvard. He has published widely on many aspects of Edo period art and culture, and has written several books in Japanese and English.

Screech applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Shogun's Silver Telescope: God, Art, and Money in the English Quest for Japan, 1600-1625, and reported the following:
About page 99: The English East India Company was founded in 1600 to trade in spices. Each voyage had its own investors, so was in competition with each other. Soon it became apparent that this was not a recipe for teamwork. In 1614, they created a Joint Stock, to spread cost and profit across voyages. First under the new system was commanded by Nicholas Downton. He took out £3000-worth of English woolen textiles, lead, mercury, tin, pewter and ivory, to a total of £15,000. This would never yield enough to buy all that was wanted in Asia, so he also took £20,000 in silver. Letters home from Asia warned that English voyages were being impeded by Iberians, and especially Jesuits. Downton therefore also took items to embarrass the missionaries.

This oddly sums up the crux of the book: The English wanted to obtain spices, but needed to pay for them with something. Their only bulk export item was woolen cloth, but that hardly sold in the tropics, where spices grew. They therefore also took silver. But once the war with Spain was over, they could no longer seize this at sea, so they had to buy it - which wrecked the economics. They therefore sought a cold, silver producing country. And there was one: Japan. The idea was to exchange woolens for Japanese silver, which they would in turn exchange for spice. In world-market terms, Japanese silver was cheap. However, Jesuit missionaries had been operating in Japan for decades, and they despised the English as 'Northern heretics', telling the Japanese they were all criminals and pirates. The English had to find a way around this, and impress on the Japanese what an advanced and dependable country they were.

The last point is: how did the English do this? They did it with two objects. Firstly they sent the shogun a beautiful silver telescope - the first one ever to leave Europe. It proved the truth of heliocentricity, which the Roman Catholic church could not accept. Secondly they sent a large number of erotically charged classical nude paintings - which the Japanese loved, but which horrified the church. Downton took them.
Learn more about The Shogun's Silver Telescope at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue