▲ Vettor Pisani in Shanghai circa 1880. Photocourtesy Robert Neff Collection
It was in the early afternoon on Aug. 1, 1880, that the Italian warship Vettor Pisani sailed into Busan harbor in an attempt to be the first Western nation to negotiate a treaty with Korea. Unlike earlier attempts by the French, English, Russians and Americans, this one would be conducted by royalty – the 27-year-old Tamaso di Savoia, the Duke of Genoa, who was in command of the ship on its third voyage to the Far East (1878-1881).
Like many young Italian aristocrats, he desired adventure and, perhaps more importantly, a noble death. But, unlike other nobles, he was unpretentious and tended to downplay his royal status. One American who visited Tamaso aboard his ship described him as “very cordial and simple in his manners” and that “he preferred to be addressed simply as Captain.” But, he also knew how to utilize his royal status when needed.
As discussed in the previous issue, the situation in Busan was somewhat dire in regards to diplomatic negotiations. Tamaso felt that the possibility of negotiating a treaty was “already prejudiced by the total failure of the French and American missions.” Nonetheless, he was determined to make an effort.
He contacted the Japanese Consul Kondo Masuki and requested his aid in obtaining a meeting with the Korean Prefect of Tongnae, Sim Tong-sin. Kondo, having already been chastised by the Korean Prefect in regards to the earlier attempts by the Americans, British and French, informed Tamaso that it would be impossible to have a face-to-face meeting with the Korean Prefect. However, he assured the Italian nobleman that he would do his best to assist him – by passing on a letter to the Korean official.
In a letter written in classical Chinese, Tamaso expressed his government’s gratitude for the compassionate care given by the Korean government to the lone survivor of the Italian merchant ship Bianca Pertica – an Italian merchant ship that had been wrecked off the coast of Jeju in September 1878.
Certain that Sim Tong-sin would refuse to accept a sealed letter, Tamaso left his unsealed and had it dispatched through the Japanese consul. It is interesting to note that the prince did not sign the letter in his own name but instead had a junior officer do it. Tamaso later explained, “I did not want, in my two-fold capacity of Naval Commander and a Prince of the Royal House to expose myself to a refusal.”
The unsealed letter was an excellent ploy. The Korean official, knowing the contents of the letter, could not refuse to accept it – to do so would, in the words of Tamaso, provide the Italians the “right to manifest to [the Korean Government] in every way possible” the need it had in modifying its policies in respect to dealing with civilized West-ern nations. Sim had no choice but to respond.
Unfortunately for Tamaso, the Korean official was also a master of diplomacy. Instead of sending his response directly to Tamaso and acknowledging his presence, Sim sent the unsealed response to the Japanese consul. Over the next five days, several letters would be exchanged in this manner in which Tamaso tried to pressure the Koreans into concluding a treaty. But all efforts failed.
While in Busan, Tamaso and some of his sailors went hunting on Deer Island – which appears to have been a very popular hunting spot for the Western sailors during these failed diplomatic attempts. The Italians managed to bag two deer and 10 pheasants.
The Japanese consul also held a reception of the Italian nobleman at this home. He “prepared an entertainment in Corean style” and was somewhat apprehensive that Tamaso would not enjoy it. Fortunately, to his great relief, the Italian noble seemed to enjoy the consul’s efforts, and “tasted nearly every dish that was set before him.” While the party was a great success, the negotiations weren’t.
Although the Japanese consul professed that he had done his best for the Italians, Tamaso was not convinced. “I cannot say whether he was in bad faith, and appearances are against him,” he wrote and added, “It is also evident that Japan is interested in keeping for herself the foreign trade monopoly with Korea, and therefore, although outwardly trying to prove the contrary, Japan cannot look on with favor, and least of all facilitate, relations with other countries.” Many diplomats shared his view.
Disappointed, Tamaso and the Vettor Pisani sailed from Busan along the eastern coast of Korea and arrived at Wonsan on August 10. The arrival of the ship must have caused some trepidation amongst the Koreans because very few ventured out from their homes. The few men that they did manage to catch a glimpse of surprised them. Whereas the coolies and farmers in Japan wore nothing more than a loincloth in the heat of summer, the Koreans were fully dressed in white jackets and pants.
Tomaso sent a letter ashore asking the Prefect of Wonsan to visit him aboard the warship. While awaiting for a reply, the Italian sailors, in a bid to stay cool, swam and fished around their anchored warship – which may have explained why the Koreans had stayed in their homes.
A Korean official was sent not with a reply from the prefect, but instead to admonish the Italians for their conduct. According to the irate official, the Italian sailors’ indecency (swimming and bathing) “had prevented the villagers from leaving their houses” for several days.
Eventually the prefect did appear and the Duke entertained him aboard the warship, treating him and his large “ragged-looking” retinue to a Chinese dinner. Tamaso also presented the prefect with a basket of Italian products which included wine, liqueurs, cigars, pastries, etc. The Korean official was apprehensive to receive the gifts, fearing Korean laws, but his retinue was “less scrupulous in this regard, and there was not a single thing on board that they did not ask for, on the sly.”
It is a shame that we do not know much of this visit. Undoubtedly, there was entertainment provided by the Italian crew and Tamaso may have even have showed off his pet bear – a gift from a Russian official during an earlier visit to Vladivostok. In fact, by the time the Vettor Pisani returned to Italy in September 1881 it had become almost a miniature Noah’s Ark. The ship had some 20 crates of specimens, plants, stones, insects and animals – including the Russian bear and a live elephant (a gift from the king of Siam).
As in Busan, Tamaso’s efforts to negotiate a treaty with the Korean government failed, and he returned to Japan. Eventually, Korea and Italy did sign a treaty on June 26, 1884 making it the fifth European country to have diplomatic relations with Korea.
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