Czech ambassador honors the past
By Robert Neff
On March 15, at Incheon Foreigners’ Cemetery, Czech Ambassador to Korea, Jaroslav Olsa Jr., laid a wreath of flowers on the grave of Maximilian Taubles ― a Czech-American who died in Korea in 1886.
We know little of Taubles except that he left Europe sometime in the late 1860s or early 1870s and settled in the United States. He seems to have been restless and wandered from one side of the United States to the other. Although he found early employment as a bookkeeper he also dabbled with photography, writing and as an art critic ― especially of Japanese art which appears to have been quite popular at the time.
In February 1886, Taubles arrived in Korea as a correspondent for Harper’s Magazine ― a very popular American publication. Seoul at this time was plagued with a severe smallpox epidemic but Taubles, having been inoculated prior to coming to Korea, was unconcerned. There were no hotels in Seoul so he elected to lodge in a Korean home ― it was a fatal mistake. In the room adjoining his was the family’s sick son and apparently Taubles contracted the disease from the child.
On March 15, 1886, Taubles was dead. It is in death that he found his legacy ― the dubious honor of being the first Westerner to die in Seoul since its opening to the West in 1882. When asked why it was important to remember Taubles, the ambassador said that while his brief stay in Korea “did nothing to increase our knowledge of Korea neither in Bohemia nor elsewhere” Taubles was “still a courageous man” and deserves some recognition as being one of the first Czechs to set foot in Korea.
“Thus,” declared Osla, “paying the respect is not only a mere courtesy, but also an appreciation of a great courage of one of my compatriots.”
Since his arrival in August 2008, Olsa, who is also a published historian, has tried to raise the awareness of early Czech-Korean relations, not only during the Joseon era but also during the Japanese occupation. At the end of World War I, Czech troops in the Russian Far East provided weapons and ammunition to Korea independence fighters.
He has also taken an interest in the foreign cemeteries. According to Olsa, Yanghwajin Foreigners’ Cemetery in Seoul is important because many of those laid to rest within it were instrumental in fighting for Korea’s dream of being a powerful, strong and independent country. Incheon Foreigners’ Cemetery, while smaller and lesser known than Yanghwajin’s, is equally important for the same reasons.
“Without the efforts of these early Westerners, Korea would not be the country it is today.”