(572) First Westerners in Korea
Who were the first Westerners to visit Korea? We will probably learn their names, but there is little doubt that over the last two millennia, a number people from the Far West have made it to this Far Eastern peninsula. Some of them may have been slaves while most were probably of the merchant and mercenary sort.
Alas, evidence of these early visits has been lost. In all likelihood, none of these visitors ever wrote down his or her experiences. One should not be surprised about this ― after all, until less than a hundred years ago, the average human was illiterate. And at any rate, even if records were ever made, they have not survived.
Therefore, the recorded history of European visits to Korea starts in the late 16th century. This was when Europeans began to visit the coast of East Asia. Natives of the Iberian Peninsula ― Spaniards and Portuguese ― were the first to arrive. They were soon followed by Dutch and British visitors.
It is known from records that in the early 1580s a Western sailor was found on the Korean coast ― probably having been shipwrecked. Nobody could communicate with this strange man who was eventually dispatched to China and then disappeared from the historical record.
In 1592, Korea was invaded by the then supreme ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At the time, Christianity was popular in Japan, so a least one Western missionary was known to accompany Japanese forces during the invasion (many Japanese troops were Christians). It is less known that a small number of Iberian mercenaries were present with Chinese troops who took part in the 1592-98 war on the Korean side.
In the 17th century, there are two known cases of Westerners visiting Korea and staying here. In both cases, the Westerners were Dutch and they found themselves in Korea involuntarily, while on their way to/from the Dutch trade outpost in Japan.
From the 1630s, the Japanese government, motivated by its fear of Christianity, banned nearly all contact with Christian nations. An exception was made for the Dutch, who were allowed to maintain a small trade post in Nagasaki. On their way to and from there, Dutch ships had to travel in the dangerous waters off the Korean coast.
The Korean state of the time had a very similar approach to foreigners. A small number of Japanese people were allowed to reside near present-day Busan and the Chinese could send occasional official missions to Seoul. But Westerners, if discovered in Korea, were not allowed to leave. It was seen as a reasonable security precaution: the Korean government believed (rightly) that the country was vulnerable to foreign aggression, and did not want too much to be known about Korea’s internal situation by foreigners.
Therefore, when in 1627, a group of Dutch sailors landed on Jeju Island in search of fresh water, they were taken prisoner and never allowed to leave the country. They were well looked after, however ― all three were employed as military advisors, dealing with gunnery and firearms.
Two of the three died during the Manchu invasions in the 1630s, while Jan Jansz Weltevree, the survivor of the group, lived a seemingly happy life in Korea. He had a good salary, married a Korean woman, with whom he had at least two children. Weltevree lived a long life by the standards of the time ― he was almost 60 when he was last mentioned in historical records. In Korea he was known as Park Yon.
After nearly three decades spent in Korea, Weltevree was sent to Jeju with a special mission. His task was to translate for a large number of marooned sailors. In 1653, the Dutch “Sperwer” was shipwrecked near Jeju with 36 sailors surviving the disaster.
In dealing with the Sperwer castaways, the Korean government followed its usual routine. They were allowed to stay and were given reasonably well-paid jobs in the military, but it was made clear that they would never be allowed to leave the country. The survivors of Sperwer proved to be a rather stubborn lot, most of them tried every means they could to escape ― often with rather sad consequences for themselves and their livelihood.
Finally they would succeed. In 1666, after 13 years in Korea, a group of eight survivors managed to flee to Japan. After some diplomatic negotiations and with much help from the Japanese authorities, seven other sailors were also given permission to leave Korea permanently, whilst one Dutchman, being content with his life, decided to stay in Korea for good.
The bookkeeper of the unlucky ship, Hendrick Hamel, upon his return to the Netherlands wrote a detailed description of Korea. The book remained the major source of information about the country for nearly two centuries and was translated into a number of European languages.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.