Escape From Nagasaki

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Nagasaki, Japan

Kan'ei 10, Eleventh Month, Day 25 (December 25, 1633)

Manoel Lagoa, chief diver of Macau's Japan Fleet, had his hand cupped by his ear. At last he heard the sound he had been waiting for: Dong. . . Dong. . . Dong. . . Dong. . . Dong. . . Dong. . . Dong. . . Dong. . . Dong. . . Nine bells. It was, according to the bell towers of Nagasaki, the Hour of the Rat, what Europeans would call midnight.

Lopo Sarmento de Carvalho, the captain-major of the Japan Fleet, solemnly shook his hand. "Go with God, Manoel. We trust to you to tell Macau of our plight, and warn them of the dangers they now face."

"Thank you, Sir. Will you join me in prayer?"

"I will." Despite the great disparity in rank between them, the two knelt side by side on the rough wood floor. Manoel was the taller of the two, broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted, with long arms. They made the sign of the cross and prayed that Manoel would make a successful escape and that those left behind would not be punished for it.

They stood, and the captain-major handed him a pouch. "You will need this to pay for your escape."

Manoel nodded.

All of the Portuguese in Nagasaki had been placed under house arrest. Fortunately, unbeknownst to the Japanese, the warehouse in which the Portuguese merchants, officers and petty officers had been confined had once been used by the Portuguese merchants to hide and smuggle out missionaries. After a time, the prisoners were able to covertly uncover the old access tunnel and clear it out. They found a cache of provisions, valuables, and weapons in the tunnel, too.

Manoel could follow the tunnel to its hidden exit and thus escape the warehouse. But leaving Nagasaki would be more difficult. The captain-major had instructed him to seek Chinese aid.

Three-masted Chinese trading junks were usually docked by the hill of Yakuen, southeast of town. They were designed for long sea journeys and could take Manoel at least as far as Fuzhou or Amoy, if not all the way to Macau. The Chinese sometimes smuggled Portuguese missionaries into Japan and wouldn't have any moral objections to smuggling a Portuguese sailor out. At least, one that could pay for his passage—and a premium for a quick departure.

Of course, the Chinese would have an objection to getting caught in the attempt, so Manoel had to avoid raising a hue and cry en route. Hence the plan for him to swim to their harbor before the moon rose.

Two men lifted up the trap door. A third held a shielded lantern, its light dully illuminating the depths below the door. Manoel could see a ladder descending into the hidden basement.

"Good luck, Manoel. Use the lantern outside the tunnel only if there is no other choice," advised the captain-major.

Manoel nodded again and gingerly stepped onto the ladder. He shuddered involuntarily as it creaked under his weight, even though he knew that the sound was unlikely to be heard by the guards outside the warehouse and, if heard, would be put down to the creaking of the floorboards.

He continued down the steps, to the floor of the tiny basement, the missionary hidey-hole. The men above tied a rope to the handle of the lantern, and carefully lowered it to him. By its light, Manoel located the cache that had been removed from the tunnel and took what he thought he would need for the escape.

The entrance to the tunnel was also concealed, and it took Manoel a few moments to uncover it as he had been instructed. He shuttered the lantern, but kept it with him. The tunnel had a low ceiling, and Manoel had to walk in a low crouch in order to avoid bumping his head. The tunnel was long and by the time Manoel reached the end, his knees were hurting a bit. But he figured that they'd be okay once he could stand and "shake them out."

The captain-major had told Manoel that the warehouse, and several of the nearby buildings, had been constructed by Japanese Christians. They had secretly added the basement and tunnel. The exit of the tunnel lay in a small fenced-in garden which they had prudently dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun. There was a concealed peephole inside the base of a large stone lantern, and Manoel looked through it to make sure that the garden was unoccupied. It was.

Manoel cautiously opened the concealed exit door and crept into the garden. Looking up, he could see the stars. He was relieved; Nagasaki in winter was often cloudy, and if that had been true this evening, he might have had to either wait for the moon to rise or risk use of his lantern. He blew out the candle, set the lantern back inside the tunnel, and carefully closed the secret door.

He waited inside the garden for a few minutes, to give his eyes a chance to adapt to the dark. As he waited, he noticed a smell of wild ginger. That was a sensory reference to the Tokugawa clan crest, the aoi.

The gate to the garden had a simple latch, which he was able to quietly pry up, thus saving himself the risk of being seen or heard clambering over the fence.

Manoel crept through the shadows of the warehouse district with his hand on the sword under his cloak. He hugged the walls of the buildings he passed. The warehouses, unlike most Japanese buildings, had thick, fireproof stone walls that felt cold to Manoel's touch. Some, like the warehouse that Manoel had escaped, were two stories. They all had just one door and a few small windows.

As Manoel's eyes grew more accustomed to the dim light, he could pick out some details on the buildings as he passed them. Some were covered with a coat of plaster mixed with lamp black and polished. If Manoel reached out and touched the wall, he could feel how smooth it was.

The finer storehouses were covered with dark-gray tiles, in diagonal or horizontal rows. A space was left between the rows, and the seams closed with white plaster. Manoel could feel the transition between the seam and the tiles. High up on the wall and faintly visible against the skyglow, were long iron hooks, that could be used to hold in place wooden shielding to protect the walls when a typhoon was expected.

After some anxious minutes, Manoel made it to "Water Street," which ran along the shoreline. Here, he could smell decaying fish.

Manoel had gone alone, because Manoel was the only one who had any hope of swimming from the water nearest the tunnel terminus to where the Chinese trading junks were docked, and it would be easier for the Chinese to hide one person than a larger party.

The Chinese vessels were docked two miles away by land and half that if Manoel swam. Manoel once again considered and discarded the notion of taking the longer but seemingly easier land route. There would be too much risk of an encounter with Japanese revelers or watchmen, as it was also the route between the warehouse district and the Maruyama, the prostitutes' quarter. Moreover, it was also in a different ward, and some nights the gates between wards were closed or at least guarded. That was particularly likely if one of the Chinese ships was about to depart, to prevent unlawful trade.

Yes, he would have to swim. Or did he? Even in the starlight, Manoel could see, just across Water Street, several of the small boats, perhaps five yards long, that the Chinese called sampans. They were, in fact, tied up to mooring posts so he could board them without even getting wet. It was tempting to use one of them to get to the Chinese harbor. But a sampan traveling late at night could arouse suspicion.

Manoel cautiously poked his head up. Fortunately, any Japanese who were out on the street would likely be carrying a lantern, and Manoel would see the lantern well before they saw him. Sure, enough, there was a pair of bobbing lights coming closer. Manoel retreated deeper into a narrow gap between two buildings.

Manoel would if need be claim to be Dutch—he could do so more convincingly than most of the imprisoned Portuguese, having inherited the light-colored hair and blue eyes of his Flemish ancestors, who had settled in Terceira in the fifteenth century. But it was a last resort, as the watchmen would most likely escort him to the nearest Dutch residence, where his ruse would quickly be uncovered.

Once the bobbing lights had passed, Manoel counted to one hundred and then slowly sidled forward to the mouth of his little alley. He looked about, and satisfied that the way was clear, moved on to the street and turned right, following the street northward. After a time he reached a point at which the street turned inland.

On his back, he was wearing a cloth bag with a wooden backboard, secured by lashings. It was heavier than he would have liked, but the backboard would float, and he could tie his sheathed short sword to it.

He set down this contraption and took off his cloak. He couldn't swim well wearing his cloak. It wouldn't fit in the bag, and he couldn't leave it where it would be spotted by searchers. After a moment's hesitation, he wrapped his sword in it and tied the bundle to the backboard. His thought was that he would rest his stomach on the bundle and paddle with his arms and legs. And if that were too awkward, he could hold the board in front of him and propel himself with his legs alone. It would be even more awkward to try to take control of a fishing vessel without a sword!

Manoel left his shirt and pants on; they were less constraining and might help keep him warm.

He lowered himself over the seawall. The water here was waist-high—and cold! He had not swum since the Portuguese were imprisoned, a month ago, and it was December now.

Manoel was shivering, but he didn't try to fight it, he knew it was helping to keep him warm. In the long term, of course, it would use up energy better devoted to swimming, but the ships weren't that far away. He could swim a mile without difficulty.

Hopefully the clothing he had retained would slow down how fast the water sucked the heat, and life, out of his body. Now that he was over the initial shock, the water didn't feel quite as bad as it had at first, but then it was only up to his waist. It would be more challenging once he struck out for the Chinese harbor.

Well, there was no point in putting it off any longer. Covering his mouth with one hand, in case the shock of cold water hitting his chest forced a gasp, he pushed off with his feet, sending himself in the direction of the Chinese docks and into the deeper water that lay in-between him and them.

It was tempting to swim as fast as he could, to minimize his time in the water, but there were houses up against the seawall and he didn't want to risk the possibility that the sound of his splashing could be heard over the gentle lapping of the water against the seawall.

Soon after he entered the water, it became apparent that the tide was against him, as there was a current carrying him out. Fortunately, it was a weak one, the result of a neap tide. Still, it slowed him down a bit.

Perhaps an hour later he was inside the Chinese harbor. There appeared to be only one junk at anchor, which was unfortunate. Manoel would have to be very persuasive, as he would only have the one chance. . . . And cajoling people was not Manoel's strong suit.

Manoel slowed down his strokes to make it less likely that he would be heard by some passerby. Given how dark it was, and that he was barely above the water, he wasn't worried that he'd be seen—at least until the moment of truth when he climbed aboard the junk.

He was thinking about just how to board the junk and find the captain to plead his case without causing a commotion that would attract the attention of the Japanese when he made an unpleasant discovery: the junk was missing its rudder.

The Japanese customarily took away the rudders of Dutch and Portuguese ships when they docked at Nagasaki, so they couldn't slip away without permission, but they had not done this before with Chinese ships. One of the reasons that Manoel had been sent on his perilous mission was that the Portuguese had reason to believe that the Japanese and Dutch were conspiring to attack some Catholic port, either Macau or Manila. If so, they might have taken the Chinese rudders so they couldn't bring word to Macau and Manila, with whom the Chinese also traded.

Manoel would have to find another way out of Nagasaki.

He thought again about the sampans he had seen. Unfortunately, they didn't have sails, so the distance he could travel would be dictated by how long and how fast he could row. He could certainly make it to the mouth of the harbor, perhaps two miles away, although there was the risk that someone on shore would wonder why a sampan was heading that way, late at night, and sound the alarm.

But even if he made it out into the open sea, Manoel knew there would be problems. First, he had only minimal navigational knowledge and aids. He had a crude map and a compass, but no quadrant. The best he could do was to head west, running into the coast of China, then hope that the local authorities would ship him off to Macau. Second, the disappearance of the sampan would be noticed by morning, and that would probably result in patrol boats being sent out to look for it, and a headcount made at the warehouse. Once the Japanese realized that a Portuguese prisoner was missing, they would probably ask the Dutch warships in the harbor to help with the search. They would quickly overtake him. And third, if the weather turned foul, the sampan probably would not survive; it had a low freeboard and a light construction.

No, he wanted a sailing vessel. Manoel knew that some Japanese fishing vessels were customarily moored about half a mile east of where the sampans were docked. Those went out to sea regularly, and it was unlikely the Japanese authorities would insist that their own countrymen remove their rudders in-between fishing trips.

Still, escaping by fishing boat would not be easy. Manoel would have to make it there, hide on board, and then persuade or force the crew to take him to Macau. It would be difficult to do, but it was better than returning meekly to captivity!

What time is it? he wondered. The moon had not yet risen, but it seemed to him that there was a bit more of a glow at the eastern horizon. If so, then moon rise couldn't be far off.

He bit his lip and started swimming back the way he had come. As he did so, he mused that even if the Chinese vessel hadn't been disabled, and was willing to take him, there was no guarantee that the Chinese were ready to sail the next day, and the longer they stayed in port, the greater the risk that they would be searched. In fact, once Manoel's absence was discovered that was probably the first place the Japanese would look.

The thought at least made him marginally happier about having to swim to the fishing boat fleet. The flood tide was also weaker than when he had started swimming, so he made a bit better time returning, despite his exertions.

As he came abreast of his starting point, where the sampans were, he heard a series of eight chimes from the bell towers, marking the Hour of the Ox. The Japanese divided each night into six equal koku, and these were numbered downward from twelve at sunset to six at sunrise. It was therefore around two-forty in the morning by European reckoning.

Manoel was anxious to be safely hidden on board one of the junks before the seventh hour, that of the Tiger, because that was when the fishermen would wake up and then head for their boats, hoping for a sunrise departure.

He could also see further out the water now, as the moon had risen. It was a fat waning crescent, its horns pointing up and slightly to the right. It was still low in the eastern sky, but it nonetheless was easier to see his surroundings. He wasn't worried about being seen, as the seawall shielded him from watchmen on land and also shadowed him from the moonlight.

After perhaps ten minutes of following the curve of the seawall, the fishing junks came into view. The smallest were perhaps ten yards long, with a single mast, raked slightly forward. The largest was twenty yards long, and had two masts. At this distance—the closest was perhaps a hundred yards away—they were just dark shapes silhouetted against the clear, starlit western sky. Despite the moonlight, he couldn't make out much detail yet. Although he had been confident that they would be there, he couldn't avoid a quick sigh of relief. Not just that they were there, but that he could see them at all.

What Manoel was straining to see was whether there were any people on board on any of the boats. Despite studying the boats for some time, and getting colder in the process, he saw no signs of life on board. But it was still possible that a crewman was lying on deck, asleep. It was a pity that Manoel couldn't get a view of the decks from above, but that couldn't be helped.

He swam slower than he would under ordinary circumstances, so that if he had missed someone on board, he would be less likely to hear Manoel's approach. Better to be cold than caught, he told himself. Fortunately, at this juncture the flood tide had become advantageous, helping to carry him out to the line of boats with a minimum of noise.

Now came the big question: try for a small fishing boat or a large one? A large one would be expected by the Japanese authorities to be out at sea longer, and thus it would be longer before its failure to return was deemed suspicious, but of course it would have a larger crew for Manoel to overawe.

Manoel decided to swim for the closest boat, a single-master of intermediate length. This one, he thought, was likely to have a crew of two or three sailors.

When he got closer, Manoel could see more details. They were as he expected from walks along the harbor in happier times. The mast was supported by three lines, one running to the bow, and the other two to the stern. The sail was furled, that is, all of the battens had been folded down to the boom. The boat was secured by a single anchor line forward, and there was a dark pennant hanging from a pole at the bow, and a light-colored flag streaming from another pole at the stern.

Because of the cold, the distance felt greater than it actually was, but Manoel eventually came up to the bow of the nearest vessel and pulled himself up the anchor line. He kept low as he came onto the deck. He was relieved to find that he was still alone. He studied the other boats and the shore. There was no sign of any commotion.

He crawled along the deck, putting his ear down from time to time to listen. No voices, no snoring.

He approached the deck cabin, and peeked in the windows, which of course were of translucent paper, not glass. Still no signs of life.

He found a hatch aft of the cabin and descended into the hold. Save for fishing gear and the like, it was empty. A bulwark divided this part of the hold from the part forward; presumably, there was another hatch forward of the cabin that Manoel had overlooked. That part of the hold was probably where the fishermen stowed their catch. He should probably hide there rather than here; the fishermen would probably come for their fishing gear first, and Manoel wanted to be as far out to sea as possible before he made his move. But first he should see whether any of the supplies stored here might be of use to him.

Manoel stripped off his wet clothes. Unfortunately, he couldn't find any spare clothing on board, so he had to dry himself off with strips of straw sailcloth. Manoel's quixotic orders were to find a way to get out of Nagasaki and warn Macau, about twelve hundred miles away as the seabird flies, that a Dutch-Japanese invasion force was being assembled in Nagasaki and that Macau was a likely target. It seemed an impossible task, even to the ordinarily optimistic Manoel, but he had resolved to take it one step at a time. And at least he had accomplished step one, getting out of prison and onto a boat, undetected.

Now he needed to get some sleep while he could. Assuming the weather was fair—he prayed to the Virgin that it would be—the fishermen would paddle out to their fishing boats at daybreak, and head out for a day, or more, of fishing.

Manoel's judgment was partially vindicated by his success in reaching this fishing junk without detection. But there was still the matter of getting out of the harbor and forcing or persuading the fishermen to take him to faraway Macau. Manoel had been picked for this mission, not just for his swimming skills, but also for his fluency in Japanese.

His thoughts returned to his imprisoned comrades. We came as honest traders, he thought indignantly. If they didn't want our goods, they should have asked us to leave, not locked us up. Nor should they hold us responsible for the bad conduct of the confounded Spanish!

Manoel rummaged about the aft hold, collecting rope and other items that he thought might be helpful and whose absence would not be too suspicious. But he assured himself that even if the fishermen thought that they had been robbed, they wouldn't think the thief was still on board!

I don't understand these people, he continued brooding. The Japanese are reluctant to kill animals, but think nothing of killing me. . . . Our men are called to the faith by their desire to do good and serve the Lord, whereas their bonzes just desire to live in idleness and luxury. Our women are chaste, and theirs go unpunished for fornication. . ...

He went back on the deck, found the fore hatch, and closed it behind him. Even though it was empty, the smell of fish was strong. Manoel would have to endure it, however.

He hung his wet clothes to dry and tried to get some sleep.

And they have rejected the word of the Lord. He shook his head. If those fishermen give me any trouble, I'll put them to the sword. A pox on all Japanese!



Month 11, Day 26


Manoel was first awakened by the sound of footsteps above him, on deck. He drew his sword and readied himself for action should a fisherman, against Manoel's expectations, enter the fore hold. None did, however, and eventually Manoel forced himself to relax.

Manoel couldn't see outside, but from the choppy movement of the vessel, he judged that the boat was still making its way out of Nagasaki harbor.

At last, an hour or so, the junk's bobbing subsided into a more leisurely sway, telling him that they were amidst the swells of the open sea. It was time to make his move. Hopefully, they were far enough from their competitors so that he only had to worry about this ship's crew. He couldn't wait too long, because he couldn't be sure when the junk was planning to return to port.

Manoel emerged from the hold. The three fishermen on board didn't notice him at first, which was just as well, as the light was blinding. When they finally turned, and saw him sword in hand, long-haired, bearded, and virtually naked, they screamed, perhaps taking him for an umi no oni, a sea-ogre.

"Quiet!" he commanded. "Do as I say and you won't get hurt. In fact, I'll make you rich." He gave the treasure pouch he had taken out of the bag, and now wore around his neck, a shake. "I have gold coins in here. They're yours—if you take me to Macau. Give me trouble, and I'll cut off your heads."

Manoel studied them closely, ready for any hint that they were contemplating violent resistance. All three wore wide-brimmed straw hats, short jackets, and trousers. They appeared to all be related; from their apparent age, he guessed that they were grandfather, father, and son, respectively.

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About Iver P. Cooper

Iver P. Cooper, an intellectual property law attorney, lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and two children. Two cats and a chinchilla rule the household with iron paws. Iver has received legal writing awards from the American Patent Law Association, the U.S. Trademark Association, and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, and is the sole author of Biotechnology and the Law, now in its twenty-something edition. He has frequently contributed both fiction and nonfiction to The Grantville Gazette.


When not writing (or trying to get an “orange blob” off his chair so he can start writing), he has been known to teach swing dancing and folk dancing, or to compete in local photo club competitions. Iver adds, “I can’t get my wife to read my fiction, but she has no trouble cashing the checks.”

Iver’s story “The Chase” is in Ring of Fire II