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First Western accounts of Jeju’s ocean cultureAmerican missionaries describe the island’s pearl trade and confrontations with the Japanese
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승인 2011.01.16  20:46:05
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In early 1897, Alexander A. Pieters and Eugene Bell spent about a week on Jeju Island. Pieters was a naturalized American (born in Russia in 1871) who worked with the British and Foreign Bible Society in Seoul and Bell was a Southern Presbyterian missionary stationed in the same city. They were some of the earliest, if not the first, Western missionaries to extensively travel on the island and record their impressions, which give us some of the most detailed Western accounts of life on Jeju at the end of the 19th century.

When Charles Chaillé-Long, a member of the American legation in Seoul, visited the island in 1888, he was mainly concerned with the Mongolian influence upon the island and neglected to mention what role the sea played in the lives of the islanders. Pieters, however, was fascinated with the subject and wrote extensively – even comparing the island fishermen to those on the mainland.

Naturally, like many of the early Westerners, Pieters was interested in pearls. In Korea, pearls were somewhat common and were associated with the mystical dragon, which were often depicted holding pearls in their claw or within their mouths and were symbols of power and great healing. Koreans, who were economically able to, were said to bury their loved ones with their mouths filled with pearls or rice in the hopes of preserving the body.

Pieters may have been aware that in 1885, a pearl concession was granted to an American company allowing it to fish for pearls along the entire coast of Korea, including all islands, with the notable exception of Jeju. The American representative to Korea at the time, George C. Foulk, speculated that Jeju was excluded because “it would interfere with the fishing by native women divers [haenyeo] there for shell fish and seaweed of different kinds.”

▲ Korean fishermen circa 1920-1930. Courtesy Robert Neff Collection

Foulk was partially correct.

According to Pieters:
“[Common] oysters and all the different kinds of clams that are so plentiful on the southern and western coast of Korea are absent in Quelpart waters. [However, there is] an abundance of pearl oysters and seaweed, which are both used on the island and exported.”

Although these oysters, most likely abalone, lacked pearls, they did not lack value. “Its meat is considered a luxurious dish and one oyster costs as much as six cents on the island,” declared Pieters. Six cents was a fortune when one considers that the average Korean coolie (porter) only earned about 20 cents a day.

Seaweed was also an important product harvested from the sea. Pieters explained that there were several different kinds of seaweed gathered by the islanders. “Some of them are used as fertilizers, some are used for food and some are sold to the Japanese for making carbonate of soda. The first kind is gathered on the seashore, but the other two have to be obtained from the bottom of the sea. It is strange to say that the diving for these weeds as well as for the pearl oysters is entirely done by women.”

It is odd that the earlier Western explorer, Chaillé-Long, failed to mention these women in his report to the State Department in 1888. After all, it was common knowledge that the women of Jeju did all of the diving and, for the most part, work. Fortunately, Pieters provides us with one of the earliest Western descriptions of the haenyeo:

“Dressed in a kind of bathing suit with a sickle in one hand and a gourd with a bag tied to it in front of them, they swim out from the shore as far as half a mile: boats cannot be afforded and there dive, probably a depth of forty or fifty feet, to the bottom, cut the weeds with the sickle, of if they find a pearl oyster, tear it off from the stone, and then put it into the bag which is kept floating by the gourd. They do not go back before the bag is filled, which often takes more than half an hour. [Although] they are magnificent swimmers, one cannot help admiring their endurance, when he thinks that this work is begun in February.”

Another American, William Franklin Sands, visited the island in 1901 and observed that the haenyeo’s sickle was “the same weapon they used on the men when annoyed.”

But it wasn’t only the men of Jeju that were angering the haenyeo:
“Of late Japanese supplied with diving apparatus, have been coming to Quelpart and catching all the pearl oysters, so that the poor women have to be satisfied with the weeds only. The magistrates told us that these Japanese never asked for permission nor paid anything for catching the pearl oysters. If it is so, the imposition upon the weak Koreans is surprising.”

Many Westerners in Korea, especially missionaries, were somewhat sympathetic to the Japanese and respected them – admiring them for their Western-like ways. It seems strange, however, considering that Queen Min had been brutally murdered through Japanese intrigue in October 1895 that Pieters could not imagine the Japanese fishermen imposing upon the islanders. Over the next couple of years there would be several violent incidents involving Japanese and Korean fishermen.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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