400 years ago today: the death of Richard Cocks, head of the EIC trading post in Japan

On the 27th of March, 1624, a man died aboard a ship crossing the Indian Ocean, and was buried in the sea. The ship was the English East India Company (EIC) ship Anne Royal, which had left Batavia on Java a month earlier, and was heading for England. The man was Richard Cocks, late head of the EIC trading post in Japan. The death was not unusual in itself, although we don’t know its direct cause, as early EIC voyages had high mortality rates. The date is known to us from a journal kept by another man on board the Anne Royal:

[March] 27    This day wee hadde the wind att east north easte, rany weather, wee steringe awaye, our corce weste south weste. […] This daye Captan Cock died and wee [gap] of the clock threwe hime overebourd [rest of line illegible]
(Edmund Sayers’s journal; Farrington 1991, pp. 1256–57)

So passed the author of the most extensive first-hand account of early modern Japan written by a European.

EIC arms, 1632
EIC arms (1632)

The EIC had been founded in 1600, and by about 1615 it had set up some two dozen trading posts across the Asian seaboard from the Persian Gulf to Japan. The furthest one was in Hirado, in the northwest corner of Kyushu, the westernmost main island of the Japanese archipelago, where the EIC ship Clove arrived in June 1613. The English stayed in Japan for a turbulent ten years, during which, among other things, they witnessed the Siege of Osaka 1614–15 and the consolidation of the Tokugawa regime, and the proscription of Christianity in 1620. They were assisted by their countryman William Adams – a figure of resurgent interest, thanks to the current second tv serialization of his story as fictionalized by James Clavell in Shogun (1975). Adams had arrived in Japan in 1598 as the pilot to a Dutch ship that had crossed the Pacific from the east, and eventually found favour with the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

The English merchants in Japan interacted particularly with Japanese merchants and the households of daimyo (feudal lords), but also with other Europeans in Japan. The Dutch East India Company had their trading post next door to the EIC, and Spanish and Portuguese missionaries were quite numerous in Kyushu, especially in nearby Nagasaki. The missionaries produced a lot of texts, even setting up a printing press, but the earliest notable account of Japan written by a secular European is found in the diary of Richard Cocks, head of the English merchants in Japan.

Title page of The English Factory in Japan, ed. Anthony Farrington, 1991
Title page of The English Factory in Japan, ed. Anthony Farrington, 1991

By luck, a sizable part of the documents of the EIC trading post in Japan survives. They include around 350 letters in several languages, over a dozen journals, some ten account books etc, and two diaries. These have all been edited and published. The correspondence, inventories and ships’ logs are in Anthony Farrington (ed.), The English Factory in Japan, 1613–1623 (British Library, 1991, 2 vols). Cocks’s diary has been edited twice, of which the more widely available edition is Edward Maunde Thompson (ed.), Diary of Richard Cocks, cape-merchant in the English factory in Japan 1615–1622 (Hakluyt Society 1st ser. 66–67, 1883; many reprints).

Title page of Diary of Richard Cocks vol 1, Hakluyt Society, 1883
Title page of Diary of Richard Cocks vol 1, Hakluyt Society, 1883

Although Cocks’s diary has been widely used, there haven’t been many in-depth studies of it. The best history of the English venture in Japan remains to be found in Derek Massarella’s A World Elsewhere: Europe’s Encounter with Japan in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1990). The only full-length study of the social life of the Englishmen in Japan is James Lewis’s PhD thesis, ‘Nifon catange or Japon fation’: A Study of Cultural Interaction in the English Factory in Japan, 1613–1623 (University of Sheffield, 2004).

Most of the documents written by the EIC merchants in Japan relate to business, and contain little of interest to those looking for light on cultural interactions in early 17th-century Japan. The main exceptions are Cocks’s diary, and four of his letters: quite unlike the lengthy explanations of commercial matters to the EIC committee in London, these letters are nothing but description of Japan. Three of the letters are addressed to Sir Thomas Wilson, Keeper of State Papers at Whitehall, and one to Sir Robert Cecil, Earl Salisbury, the Principal Secretary and Lord High Treasurer of England.

Why was the head of England’s furthest commercial outpost sending information to the head of the English government (under the king)?

In a word: he was asked.

Bayonne map

Cocks was 58 years old when he died. He had been born the third son of a Staffordshire yeoman farmer, baptised in January 1566. This makes him an exact contemporary with Shakespeare (b. 1564) and King James VI/I (b. 1566). Cocks was apprenticed to a clothworker in London, and at the very end of Elizabeth I’s reign found himself working as a factor – a commercial agent – in Bayonne, at the bottom of the Bay of Biscay, near the Spanish border. Some 100 letters from him from 1603–1609 survive. Perhaps surprisingly, they mostly do not relate to commercial matters, and record little of Cocks’s own trading activities.

Instead, Cocks’s early letters actually form a part of the English government’s intelligence and diplomatic correspondence. In early 1603, Elizabethan England was still at war with Spain, and had an extensive intelligence-gathering network directed at Spain. Bayonne was an important node in the communication network, being situated on the main road from Bordeaux to San Sebastian, and with a bridge over the river Adour. Although Cocks had come to France as a merchant, he was perfectly situated to keep an eye on events and passers-by – and more importantly, to forward packets of mail in both directions when asked to do so.

The need for intelligencers fell with the death of Elizabeth I and the concluding of the 1605 peace treaty between England and Spain, but there was still a need for secure communication channels between the English ambassador in Spain and England, and therefore for people like Cocks, who could insert packets of diplomatic letters in his own bundles of business correspondence.

Somerset House Conference 1604
Somerset House Conference 1604

Cocks had been recruited to this task by the intelligencer Thomas Wilson when the latter passed through Bayonne in 1602–3. In 1605 Wilson was rewarded for his years of efforts on the continent and employed in the secretariat of Sir Robert Cecil. Almost all of Cocks’s surviving early letters are written to Wilson. They tend to be lengthy, even verbose, and it’s clear that while Cocks is dutifully passing along all tidbits of information he comes across, the main purpose of the letters is to cultivate his relationship with Wilson. Cocks does not ask to be paid for his services, instead hoping to be permitted to ask for a favour from Wilson/Cecil should he need one some day.

In the event, he does need help, and receives it – something which is preserved between the lines in his memorial plaque! In 2013, as part of the celebrations to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the opening of relations between England and Japan in 1613 with the founding of the EIC trading post, a memorial plaque for Cocks was installed in the parish church of St Chad’s in Seighford, Staffordshire.

Plaque commemorating Richard Cocks, in St Chad's church, Seighford
Plaque commemorating Richard Cocks, in St Chad’s church, Seighford

The plaque contains an excerpt from a Privy Council letter of 30 July 1608, which Cocks received to help him:

“he hath done his majesty good service in foreign parts”

This is from TNA SP 14/35 f. 37, where the passage reads:

“These are to Let yow vnderstand . that the said partie is one that hath done his matie good service, in foraigne parts”

The irony here of course is that the plaque was installed to commemorate Cocks’s contribution to the history of European relations with Japan – but the Privy Council letter in fact refers to Cocks’s contribution to the correspondence networks described earlier, well before he departed for Japan.

Cocks came to be recognized as useful in conveying diplomatic correspondence – his name comes up in the letters of the English ambassadors in Spain and France. Wilson too promoted his own sources of information and intelligence, and brought Cocks’s name to Cecil’s attention. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that Cocks appears to have met Cecil before departing for Japan. In his surviving letter to Cecil written from Japan, he writes:

“I beseech your Lor’ to p’don me yf I have byn over tediouse in this my frivolouse discourse, w’ch I have donne in respect your Lor’ should have true notis how the state of matters stand in these p’tes of the world, according as it pleased your good Lor’ to comand me at my dep’ture out of England.”
(Cocks to Cecil, 10 Dec 1614; Farrington 1991, p. 260)

The full story of Cocks’s early letters remains to be published. I have edited these letters and hope to get them out one day, hopefully with my study of how they sit in the intertwining networks of merchant, intelligencing and diplomatic correspondence.

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