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Western gunboat diplomacy in Korea in 1880Boats and politicians maneuvering for supremacy
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승인 2011.04.23  14:50:47
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▲ Streets of Busan circa 1895 - 1905. Photo courtesy Robert Neff Collection

Many people are aware that on May 22, 1882, Korea signed its first treaty with a Western power – the United States – and subsequently ended its era of isolationism. But many people are unaware of the flurry of early treaty attempts by Western powers in 1880 and for that matter the role, albeit minor, that Jeju Island played.

In early 1880, the Italian Minister to Japan, Count Raffaele Ulisse Barbolani, made a bold suggestion to the other representatives of Western powers in Japan that they use force to open Korea. He suggested that the Germans, French, British, and Americans join the Italians in a combined naval demonstration off its coast. It was his reasoning that Korea could only understand force, and the method Japan used in 1876 to conclude its treaty with Korea only reinforced his opinion.

His proposal was met with little enthusiasm by the other members of the diplomatic community. Harry Parkes, the British minister to Japan, informed Count Barbolani that Britain did not consider this action beneficial to its own policies and would establish treaties with Korea only after another foreign power successfully did so. Parkes didn’t mention that he had suggested the same belligerent course of action to his government in 1875 and had been rebuffed for it.

Parkes and the other representatives also failed to mention that they were sending their own warships to Korea on diplomatic missions.

In the spring of 1880, a Russian warship sailed along the east coast of Korea attempting to negotiate a trade agreement but, unsurprisingly, it failed. A Japanese newspaper reported that “the Coreans, being ignorant of the benefit likely to come from opening their country, refused to give way to the persuasion of the visitor, and the man-of-war, it was said, was likely to remain.”

On May 14, the American admiral, Robert W. Shufeldt, arrived in Fusan (modern Busan) aboard the warship Ticonderonda. His mission was to try and enter into negotiations with the Korean government, but his overtures were met with measured indifference by the Korean prefect who, citing the American attack on Ganghwa Island in 1871, declared Korea would never accept any proposition for friendly intercourse with the United States, which it viewed as its enemy.

The prefect wasn’t the only one who harbored hard feelings towards the Americans. According to a Japanese newspaper, the Koreans’ hatred was so great that “even small children are disposed to show resentment at the sight” of Americans.

On May 17, at dawn, the U.S.S. Ticonderonda sailed out of Busan harbor – Shufeldt’s mission a complete failure. As the ship departed the harbor, the Korean forts fired a volley from their cannons, not as a salute to the departing admiral but as a show of strength for the Korean people. The Japanese newspaper described the event thus:

“[W]hen the American man-of-war lately left Fusan the guns at the castle were loaded with blank cartridge and fired several times, so as to make people believe that the ship was really obliged to leave by the firing.”

It may be worth noting, however, that it was Shufeldt who eventually negotiated Korea’s first treaty with the West.

Two weeks later, the British warship H.M.S. Pegasus, arrived in Busan. Although it was not there to try and open negotiations with the Korean government, it was probably there as a show-the-flag to warn away the Russians whom the British felt had designs on Korea.

While at Busan, part of the ship’s crew visited the Korean settlement on Deer Island (the large island in the middle of the harbor) and were “cheerfully received by the inhabitants, to whom they gave some small silver coins, some spirits, &c.” The British captain was quite pleased with the reception but was unaware of the activities in Busan, where the Koreans “were very much excited, and made preparations to defend themselves against the Englishmen.”

The Pegasus soon departed ostensibly bound for Vladivostok but may have actually been in search of the Russian warship along the eastern coast of the Korean peninsula. It also made a short stop at Wonsan, possibly seeking information on the Russian ship’s location.

On June 16, a French warship, the Lynx, also visited Busan on a diplomatic mission to open Korea. Like the earlier American attempt, it failed. The captain of the warship sent a letter to the Korean prefect, but apparently the prefect had not forgotten the 1866 French attack on Ganghwa Island and refused the letter – sending it back unopened.

One Japanese newspaper reported that the French had “landed 30 men, who were attacked and fired upon by 300 or 400 Coreans, and compelled to retire to their ship with a loss of 10 wounded” but this proved to be untrue.

Nonetheless, two days later, the French departed – their mission a complete failure.

The Italians were not to be left out and sent the warship Vettor Pisani, which was commanded by a young Italian nobleman – Tamaso di Savoia, the Duke of Genoa. Although it failed, the Italian attempt deserves closer examination not only because of its reference to Jeju Island or its amusing anecdotes but also because it was probably the most successful.

In the next issue we will examine the voyage of the Vettor Pisani (as we will see – a modern Noah’s Ark) and Duke Tamaso di Savoia’s attempt to make Italy the first Western nation to conclude a treaty with Korea.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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