The Nossa Senhora da Graça incident, Nagazaki, Japan 1610

The Nossa Senhora da Graça incident, was a four-day naval action between a Portuguese carrack and samurai junks belonging to the Arima clan near the waters of Nagasaki in 1610.

The Nossa Senhora da Graça incident, alternatively called the Madre de Deus incident, was a four-day naval action between a Portuguese carrack and samurai junks belonging to the Arima clan near the waters of Nagasaki in 1610. The richly-laden “great ship of commerce”, famed as the “black ship” by the Japanese, sank after its captain André Pessoa set the gunpowder storage on fire as the vessel was overrun by samurai. This desperate and fatal resistance impressed the Japanese at the time and memories of the event persisted even into the 19th century.


In 1543 Portuguese traders arrived in Japan initiating its first contacts with the West. Soon they established a trade post in Nagasaki, linking it with their headquarters in Goa viaMalacca. Large carracks engaged in the flourishing “Nanban trade”, introducing new goods and ideas into Japan, the most important of them being arquebuses and Christianity. Later, they engaged in triangular trade, exchanging silver from Japan with silk from China via the Portuguese settlement of Macau on the Chinese coast near Canton, since China banned direct trading with Japan. As Nagasaki grew from a fishing village to a bustling community of Jesuit missionaries and Portuguese traders, its autonomy and religious influence eventually drew the ire of the top powers of Japan. Portuguese control of the settlement was revoked in 1588, and a bugyō (governor) assumed control of Nagasaki in 1605. In addition to the Nagasaki bugyō, local municipal affairs were managed by the daikan (代官; magistrate or lieutenant-governor).

At the same time, the Portuguese near monopoly on East Asian maritime trade was increasingly being contested by new entrants. The Dutch, who had been at war with the Portuguese, made a chance landing in Japan for the first time in 1600 on the Liefde, and the navigator of that ship, the Englishman William Adams, managed to become a key advisor in the shogunal court and therein advocate for Dutch interests. The Spanish, based in the Philippines, also sought to make a presence in the Japanese trade at the expense of Portugal despite the union of the crowns of Spain and Portugal (the news of which was coolly received in Portuguese Macau). Japan itself toyed with the idea of foreign trade, issuing trading permits to a select list of worthies who would then send off “red seal ships” to waters as far as Malacca and the Moluccas.

The direct cause of the Nossa Senhora da Graça incident was the waterfront fracas on 30 November 1608 in Macau, resulting in the deaths of 50 Japanese samurai under the orders of the Captain-major André Pessoa. Since Macau did not have a permanent governor at the time, the Captain-major of the Japan Voyage acted as governor while he was in town, overriding the Senate of Macau.

In 1608, a red seal ship belonging to the Hinoe daimyo Arima Harunobu weathered in Macau after coming back from Cambodia to fetch a cargo of agarwood, intending to winter there until the monsoon of 1609. The Japanese crew behaved rowdily and walked insolently through the town in armed bands of thirty or forty. The Chinese inhabitants, greatly concerned by this, urged the Senate of Macau to curb these activities or expel the Japanese altogether. The Senate merely advised the Japanese to moderate their behaviour and disguise themselves as Chinese, but this was flatly ignored.

Since appeasement only appeared to encourage the Japanese crew, who were joined by their compatriots from a nearby shipwreck, the Portuguese authorities hardened their stance lest the Japanese tried to take over Macau. On November 30, the Japanese gang got into a serious brawl. When the Portuguese ouvidor (magistrate) came to stop the fight, he got injured and his retainers killed. Church bells were sounded in alarm following this incident, and Captain-major André Pessoa arrived at the scene with all available armed reinforcements. The Japanese fled and took refuge in two houses, which were quickly surrounded by Portuguese soldiers. Pessoa offered quarter to those who would surrender, but 27 of those in the first house refused and were gunned down when they were forced out of the house by fire. The Jesuits and the Bishop of Macau intervened as Pessoa prepared to storm the second house, and the Japanese there, numbering around 50, were induced to surrender on the promise of life and freedom. However, Pessoa had the suspected ringleaders strangled in jail, while the rest were allowed to leave Macau after signing an affidavit absolving the Portuguese from all blame.

The Japan voyage of 1609

Due to Dutch activities in Cantonese waters in 1607 and 1608, no Portuguese ship left for the Japan voyage for over two years, so the Macau carrack of 1609 was unusually richly stocked with two years’ supply for the Japanese market. This carrack, variously called the Nossa Senhora da Graça (Our Lady of Grace) or the Madre de Deus (Mother of God), left Macau on May 10, six weeks ahead of schedule because its captain André Pessoa heard news from Malacca that the Dutch were planning to attack his ship.

It was the Dutch modus operandi at the time to intercept the annual Portuguese trading fleet, especially since their capture of the Santa Catarina in 1603 had been so profitable its booty sold for more than half of the original capital of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). When the admiral of the Dutch fleet in the East learned that the Portuguese were loading an exceptionally rich carrack in Macau, he sent orders to Abraham van den Broeck, in command of two Dutch vessels in the waters of Johor, to find this ship. If they missed the carrack, the Dutch were to proceed to Japan and try to open trade there. Van den Broeck set sail on May 10, stopping by Patani to get a supply of some silk, pepper, and lead to trade in Japan. They then laid around the Taiwan Strait in wait for the Portuguese carrack to no avail, then made way into the Japanese harbour of Hirado on July 1. As it happened, the Dutch only missed the Nossa Senhora da Graça by two days, since Pessoa sailed right into a monsoon that carried the carrack way to the south, offsetting his early lead, and landed in the harbour of Nagasaki on June 29.

In Nagasaki, the bugyō Hasegawa Fujihiro (長谷川藤広) gave Pessoa more trouble than was usual for Europeans in Japan at the time. Hasegawa repeatedly tried to inspect the contents of the ship, but Pessoa always rejected, and Hasegawa temporarily relented. When all the merchants and merchandise were unloaded, Hasegawa paid the Portuguese scant courtesy and bought all the best silk at low fixed prices, ostensibly on behalf of the retired shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. For reasons not entirely clear, Hasegawa and his colleague, the daikan Murayama Tōan showed enmity to the Portuguese traders at this time whereas previous relations had been amiable. Their behaviour may have been motivated by jealousy against the influential Jesuit father João “Tçuzu” Rodrigues at Ieyasu’s side, desire for a larger share of the Portuguese trade, or merely be a reflection of Ieyasu’s increasing impatience with the Portuguese. Hasegawa and Murayama complained to Ieyasu of Portuguese insolence, pointing out that they acted with virtual extraterritoriality in Nagasaki and accusing them of hiding the best silk to sell in the black market for higher prices. They added that if Ieyasu adopted a harder line against the Portuguese, the red seal ships could compensate for some of the potential losses in the Portuguese trade. Faced with the Dutch establishment of trade at Hirado, Pessoa reconciled with Hasegawa and Murayama through the intercession of the Jesuits and a monetary bribe.

When Pessoa explained his version of events of the Macau incident to Hasegawa and suggested to forward the affidavit to Ieyasu (who was retired, but still in charge), Hasegawa advised Pessoa to do nothing of the sort. Hasegawa explained that while Ieyasu was mindful of the truculent behaviours of the Japanese abroad, he would be forced to take his countrymen’s side as a matter of principle if the matter was brought up officially. Pessoa was not fully convinced by this argument, and drew up an unofficial memorandum of the Portuguese case for Honda Masazumi, Ieyasu’s handler of foreign affairs, much to the displeasure of Hasegawa and Murayama, who wrongly suspected that Pessoa had also complained about the two in the memorandum. In any case, Honda, with authorization from Ieyasu, gave Pessoa’s envoy written assurances that Japanese sailors would be forbidden to travel to Macau, and any who did could be handled according to Portuguese laws.

Outwardly, Hasegawa still put Portuguese interests in mind as it was in his best interests to keep the Portuguese trade alive in Nagasaki. He arranged to have the Portuguese envoys arrive in Ieyasu’s court atSunpu before those of the Dutch trading party, even though Ieyasu chose to grant an audience to the Dutch envoys first. The Dutch entry provided Ieyasu an opportunity to break the Portuguese monopoly on Chinese silk, and the delighted ex-shogun gave the Dutch permission to establish a trading post anywhere in Japan without the restriction on prices like the Portuguese had. Hasegawa apparently took the Portuguese side and relayed information of Dutch activities to the Portuguese; however, Pessoa and the Macanese merchants were still suspicious of Hasegawa’s intentions and resolved to petition Ieyasu directly to complain about Hasegawa and Murayama. The Jesuits were horrified when they found out about Pessoa’s decision due to their knowledge that Hasegawa’s sister Onatsu (お夏) was a favourite concubine of Ieyasu, “so much so, that if she said black was white, [Ieyasu] would believe it”. The fathers used all sorts of rhetoric they could muster, including the threat of excommunication, to dissuade Pessoa from lodging the complaint. Pessoa desisted, but the damage had already been done, since the Japanese interpreter hired to translate the list of grievances showed it to the bugyō himself. Hasegawa, in great anger, swore to get even with Pessoa dead or alive.

In September 1609, the Japanese survivors of the Macau affair of 1608 had come back to tell their version of events to their lord Arima Harunobu, and the news was reported to Ieyasu. The ex-shogun reprimanded Hasegawa for trying to hide the matter, and ordered him to make a full investigation. Hasegawa drew up a lengthy report taking the side of Arima, who wanted revenge for his men, saying the Macau affidavits had been attained by the Portuguese under duress and should be considered void. Both Hasegawa and Arima advocated for the forcible takeover of the Nossa Senhora da Graça and its cargo, but Ieyasu was hesitant on this point since such a move could endanger the annual Nagasaki-Macau trade. The final push Ieyasu needed came unexpectedly, when a Spanish ship sailing from Manila to Mexico was wrecked off the coast of eastern Japan in the same month. When Ieyasu received the Spanish survivors in his court at Sunpu, he asked their leader Rodrigo de Vivero y Aberrucia, the newly replaced governor of the Philippines, if the Spaniards could supply the bulk of silk imports to Japan like the Portuguese. Aberrucia rashly replied that they could easily send three ships to Japan yearly. Ieyasu, now convinced that he could replace the Portuguese merchants with the Spaniards, the Dutch, and his own red seal ships, ordered Hasegawa and Arima to arrest Pessoa at all costs.

The battle for the black ship

Preparations and actions of the first night

Through the Christian community in Japan, Pessoa was informed of the intrigues against him and promptly prepared for defence and departure. He prepared a large quantity of hand grenades and ammunition aboard the ship, but due to the large size of the cargo, the ship was not ready to sail until after New Years Day in 1610, whereas previous Macanese vessels usually returned before Christmas. While the ship was being loaded, Arima tried to entice Pessoa to come ashore with offers of hospitality, saying that he had been sent to Nagasaki only to negotiate silk prices, and that the high officials in Sunpu only wanted Pessoa to give his account of the Macau events in person—he would be pardoned as a foreigner even if he was found guilty. Many Portuguese believed Arima, but not Pessoa, who knew Arima had assembled a force of 1200 samurai against him. Pessoa now would not go ashore even for Mass, and ordered his crew to come aboard the carrack to set sail. However, this was delayed as some crew believed that the current crisis was merely Pessoa’s personal feud and dragged their feet, while most who had wanted to embark were obstructed by Japanese guards. By the time Arima attacked the carrack on January 3, only about 50 Europeans were on board with some black slaves and lascars.

Before they struck, Arima, Hasegawa, and Murayama jointly sent a message to the Jesuits justifying their impending attack on the carrack with the fact that Pessoa was trying to escape Japanese justice. They followed with another message suggesting that if the Portuguese crew would give up their captain, the matter would be settled. The Jesuits responded that it was not in Portuguese culture to surrender their captains.

At night, Arima’s armada of junks full of shouting men approached the Nossa Senhora da Graça, which was unlit and quiet in stark contrast. Some of Pessoa’s officers wanted to fire on the mob, being lit by the torches they carry, but Pessoa refused to take the responsibility of opening hostilities, and so the procedures of setting sail and weighing anchor continued quietly in the darkness. The Japanese shot first, firing two volleys of muskets and arrows, and Pessoa responded with two successive broadsides of five guns apiece, with flutes and trumpets playing after each volley to add insult to injury. The Japanese flotilla scattered and retreated for the night as the Portuguese carrack anchored off Fukabori (深堀) for lack of wind.

Hasegawa assumed that the battle was lost and sent a courier to Sunpu carrying the news. Ieyasu received the news in great rage, and ordered all Portuguese in Nagasaki to be executed, including Jesuit missionaries. This order was never carried out, as the courier returned to Nagasaki to find the situation greatly changed.

The second and third days

The battle carried on with minor variations for the next two nights, with half-hearted parleys carried out in daytime since the Japanese apparently did not dare to attack during the day. In addition to repeating the manoeuvers of the first night, Arima tried a variety of different methods to subdue the ship. First he tried sending two samurai to board the ship in disguise and kill Pessoa on deck, but this failed as the two were not allowed onto the ship. He then sent divers to cut the cables of the ship’s anchor, but this was also unsuccessful. On the third night Arima sent forth a flotilla of fire ships, but they all drifted off in the wind save one, which slammed into the bow cable of the carrack but was cleared without much difficulty.

During the third day Arima sent a message to Pessoa saying that he wished to renew negotiations about the silk prices, and was willing to send hostages aboard to prove his sincerity, provided that the carrack stayed where it was. Pessoa, in return, demanded the sons of both Arima Harunobu and Murayama Toan, and that he be allowed to take the ship to the neighbouring anchorage of Fukuda (福田), where he could wait for favourable winds to go back to Macau. Arima gave no reply, but Hasegawa was furious when he heard about the exchange, telling Pessoa in a message that Arima had no authority to make such a proposal, and on the contrary had direct orders to kill Pessoa. Hasegawa added that if Pessoa surrendered himself and let the cargo be sold at a price decided by the Japanese, he could intercede on Pessoa’s behalf. Pessoa politely declined further negotiations as long as the Japanese continued hostilities.

The final night

On the morning of January 6, 1610, a favourable breeze made it possible for Pessoa to move his ship to an inlet near Fukuda, but no further. Seeing that his prey was about to get away, Arima gave chase in a flotilla led by a huge tower-junk. This junk was built by lashing two large boats together, upon which a wooden siege tower as tall as the carrack’s deck was erected. The tower was covered with wet hides to protect it against Portuguese fire, and had openings for the 500 archers and musketeers inside to shoot out of. With a total of around 3000 samurai due to reinforcements in the last three days, the flotilla tried to approach the carrack under the cover of the tower-junk.

Between 8 and 9 o’clock at night the flotilla closed in at the carrack’s stern, where only one of the two chase guns could be used to fend off the attack since the other had been moved to the prow to protect the ship’s cables. A Japanese Christian captain led the charge, rallying his fellow coreligionists with the reasoning that if the carrack was not destroyed or captured, Ieyasu would turn his wrath onto the Christian community and the churches would be destroyed. A few Japanese succeeded in boarding the ship but were promptly cut down (Pessoa himself apparently killed two) or were forced to jump into the water.

The Portuguese were able to fend off the smaller crafts with hand grenades, but they made little effect on the floating tower, which grappled the poop deck. Up to this point the Portuguese casualties had been few, with only four or five Portuguese along with a few Africans and lascars killed, while the Japanese dead were estimated at several hundred. However, six hours into the fighting, a shot from the tower-junk hit a fire pot that a Portuguese soldier was about to throw, smashing it onto the gunpowder at his feet. This started a conflagration that spread through the deck and set the mizzen sail ablaze. Pessoa and his men retreated to the forecastle, where they realized that they did not have enough men to simultaneously fight the fire and the Japanese boarders. At this point Pessoa ordered the ship’s magazine to be set on fire since he would rather die than surrender. When the ship’s purser hesitated, Pessoa cast away his sword and shield and picked up a crucifix, then he exclaimed: “Blessed be thou, oh Lord, since thou willest that all this should end!” He then told his crew to save themselves as he went down to start the fire himself. The Nossa Senhora da Graça then blew up in two successive explosions, split into two, and sank with cargo, crew, and boarders alike. The Japanese killed all they could see swimming in the water, but a few survivors made it onto the shore to safety. André Pessoa’s body, however, was never found.


The remaining Portuguese merchants and missionaries were naturally quite concerned about their fates, especially since Ieyasu had personally ordered their execution. Arima, a Christian himself, apparently regretted what he had done and interceded on the Jesuits’ behalf. Ieyasu himself had a change of heart since he was convinced that that foreign trade would cease without the missionaries. Eventually, the merchants were allowed to leave for Macau with their property while the missionaries could stay. (With the notable exception of Ieyasu’s Jesuit translator João “Tçuzu” Rodrigues, who was replaced by William Adams.) In March 1610, Hasegawa told the leaving merchants to “not cut the thread of trade, but arrange for at least a small vessel to come this year, and the Great Ship the next, when all would be well.”

Since the Portuguese settlement of Macau greatly depended on the Japan trade, the Senate of Macau decided it was prudent to send an envoy to Japan to negotiate the resumption of trade officially. They were not able to send a ship to Japan until summer 1611, when an embassy led by Dom Nuno Soutomaior reached the court of Ieyasu in August. By this time Ieyasu was quite disillusioned about his previous hopes of having the Dutch and Spaniards replace the Portuguese traders, since the Dutch was not able to come in 1610 as their ships intended for Japan were caught in François de Wittert’s defeat in the First Battle of Playa Honda by Spain, and Spain’s own contribution to the Japan trade in March 1611 was found to be disappointing. In addition, contrary to Hasegawa’s previous assurances to Ieyasu, silk imports from red seal ships could not compare with those from the “great ship of commerce”, since the Portuguese enjoyed a near-exclusive direct access to the Canton silk market due to the Chinese ban on Japanese trade. Therefore, both sides were eager to resume the annual Japan trade. Blame for the Nossa Senhora da Graça incident was placed squarely on the dead André Pessoa for refusing to surrender when asked, and Ieyasu gave his permission for the “great ship” to come to Nagasaki as before. After another trip to the court of Ieyasu in 1612 to clear up the terms of trade, the São Felipe e Santiago became the first Portuguese carrack to trade in Nagasaki after the two-year hiatus.

Nevertheless, Pessoa’s resistance ultimately harmed Portuguese trade and missionary activities in the long run, since it reaffirmed that the Portuguese were a troublesome people in the eyes of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Nossa Senhora da Graça incident was one of many incidents that made Ieyasu and his successors move away from their earlier toleration of the Portuguese in favour of the Dutch. In 1639, the Portuguese were expelled from Japan altogether as the Dutch, being resettled to Nagasaki, became the only European presence allowed in Japan during the shogunate’s enforcement of their isolationist sakokupolicy.


When the Nossa Senhora da Graça sank, its cargo mostly consisted of about 3000 piculs of unsold Chinese silk and 160 crates of silver bullion; altogether, the total loss was estimated at more than a million in gold. Recovery efforts have persisted from the night of the sinking—when 200 floating baskets of silk were picked up with grappling hooks—right down to modern times, but the majority of the treasure caches have yet to be found. These efforts centered around the area where the carrack was recorded to have sunk, 35 fathoms (64 m) under the sea off the island of Koyagi, Nagasaki.

Of the 150 or 160 crates of silver known to be on board the vessel, 70 were retrieved by a merchant of Hirado in 1617. Later salvage efforts only turned up three bars of silver and a few trinkets in 1653, and a cannon and some silver in 1658. Modern attempts from 1928 to 1933 found another cannon (now placed at the front door of the Tenri Central Library in Nara), two iron helmets, an anchor, some oyster-shell window panes, an astrolabe, among others. A suspected wreck of the Nossa Senhora da Graça was discovered by the local carpenter and amateur underwater archaeologist Matsumoto Shizuo in the period of 1987–2000, 600 m from Fukuda and 45 m underwater. Matsumoto erected a life-sized Virgin Mary statue in the nearest island of Matsushima (松島) to commemorate the occasion.


The British historian C. R. Boxer noted the great effect that Pessoa’s actions had on how the Japanese see Portuguese people. According to Boxer, the event apparently gave the Japanese an exaggerated impression of the fighting qualities of the Portuguese, as well as appealing to the Japanese ideal of bushido due to Pessoa’s rather un-Christian act of suicide. As such, stories of the event were told and retold again over the next hundred years, often in an exaggerated and wildly inaccurate manner, and found themselves embedded as part of local folklore.

A direct reference to the event can be found in 1808, during Japan’s period of self-imposed isolation, when the British frigate HMS Phaeton entered Nagasaki harbour to prey on Dutch vessels in an offshoot of theNapoleonic Wars. The Nagasaki bugyō, somewhat inaccurately, threatened to sink the unwelcome warship “as the Madre de Deus had been burned and sunk some two hundred years before”.

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