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An astronomically good deal: King James I and the Shogun’s silver telescope

Over the winter of 1610-11, a magnificent telescope was built in London. It was almost two metres long, cast in silver and covered with gold. This was the first telescope ever produced in such an extraordinary way, worthy of a great king or emperor. Why was it made and who was it going to?

The origins of telescopes are shrouded in mystery. All that is known for sure is that the first one to be patented had been built in Middleburgh, in the Dutch Republic, in October 1608. The English were soon making their own under the name of “prospective glasses,” for seeing “prospects” or distant views. One had been shown to King James I of England and Scotland in May 1609. The English and Dutch were not alone, for, famously, Galileo obtained a telescope some months later and conducted experiments in Venice. In March 1610, he published his seminal study, The Starry Messenger (so-called in English, though the text is in Latin). King James’s ambassador to Venice sent a copy to the king post-haste, with a letter emphasising the extraordinary importance of the object.

The telescope built in London the next year was made for King James I. It was not his to keep but was to be sent in his name to one of the world’s supreme potentates—one the English were desperate to please. This was the Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Why send a telescope? English trade with Asia was the monopoly of the East India Company, founded a decade before, and they were very anxious to open markets in Japan. It was with a telescope that Galileo had made his findings, and although his discoveries were received with enthusiasm in some quarters, this was not the case in others. The Papacy, famously, could not accept his key finding, namely that the earth orbits the sun—heliocentricity contradicted Scripture, which states that the sun moves. Later Galileo would be summoned before the Inquisition for this, as telescopes became a central battleground between Rome and the Protestant churches. It had evidently dawned on the East India Company, and perhaps on King James himself, that here was the perfect a way to court Japanese favour. They would show the shogun the latest scientific instrument, and in doing so embarrass the Iberians. Spain and Portugal were already trading successfully in Japan, accompanied by Jesuit missionaries, to whom the English had the highest aversion: the Jesuits were blamed for many things, including Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. In Japan, they spent as much time teaching astronomy as theology. A telescope would prove that they were teaching falsehoods, and that the Jesuits were a danger to Japan.

The telescope was taken out in a flotilla of four vessels in spring 1611. Command was given to John Saris, who had already lived several years in Asia, as the most senior English merchant. Now on his second trip East, he was told to push further on, all the way to Japan, where no English ship had yet gone. Oddly, the Company was aware of one Englishman already living in Japan. This was William Adams, who had gone on a Dutch ship. Many people in London remembered him, and word was that he had married a great Japanese lady. Saris took only one of his ships to Japan (the others went home with nearer Asian goods), arriving in Japan in summer 1613. Adams was contacted and within a few months he and Saris took the telescope to the Shogun’s castle, presenting it together in September at a grand ceremony. The Japanese records show to this. Saris enjoyed success in opening trade with Japan, and by December 1614 was safely back in London. Adams preferred to stay.

Once the English had provided proof that “European astronomy,” as explained in Japan for many years, was all wrong, the Roman Catholic missions lost their value. They were closed down forthwith, and the Jesuit missionaries were expelled. Their old enemies put to flight, the English looked forward to unfettered trade with what was perhaps the world’s richest country, somewhat grudgingly agreeing to share this with the Dutch.

Feature image by Jeremy Thomas (Public Domain)

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