By Robert Neff
On May 13, 1883, the USS Monocacy, an American warship, sailed into Jemulpo harbor. The Monocacy’s arrival heralded two significant firsts. On board were Lucius H. Foote, the first envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of the United States to Korea, his wife, and several members of his staff including Yun Chi-ho ― a Korean he hired in Japan to serve as his Korean-Japanese interpreter. And, the Monocacy, which had taken part in the short Korean-American War of 1871, also was one of the first Western warships to fire a twenty-one gun salute with the Korean flag at its main ― “it was the first vessel of any nation to burn peaceful gunpowder in honor of the new flag.”
Foote and his party set off for Seoul on the morning of May 18. A large number of saddle horses, sedan chairs, and pack horses were provided by the Korean government for their use and Foote “was provided with a large open chair, covered by a leopard’s skin, and borne on the shoulders of eight men.”
They arrived at the Han River in the late afternoon and were conveyed across by ferries with “gaudy pavilions.” Once across, they were then treated to cigars and tea by the governor of Seoul and then continued the final part of their journey ― 9.6 kilometers to the gates of Seoul along a road lined with throngs of curious Koreans eager to get a glimpse of the Westerners.
The following afternoon Foote was entertained at the Foreign Office to conclude the Korean-American Treaty.
“The Council of Ministers were all there in full Court dress. Their dress consists of heavy robes of dark-green satin, reaching the neck of the feet, and loosely confined at the waist by a heavy belt of joined pieces of jade, polished wood, or other materials, according to the rank of the wearer. On the head is worn a round-topped hat, with fan-shaped wings sticking out behind. Their Excellencies, Minister Min You-Mok, President of the Council of Ministers, and Minister Foote, sat at the head of the table in the large room where the Americans were received. The members of the American Legation sat along the right hand side of the table, with a row of Corean officials behind them. Along the opposite side of the table sat other Corean Ministers, and behind them American naval officers. The scene was solemn and impressive in the extreme, and one which will not soon be forgotten by those who witnessed it. The rich robes of the Corean noblemen, the plain black of the American Legation, the glittering epaulettes and lace of the naval officers, added to the strange surroundings, combined to make a scene both novel and striking, the more so when it is considered that the object of the assembly was to complete the destruction of a nation’s political traditions.”
After the treaty was signed and stamped (there were actually two copies made ― one written in Chinese and the other in English) champagne was brought out and toasts were made to the health of the Korean king and the American president.
The following day, Foote also met with King Gojong, whom he described as being “a young man, with a frank, prepossessing face, slight of build, and smaller than most of his subjects.”
On May 22, the American party returned to the Monocacy at Jemulpo. According to one newspaper account:
“Minister Foote expressed himself highly gratified and a little surprised at the magnificence of his reception which certainly exceeded by far the most sanguine expectations of any one in his party. Fine quarters, with servants and all the luxuries which the city afforded, were provided, and every courtesy and attention possible was lavished upon the visitors by the officials charged with their comfort. The furniture in the buildings occupied by the naval officers had been sent from the Palace by order of the King for their special use. A military escort accompanied the visitors when they wished to walk about the city, to guard them from the too familiar curiosity of the people. No sentiment but curiosity was evinced by the people of the city and country towards the foreigners; not a single act or word of a hostile or unfriendly nature on the part of any one, high or low, was observed during the entire visit of the Americans.”
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.