Discover Hirado Island and the trade with the west



Following trade routes established long before Europeans took to the seas in their galleons and carracks, the Nanban trade eventually reached Hirado, bringing missionaries, traders, charlatans and sailors, forever changing the history of the island in the process. Hirado had always been a center of foreign trade. The ruling Matsura clan, which recent scholarship suggests were formerly a pirate band, had a lock on trade with the kingdoms of Korea and China. It made perfect sense for the traders from the west to set up shop there.

  • The Portuguese galleons came first, in the 1500s, loaded up with spices, broadcloth and Chinese silks and porcelain. They dropped off missionaries, too—but that’s another story… The English dug in first, setting up a trading post in 1613, trading under the flag of the British East India Company. The Matsura clan bled them dry, and local traders were more interested in getting their hands on Chinese merchandise, anyways. It was the Dutch that stayed the longest, setting up their trading post in the early-1600s.

    Locals had always known where the trading post had once stood, and there were bits and pieces of the Dutch presence around town, but it was not until the site of the post was excavated and then rebuilt that the legacy of Dutch trade was made solid. The fortress-like whitewashed building was excavated in the 1980s, and now serves now as a museum to Dutch operations on the island.

    The Dutch Wall, as locals know it, still stands, four centuries after it was built to separate the trading post and warehouses from the rest of the town. The stairs that run along the wall start now on a quiet street, lined with small businesses and homes (including the Coleção Imoto, a stunning museum tended by a nonagenarian that keeps limited hours), and end in Sakikata Park, where there is a memorial to William Adams, the Englishman who arrived on the Dutch ship Liefde and went on to become an advisor to the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, earning himself the “blue-eyed samurai” nickname.

    View Allarrow

    The Dutch left their mark all around the island of Hirado. Around the trading post, and at the nearby bay of Kawachi, the Dutch settled not far from the local traders and craftsmen that helped keep day-to-day operations on track. Although there have been excavations over the years, the cost and expertise necessary to resurrect the old buildings is too great. The stone wells, built from basalt blocks, are among the few remnants of the Dutch presence.

    The Dutch did not have an easy time on Hirado, after all. It was not simply time and decay that brought their buildings down but rather fire. The well, the stone wall, the bridges, and the stone quay that the Dutch built with the help of local craftsmen remain—too useful to locals, and not easy to demolish, either. From 1614 and 1639, roughly the time the Dutch were in Hirado, the shogunate had been persecuting Christians, meaning Europeans as well as local converts.

    In 1640, shogunate officials arrived in Hirado unannounced, claiming they were there to inspect warehouses that the Dutch had built. The real reason for their visit was to pressure the Dutch to relocate to Dejima. Legend has it that “1639 AD” carved on a warehouse arch—in violation, the officials said, of a ban on Christianity—was enough to approve the demolition of what the Dutch had built on Hirado and force them to set up shop in Nagasaki. @

    Much of the traces of the Dutch in Hirado are just that: traces. Beside the Trading Post sits an open space, where stone warehouses would have once stood. Across the island, there is evidence, foundations, relics, slabs of granite and basalt, but most of it remains in the ground. In front of the Hirado Municipal Building, two iron anchors from Dutch ships sit eroding in the humid air of the town, a reminder perhaps that some sites are better left to obscurity rather than exhibition.

Click here for a summary article including this article