Sunday, September 21, 2014

NAU NEGRA playing with received ideas.

NAU NEGRA is a graphic novel with a touch of burlesque, based on real, documented events from the beginning of the 17th century Japan involving European ships, that plays with received ideas about the time and place, about people, Japanese and European, mostly Portuguese gentry, traders and sailors. Here are some received ideas I had to shake while researching for this type of story.

The authority of the captain was unquestionable, on board? No, as you will see by the troubles of His Excellency.

Japan, by this time, was a closed country and that was what made the fortune of the Portuguese traders from Macau? This is somewhat contradictory and is an idea built up on events of almost one century, during which Macau would grow and make and lose several fortunes, until finally the Shogun closed the doors of Japan to the Portuguese. But, during that period and beyond, there would be plenty of Japanese sailors on regulated or illegal trade all over the seas of the Orient.

The Portuguese ships were old-fashioned carracks? One – just one every year – large black ship, heir in design to the carrack, would make the trip auctioned by the Crown. But with time those naus evolved into slightly more modern shapes, until the last one, the ship of this story, was considered obsolete. The first Portuguese to arrive to Japan probably shipwrecked in a junk, either bought, rented or taken by force. Junks and a mixed type, called lorcha, never stopped being used. English also used junks. Probably the Dutch stuck to the ships of their own Company. The black ship was replaced by small vessels called galeotas, built in India in large quantities.

You may suppose that Japanese converts, when away from Japan, were a meek and self-effaced flock, until they disappeared without a trace, right? Nothing could be more distant from the truth. Contemporary accounts describe how Japanese volunteered for risky missions or were quick at using their swords on their own account. Forbidden to return to Japan they certainly mixed with local populations.

European priests would consider their Japanese converts as equals? Some would put Japanese and Chinese one level over other peoples, but I have no illusions that in the end prejudice, including sometimes the belief in superiority of “blood”, would prevail... however, they would be irritated by Japanese belief in their own superiority, and would resent lessons of good behavior.

European priests were advised to wash more frequently? Yes, they were. Japanese hygienic habits made the presence of the smelly barbarians difficult to bear. Can you imagine the sensation, when a big ship unloaded its human population after months on board?

Except for the Jesuits who, we have been told, were good at astronomy and similar curiosities, European priests would have what we imagine as a “medieval” frame of mind? In reality, in the texts I read, they sound sometimes as if they could be seating across the table speaking about the facts of everyday life and didn't differ much from my neighbors... until they start speaking about relics of saints and martyrdom. There we enter another dimension. This was the great obsession of those times, and it was a very cruel and bloody obsession. As for the astronomy thing, yes, Jesuits would nurture curious, practical minds and some tolerance of costumes in the East, but, although a little advanced for the time, that was not a rule.

Slaves were subject to unimaginable abuse, tortured, had their ears cut, would be killed for nothing? Yes, they were. They could be sacrificed for their masters, and that's exactly what happens in the story. Cutting the ears was an old legal punishment. But, on the other hand, in desperate situations slaves took up arms and saved the day. They fought for Malacca and saved Macau, being freed in consequence. Slaves would carry their masters weapons and were commonly employed in India as bodyguards or swordsmen of choice.

Portuguese ships were, in competition with Dutch and English ships, ridiculously slow? One Portuguese Commander, when persecuting them, even compared his own flagship to a well known landmark and watering spot on the Indian coast. “But they won't escape,” he added in the same letter. The Black Ship surely was slowwwwwwww...

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