By Robert Neff
One of the most important dates in Korean history is undeniably Aug. 15.
On Aug. 15, 1945, Japan surrendered to the allies, officially ending World War II. On Aug. 15, 1948, the Republic of South Korea was established.
But there is another event — much older, that many people know about but few can recall its date.
That event is the shipwreck of the Dutch trading vessel the Sperwer.
On the same date in 1653, the Sperwer (Sparrow hawk), commanded by Captain Reijnier Egberstz, was wrecked off the coast of Jeju Island by a violent storm.
In addition to its 34-man crew, the ship was also carrying 30 passengers — members of the Dutch East Indies Company — from Nagasaki, Japan, to Taiwan.
Only 36 men made it ashore and were subsequently rescued by the Korean islanders. Except for not being allowed to leave Korea, they were, for the most part, treated fairly well — almost as if they were Koreans.
The survivors were surprised to later discover that they were not the only Dutch in Korea.
In 1627, Jan Jansz Weltevree, Theodorick Gerards and John Pieters were marooned in Korea. Gerards and Pieters eventually joined the Korean military and died in battle while Weltevree became a court favorite and even met with the Sperwer survivors.
While Weltevree’s presence may have provided comfort to them, his news did not. He cited his own conversation with the king in which he was told that he would remain in Korea for the rest of his life unless he grew wings and flew away.
Over the next 13 years the Dutch were moved about Korea. In many ways they were treated like Korean citizens — they suffered from the want of food, were punished for their misbehavior, fell in love and, unfortunately, some of them died.
But for the most part they all desired to return home. In September 1666, eight of the Dutch made a daring escape to Japan and the following year eight others were allowed to leave — only one man elected to remain in Korea — apparently he had fallen in love and had a family that he could not bear to leave.
Why was this so important?
One of the survivors was Hendrik Hamel, who later published an account of his experience. This is one of the first Western accounts about Korea and still provides us with an interesting glimpse at life during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
And for the record, the first Korean Independence Day was celebrated on June 6, 1895.
According to Horace N. Allen, the occassion was known as Pak Yong-ho Day in honor of the reforms Pak had made in the new Korean government. Ironically, the next day, Pak was declared a traitor and forced to flee for his life.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.