The Galleon, the Tyrant and the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki| National Catholic Registry


Raked by the foaming waves and the howling wind, the San Felipe galleon rode the unforgiving Pacific, devoid of mainmast and rudder, its battered old hull a plaything of the storm. On board were a litany of friars – Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians – clinging for their lives to whatever handholds the grating old juggernaut could provide and praying for deliverance, if not for themselves, at least for its proud Spanish captain. and his crew. All had been alarmed by signs in the heavens – first, a blazing comet, then crosses burning in the clouds, seeming to point towards Japan.

the San Felipe had left for Acapulco in New Spain. An old workhorse heavily laden with fine Chinese silks and other riches, she was grossly overloaded, well beyond the limit for safe sailing. She had left Manila on July 12, 1596, and well into her journey she was hit hard by the last typhoon of the season. Not only did this raging storm tear off her mainmast and rudder; he took her in his rampage in Japan, finally dumping her off the west coast of Shikoku, near the port of Urado, on 19 October.

San Felipe pilot Francisco de Olandia wanted to limp his ship down the coast to Kyushu and on to Nagasaki, a Christian haven, with a makeshift rudder. The exhausted passengers, however, insisted on docking immediately, and their demands won the captain, Matías de Landecho, to their side.

The pilot duly sounded Urado harbor and returned with bad news: a sandbar was hiding under the water; the overloaded galleon would scrape the bottom; some cargo must first be unloaded to lighten the ship.

The local leader, Chōsokabe Motochika, banned this necessary move. However, he offered to tow the ship and dig a passage if necessary. He immediately applied his “offer”, sending 200 armed boats to tow the galleon directly onto this sandbar, breaking San Felipe return. Now it was a shipwreck, and now, according to Japanese law, its rich cargo was confiscated.

Motochika sent a dispatch to Japan’s warlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, with an inventory of the treasure he had just stolen, expecting a rich reward.

Hideyoshi was delighted. He immediately sent a man to confiscate the cargo – who “seized even the gold the shipwrecked Spaniards were carrying in their pockets”.

Historians have noted that Hideyoshi’s war of revenge in Korea, in addition to reconstruction following recent earthquakes, emptied its coffers. Its driving force, however, is best explained in the words of Fray Pedro Bautista, a Franciscan: “His greed devoured and swallowed up everything”.

Captain Landecho sent his pilot, accompanied by a brother interpreter, on a protest embassy to Hideyoshi, who had previously guaranteed the safety of Spanish navigation. This embassy was attacked by Hideyoshi’s own confiscator, Masuda Emon, who asked the pilot to explain how the King of Spain conquered his vast empire spanning the world. Francisco de Olandia allegedly told him that they first sent brothers to bribe the locals, who then joined the ranks of the invading Spanish troops to take over the country. A Jesuit historian wrote that the wound inflicted by this thoughtless response was still flowing with blood 120 years later.

In any case, it served as a pretext for Hideyoshi to explode in rage and demand the execution of all Catholic priests in Japan. He soon realized, however, that without the intermediary of the Jesuits he would find it difficult to make profitable deals with the Portuguese merchants bringing Chinese silks and gold from Macau. Thus, he moderates his orders: his men must gather all the religious in his capital of Osaka and in the neighboring imperial city of Kyoto. They would then cut off their ears and noses, parade them in bullock carts through Kyoto, Osaka, and nearby Sakai, and march them southwest to Nagasaki, where they would be crucified.

Ishida Mitsunari, governor of lower Kyoto, fortunately intervened. At Captain Landecho’s request, he ordered his men to cut off only the left ear lobe of the prisoners, who numbered 24. The bleeding began on Friday, January 3, 1597, at a crossroads in upper Kyoto. The youngest prisoner, Luis Ibaraki, 12, laughed when they cut off his ear, and Thomas Kozaki, 14, challenged them to cut off his, saying: “Come on, cut me off and pour the blood of Christians!

After this mutilation, all 24 were loaded onto ox carts, three martyrs each, and paraded around Kyoto, the imperial capital. All were Franciscans except the three in the last cart, the Jesuit brother Paul Miki and his two lay companions catechists. Many have called Paul Miki the best preacher in Japan; he preached incessantly along his via crucis. The two catechists, John Goto and James Kisai, will become Jesuits before mounting their crosses.

With ears dripping with blood, the three youngest – Luis, 12, Anthony, 13 and Thomas, 14 – sang the Our Father and Hail Mary from their bullock cart as others preached to the crowds , a sight that must have dazzled even the toughest. of heart.

This parade was repeated in Osaka and Sakai. Then, on January 9, the martyrs began their brutal winter trek to Nagasaki, a 27-day journey. They traveled daily from dawn to sunset in single file, sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, until they reached their confinement for the night. Brother Miki took every opportunity to preach and many wrote letters which were forwarded to us.

“You shouldn’t worry about me and my dad, Michael,” 14-year-old Thomas Kozaki wrote to his mother. “I hope to see you both very soon there in paradise.” His father was with him on this via crucis; the bloodstained letter would end up on his crucified body.

At the Jesuit Provincial, Brother Miki wrote, “Please do not worry about the three of us and our preparations for death, for by divine goodness we are going there with joy and happiness.

Perhaps the bitterest leg of their journey was their last night on earth, spent huddled, freezing, in three boats moored in Omura Bay off Togitsu, a fishing village. The men in charge feared a Christian uprising if these bloodied clerics had to be sheltered ashore, as Togitsu lay just north of Nagasaki, the Rome of Catholic Japan.

When morning came, the road to Nagasaki was indeed lined with Christians, but there was no sign of danger. Instead, the air was electric with holy silence, all Nagasaki mute with grief, as the procession of martyrs marched toward Nishi-zaka, the hilltop where their crosses awaited. The number of martyrs was now 26, two laymen having been robbed and thrown with them en route by greedy guards. Neither protested, but accepted the martyrdom as a blessing.

At the top of Nishi-zaka were the crosses. Although the climb was steep, young Luis was full of energy and asked, “Which cross is mine?” Then he ran towards the one indicated, lay down and hugged him: this ship would take him home.

Unique among the Twenty-Six, Luis had been offered a chance to save his life. The sheriff in charge of this execution had orders to crucify only 24 of them; he wanted to save this innocent boy and offered him the chance to be his page — on the condition that he stop being a Christian. “I don’t want to live in this condition,” replied the good boy, “because it is not reasonable to trade a life that has no end for one that will soon end.”

The crosses have risen; Paul Miki began his final sermon, preaching that the only way to salvation was through Christ; the three youngest boys sang a psalm: “Praise the Lord, you children”; some sang the Te Deum and the sanctus; then the coup de grace.

Japanese crucifixions ended with paired spearmen driving their spearheads into each victim’s flanks, through the heart and shoulders. On Nishi-zaka, two pairs began their work, starting at opposite ends of the row of crosses and working towards the center. All, martyrs and crowd, began to chant Jesus! Married! while the hearts of the martyrs were pierced one by one.

Before the spearmen reached the young Luis Ibaraki, he was struggling to climb to the sky, and these words of hope sprang from his lips: “Paradise, paradise! he cried, his 12-year-old heart still beating. “Jesus! Mary!”

Words that no enraged tyrant can ever hope to quell.

Luke O’Hara became a Catholic in Japan. His articles and books on the martyrs of Japan can be found on his website,


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