(575) First steamers
In the summer of 1845, the authorities in southern coastal areas of Korea reported a sighting of some unusual ships. A local magistrate in Jeolla Province described it in some detail: “The smoke billowed up into the air from a tall chimney, and two devices were rotating on both sides of the ship.”
As one might guess, this was an accurate description of a paddle steamer of that period. The ship in question was the HMS Samarang, which was “employed surveying the islands of the Eastern Archipelago. Her crew could not resist their imperialist instincts, and used a gunnery exercise to impress the locals. Impressed they were: the technical superiority of Western guns was all too clear.
The invention of the steamship was one of the major turning points in human history. When in 1807 the North River Steamboat (a.k.a. Clermont) launched a regular passenger service between New York City and Albany, this was a sign of new times. Early steamships were not necessarily more economical or even faster than sailing ships. But they were far more flexible, could keep schedules and got to areas which no sailing ship could go. In essence, it was the steamship, together with the railway, which heralded the start of the modern age.
The first known sighting of a steamship in Korea took place in 1832 when its coast was approached by British steamer Lord Amhurst, which was on secret mission to China. Since then, sighting of unbelievably huge smoke-shrouded ships became increasingly common.
The arrival of the Western ships and the aggressive stance of Westerners who demanded a right to trade in Korea produced a mixed reaction at the Seoul court. More or less everybody saw it as a challenge to the policy of deliberate self-isolation Korea had been following for centuries. Korean dignitaries did not agree though on what should be done.
Some advocated even stricter isolation, and temporarily, this line prevailed. But there was also a powerful group of people who were ready to engage with the new world on its own terms, who believed that Korea should master new science and technology.
In the late 1860s Korean technicians, encouraged by Pak Kyu-su, a far-sighted and charismatic governor of Pyongyang, even tried to restore a captured Western steam engine. They came into possession of the engine when HSS General Sherman was sunken by the Koreans in 1866 while trying to get to Pyongyang by the Taedong River.
The engine suffered only minor damage, but nonetheless the task could not be handled at the level of technology then available to Korean experts. It seems that they managed to re-assemble the engine and even started it, which was actually a large success. But the power output was not even remotely sufficient for any practical use.
At any rate, after the Ganghwa Treaty of 1876, Koreans could learn more about the new ships, made of iron and moved by the power of steam, not wind or human muscles. In the late 1870s lengthy and accurate description of those ships were produced by Korean officials who visited Japan. From around 1880 the Japanese steamers began to regularly visit Korean ports.
By that time Korean reformers and Korean conservatives alike realized the significance of the new technology. It was decided to apply it to a major problem the Korean government faced since times immemorial: the grain transportation. In old Korea, taxes were often paid in kind, and a large amount of rice had to be moved to Seoul granaries from southern provinces, using small and unreliable vessels.
It would have been unrealistic to expect Koreans to have been able to build their own steamers any time soon, so the court decided to charter a foreign vessel. In 1883 Korea acquired its first steam ship, a small (600-ton) paddle steamer. It was chartered from a British company in China, and used to move grain from southern provinces to Seoul. From then such chartered ships were widely used by the Seoul government.
Soon the government decided to take the next step, and purchased a few ships. It was assumed that those ships would be manned by foreign crews. To run this growing fleet, in 1892 a state-owned shipping company, Yiunsa, was established.
At the time of its foundation, the company owned three larger vessels: two 400-ton steamers and one 1,000-ton steamer as well as a number of steamboats. They served the coastal routes, keeping Seoul well stocked with grain, and also sailed to the major ports of China and Japan, both countries being Korea’s major trade partners.
In 1893 King Gojong undertook the first attempt to establish a modern navy. A school to train future officers was established, and in 1903 Korea purchased its first modern military ship, Yangmo. It was a British-built cargo vessel, and meant to be used largely for training purposes. Another ship was bought in Japan in 1904. Unlike Yangmo, it had three guns mounted, and was used for patrolling coastal waters.
But the naval dream did not come true until much later, and for the first half of the 20th century Korean vessels remained a rare sight in Busan and Incheon. Most of the country’s shipping was done by foreign companies, and this situation remained unchanged until the 1960s.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.