William Adams (generally known locally as Will Adams) was baptised in Gillingham Parish Church on 24th September 1564 (his actual birth date is uncertain). The Church Register recording this event is currently in the care of the Medway Archives Centre. Having lost his father John Adams at the age of 12 years, William then became apprenticed to Master Nicholas Diggins who owned a shipyard in Limehouse on the Thames. During the twelve years of his apprenticeship Adams learned shipbuilding, astronomy and navigation.
After completing his apprenticeship in 1588 he captained the Richard Driffield, a transport ship carrying food and ammunition to the fleet fighting the Armada. At the end of the war with Spain he retired from the Royal Navy and was married to Mary Hyn at St. Dunstan's, Stepney, who bore him a son and a daughter. Shortly after he married he worked as a pilot for the London Company of Barbary Merchants trading on the Barbary Coast.
In 1598 he went to Holland and was chosen as Pilot Major for a fleet of ships assembled for an expedition to the Far East. They set sail from Holland on 23rd June 1598 and took nearly ten months to reach the Straits of Magellan in April 1599. The five ships again set sail in September, but two returned to Holland after a storm and one was captured by the Spaniards. The remaining two ships, the <em>De Liedfe and De Hoop, set sail for Japan. The De Hoop was lost during a typhoon and the surviving ship was that of Adams, the De Liedfe, which dropped anchor off Japan's southernmost island, Kyushu, on 19 April 1600.</em>
To the Japanese, who only had small vessels, the <em>De Liedfe</em> seemed huge. The crew, with William Adams, were taken to the court of the military ruler of Japan, the Shogun, whose name was Iyeyasu Tokugawa. Iyeyasu was attracted by Adams' personality so much so that he gave him a house at Edo (present-day Tokyo) and Adams became a diplomatic advisor to the Shogun. Iyeyasu himself studied mathematics and geography under Adams, and forced him to teach artillery, navigation and astronomy to the leaders of his government.
In 1604, by order of Iyeyasu, Adams took the commander of the Uraga fleet and his men to Ito to construct an 80-ton sailing ship in the English style. He was further ordered to build a larger ship capable of navigating the oceans. The result was a 120-ton sailing ship.
In 1605, Iyeyasu abdicated the post of Shogun in favour of his son Hidetada. He then retired to Sumpu and the former Shogun rewarded Adams for his distinguished service with an estate at Hemi (within the boundaries of modern-day Yokosuka City). To run the estate he had 80 slaves over whom he had the power of life or death.
William Adams, being a sincere and solid person, was well aware of his responsibilities, and he made frequent requests to be allowed to return home to his wife and family. These were courteously refused because he had become too valuable, so he arranged through contact with the East India Company for regular payments to be made to his wife Mary in England.
Subsequently Adams married a Japanese girl, Oyoki, daughter of Kageyu Magome, a minor official at Edo castle. It proved to be a happy marriage which was blessed with two children, Joseph and Susanna.
On 11th June 1613 an English mission commanded by Captain John Saris representing the East India Company arrived and, after negotiations by Adams, Iyeyasu and the new Shogun Hidetada granted trading privileges to the English. Adams worked for the English factory under a two-year contract which when ended was not renewed. Adams then worked for the company on a freelance basis until his influence started to wane, and when Iyeyasu died in 1616 his successor had less regard for Adams.
On 16th May 1620, at the age of 56, William Adams died. In his will, dated the same day, he divided his considerable wealth equally between this families in Japan and England.