I have always been fascinated by history’s byways and by startling encounters between peoples and cultures that we think of as totally separate from each other. Apart from challenging familiar assumptions, such moments make us contemplate the alternative worlds that might have emerged if matters had worked out slightly differently. In extreme cases, they force us to rethink our history altogether.

One of these truly odd intersections occurred in January 1614, when a strange-looking ship pulled into Acapulco, then the thriving imperial port of the Spanish-ruled realm of Mexico. The ship was a Japanese copy of a Spanish galleon, built by the lord of the Japanese city of Sendai in order to carry a mission to European powers and particularly to the Vatican.

As this last fact suggests, the mission operated in the strongly Catholic environment of the Pacific world of its time. A Spanish friar had supervised the construction of the ship, the San Juan Bautista (John the Baptist), and its captain, Hasekura Tsunenaga, was a Christian convert. Apart from seeking trade links with Europe, the lord of Sendai wanted to announce that he was happily open to receiving Christian evangelists: send us as many of the padres as you like! And that is why, in the age of Shakespeare, Japanese samurai were passing through Acapulco and Veracruz en route to Rome.