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The myth of Korea’s inhospitable shoresFar from a death sentence, centuries of shipwrecked sailors found humane treatment
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승인 2011.07.11  15:40:01
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▲ East coast of Korea circa 1930. Photo courtesy Robert Neff Collection

The word “Joseon” has been translated in the past as the “Land of the Morning Calm,” but in the eyes of many Westerner sailors, especially up until the late 19th century, Joseon Korea was anything but calm and peaceful.
Since the early 1790s, Western naval vessels occasionally made brief exploratory forays into the waters around the Korean peninsula.

For the most part the region was uncharted, but even the charted areas were often inaccurately so, a fact which on several occasions resulted in shipwrecks including two French warships (La Glorie and La Victorieuse) in 1846. The commander later blamed the incident on the inaccuracy of the British Admiralty charts. As many readers are well aware, shipwrecks due to poor charts and navigational errors continued throughout the early 20th century (see a previous article on the Sinking of the Bedford).

In addition to the inaccurate charts and human error was the danger of Mother Nature’s wrath. In 1890 one American naval ensign, John Baptiste Bernadou, wrote:
“The coasts of Korea are forbidding to the mariner and seem well adapted for the preservation of the seclusion that it has been so long the national policy to maintain. On the east, facing Japan, unbroken lines of steep hills, void of harbors, bend abruptly into the deep waters of the Japan Sea. To the westward countless outlying islands extend seaward many miles, liberally interspersed with rock and shoals, between which eddy swift streams of tidewater. The terrors of the Maelstrom would find their counterpart in many a Korean whirlpool, which, forming in the vicinity of some submerged ledge, will cause a large vessel to heel suddenly well over, and will swing her many points off her course in a way to make the stoutest hearted captain tremble for the safety of his charge.”

Many of the shipwrecks discussed in previous issues of The Jeju Weekly were caused by the frequent storms plaguing the sea around Korea and especially Jeju Island. But what many of these sailors feared the most was the undeserving reputation of the Koreans and, again, especially those on Jeju Island.

On Aug. 15, 1653, the Sperwer, a Dutch vessel, was shipwrecked off the coast of Jeju during a violent storm. Thirty-six men managed to make it to shore, where they were rescued by the islanders. They were provided with food, water and shelter, but the Dutch, alarmed at Koreans fierce demeanor and dress, were convinced that they were to be killed.

“We thought this was going to be our last drink and that together we were going to die,” wrote Hendrick Hamel, “so terrible was the sight of guns and war material, as well as the display of all manner of dress.”

Hamel’s famous account of the treatment he and his shipwrecked companions received at the hands of the Koreans has often been cited as proof of Korea’s ill treatment of shipwrecked survivors. The account is clearly biased in that it emphasizes the negative aspects and deemphasizes the hospitality they were afforded, which was far superior to what they would have received in northern Japan.

There were other incidences of reported Korean brutality – much more violent and barbaric. In April 1874, a Japanese ship was discovered drifting off the coast of Korea. A group of Koreans were sent out and boarded the ship. Allegedly, after discovering the 18-man crew was Japanese, they promptly beheaded the men. Unfortunately, we do not know the entire story surrounding this incident – if it indeed happened. The newspaper articles and reports do not elaborate on how the massacre was discovered – did the Koreans leave the headless bodies in the boat and allow it to drift back to Japan?

For the most part Japan and Korea treated one another’s shipwrecked victims fairly well. They were often provided with food and clothing and then sent back home through Busan and Nagasaki – occasionally with a little money.

Undoubtedly there were incidences of violence, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Surely it does not justify this description by a historian in the 1930s: “To be wrecked upon the shores of Korea, was paramount to being subject to a terrible death of torture.”

Even on the brink of war, for instance during the French-Korean conflict in 1866 and the American-Korean conflict of 1871, Koreans generally treated shipwrecked sailors humanely – even when they were citizens of belligerent nations. As with Japanese and Chinese survivors, Koreans provided Westerners with food and clothing and then made preparations to repatriate them through either Japan or China. Most of these repatriated Westerners spoke highly of their treatment by the Koreans and, in the case of those repatriated through China, denounced the treatment they received once they left Korean soil.

Not only were the shipwrecked survivors well taken care of but so too were their goods. Careful inventories were made, and the items were packed away in anticipation of being sent back with the survivors. The few accounts of petty theft are easily outnumbered by the accounts of their rescuers’ honesty and the brutal punishment meted out to Koreans caught pilfering the shipwrecked goods. Whatever items were not taken back with the repatriated survivors were burned.

Koreans also refused to accept payment or gifts for their services. In fact, several Western nations’ attempts at establishing diplomatic relations with Korea used the pretense of wanting to communicate their governments’ appreciation for the kindness displayed to their shipwrecked mariners.

It seems almost ironic that the hostilities between the United States and Korea in 1871 and the subsequent signing of the American-Korean Treaty of 1882 (the treaty that opened Korea to the West) were, to a great degree, under the pretense of protecting shipwrecked American sailors.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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