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Tag: early modern

How to sail from seventeenth-century Japan

Note: This post contains plot spoilers for Shusaku Endo’s 1980 novel The Samurai.

In October 1613, a ship set sail from Tsukinoura in northeastern Japan. The ship looked like a Spanish galleon and bore the name San Juan Bautista, but it had been built in Japan on behalf of a local feudal lord. On board was Hasekura Rokuemon, a minor lord who was dispatched as an envoy to Pope Paul V in Rome.

Shusaku Endo’s novel The Samurai (1980, trans. 1982 by Van C. Gessel) is a fictionalized account of Hasekura’s voyage from Japan to New Spain (Mexico), and onward through Spain to Rome. The novel does not stick closely to the historical facts (for instance, greatly compressing the Japanese delegation’s stay in Europe), but at any rate the facts are so sparse that Endo had to engage in extensive speculation as he crafted his narrative.

The purpose of the voyage is a central question of the novel. Hasekura and three other lance-corporals are sent to initiate trade relations with New Spain. One of the envoys, Matsuki, returns to Japan from New Spain. On several occasions before his return, Matsuki hints darkly that their mission is a cover for something else, because why else would such low-ranking officers be selected for this mission? The other three continue across the Atlantic and have an audience with Pope Paul V.

When Hasekura finally returns to Japan, he talks with Matsuki, who reveals the purpose of the mission. “Haven’t you realized yet that you were nothing more than a decoy dressed up to look like an envoy?” he admonishes Hasekura. “Edo and our domain never had trade with Nueva España as their main object. … Edo used our domain to find out how to build and sail the great ships.”

In Endo’s interpretation, Hasekura’s mission was cover for technology transfer. The Japanese wanted to learn how to sail European-style ships, and sending emissaries to new Spain was a way to do that without raising the Europeans’ suspicions.

It is a plausible interpretation, albeit completely speculative. The Japanese have long been prolific cultural borrowers, and technology has always been a part of what they are interested in borrowing. Shortly after Hasekura’s mission, Japan closed its doors to foreigners, and the country would remain closed for more than 200 years before being forced open by the United States in the 1850s.

But even during this period of isolation, the Japanese continued to allow the Dutch limited access to one port, and it was through this contact that the Japanese learned about European technology and industry. When Japan reopened to the world in the nineteenth century, the Japanese already had a head-start on understanding industrial technology thanks to the Dutch.

I don’t know if Shusaku Endo had this background in mind when he wrote The Samurai, but I expect that he did. In Endo’s own lifetime (he lived from 1923 to 1996), Japan readily adopted electronics manufacturing and became a world leader in the field. One can only wonder what might have happened with technology in Japan after the voyage of the San Juan Bautista, had the country not been closed to the world.

View of Vienna from Stephansdom.

From fortress to boulevard

The most picturesque part of Vienna, a city known for its beauty, is Ringstrasse, the Ring Road that encircles the oldest part of the city. The broad, attractive road wraps around three sides of the historic city center, with the Danube River closing the loop to the north. Many of the city’s most important cultural and civic buildings line Ringstrasse, including the opera house, Rathaus (town hall), the Austrian parliament, and an assortment of museums and libraries.

Monuments on Ringstrasse in Vienna: 1) Staatsoper (1869); 2) Hofburg (1881-1913); 3) Maria-Theresien-Platz (1889); 4) Naturhistorisches Museum (1889); 5) Parlement (1883); 6) Rathaus (1883).

Monuments on Ringstrasse in Vienna: 1) Staatsoper (1869); 2) Hofburg (1881-1913); 3) Maria-Theresien-Platz (1889); 4) Naturhistorisches Museum (1889); 5) Parlement (1883); 6) Rathaus (1883).

Ringstrasse is a legacy of the Austrian Empire, when Vienna was the capital of a multi-ethnic, polyglot empire eight times the size of Austria today. Emperor Franz Josef, who reigned from 1848 to 1916, spearheaded the development and beautification of his capital city early in his reign. In 1857, he authorized the most dramatic change to the city: demolishing the old defensive works to make room for Ringstrasse and the buildings alongside it.

But what were these defensive works that made way for Ringstrasse? When I first learned about Ringstrasse on a wonderful but brief visit to Vienna eleven years ago, I had the impression that they were medieval walls, made of stone. This didn’t really make sense to me, though, because medieval walls, such as those that still stand in Rothenburg, do not take up much space—not nearly as much as Ringstrasse and the neighboring buildings. In fact, Vienna had been defended by early-modern fortifications. The city’s medieval walls had been torn down and rebuilt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to defend against the Ottoman Turks. A large open area in front of the defensive works, known as the glacis, was kept clear to offer a clear field of fire. The buildings of Ringstrasse were constructed on the land that had been kept open for the glacis.

Early-modern defensive works had a low profile and a large footprint. Consisting mostly of large earthen berms, the fortifications were designed to defend against the offensive weapon of the age: the smooth-bore cannon. The earthworks absorbed the impact of cannonballs, which could easily shatter stone defenses. These early-modern defenses were in vogue until the introduction of rifled-bore artillery, which made its debut in the American Civil War.

Kastellet, an early-modern star fort in Copenhagen.

Kastellet, an early-modern star fort in Copenhagen.

Many (but not all) early modern-fortifications had triangular projections at regular intervals along the berms or walls—the origin of the nickname “star fort.” The projections allowed soldiers standing on them to shoot at attackers from either side, trapping them in enfilading fire. An 1858 map of Vienna, drawn before the old defenses were demolished, shows triangular projections at regular intervals along the wall.

Another city that once had early-modern fortifications, but does no longer, is Frankfurt. The German city’s approach to using the land freed up by the demolition of the defenses was different from Vienna’s. The land once occupied by Frankfurt’s defenses is now taken up by a park that wraps around the historic city center. Even some of the triangular star-fort projections have been converted into parkland. They are visible on modern maps of the city—a telltale sign that this park was once an early-modern fortification.

Gallusanlage, part of the greenway on the site of the former fortifications of Frankfurt am Main.

Gallusanlage, part of the greenway on the site of the former fortifications of Frankfurt am Main.

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