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The Samarang's visit: An early case of gunboat diplomacy
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승인 2011.07.31  17:45:38
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▲ British warships attacking Chunsan China in 1840. Photocourtesy Robert Neff Collection

Prior to the opening of Japan in 1854 by the United States, much of northeastern Asia remained relatively undiscovered by the West. Western powers, particularly Russia, France and England, dispatched warships to the Far East not only to “show the flag” but also to explore and survey the coasts. One of the most extensive early surveys of Jeju Island was conducted by HMS Samarang, a British warship commanded by Captain Sir Edward Belcher.

In the early morning of June 25, 1845, the Samarang arrived off the northeast coast of Jeju near a small island – possibly Udo. Almost immediately Belcher formed a landing party to go ashore and begin exploring. But, as they approached, a group of 50 to 60 fishermen suddenly appeared on the shore and made it clear that they did not want the foreigners to land. Belcher’s Chinese interpreter tried to communicate with the Koreans but had little success.

When one of the Koreans, perhaps frustrated by the strangers’ inability to make themselves understood, tried to push the small landing boat away, Belcher immediately seized a musket and jumped ashore. His crew members, all well-armed, realizing what their captain had done, followed him so that soon the Koreans found themselves faced with a large well-armed and determined band of foreigners.

Belcher later wrote: “They instantly perceived that we were not to be trifled with, and a better understanding was soon established between us.”

The situation was extremely tense until a Korean of some importance arrived and was able to understand Belcher’s Chinese interpreter. Belcher explained that he had not come to the island for some nefarious purpose but rather to survey the coast. Whether or not the Korean magistrate understood the concept of surveying is unclear, but it was through his efforts that the Koreans – ever increasing in number – eventually began to help the British set up camp on the beach.

It was while they were helping the Westerners that the islanders noted that the British barges used to transport supplies from the Samarang to shore were armed with cannons. The Koreans were apparently not impressed by the British brass six-pounders and promptly informed the British that they had much larger cannons at their forts.

Despite the kindness that the Koreans displayed, Belcher and his men still found the need to reassert their willingness to use physical violence.

According to various accounts written by Belcher and his crew, the arrival of the foreigners caused a great crowd of curious Koreans, allegedly in the thousands but more than likely only in the hundreds, to gather. They soon became so inquisitive and troublesome that “it became a matter of necessity to keep them aloof. With some their curiosity, or impertinence, carried them so far beyond the bounds of decorum, that they were soon taught that the white-faced foreigner was able to punish their presumption, even without the assistance of weapons.”

That night, Belcher, dubious of the earlier kindness shown to him by his Korean hosts, posted an increase guard – a precaution well taken. It was just after midnight when a large number of Koreans suddenly began running towards the British camp – each armed with a torch and yelling. Fortunately for all involved, the British sailors, armed with muskets and bayonets, were well trained and, despite being “eager for a fray,” held their fire.

Later, Belcher learned that a minor Korean official had arrived and “probably conceived it to be his duty to inspect us, and show his people that he entertained no fear.” Belcher thought it to be a “hazardous experiment” on the official’s part that could have resulted in the deaths of a great number of men. The incident did, however, demonstrate that the British were constantly alert and would not be taken unawares.

Belcher also felt that it gave him a stronger hand in subsequent transactions.

But the British weren’t the only ones keeping a vigilant guard. While the British were conducting their surveys they noted that Korean soldiers kept a constant watch on their activities from small forts that dotted the coast and higher mountain peaks. In addition, the Koreans were able to communicate the location of the Samarang as it traveled along the coast through the use of signal fires at night and smoke signals during the day. The system of signal fires was so effective that one observer noted that within five minutes the whole coast looked to be ablaze as information was rapidly passed along.

Nor were the Koreans innocent of using intimidation. From what the British observed, the Koreans were well-armed with spears, bows and arrows, and some muskets and had implied to the British that they had better cannons. Arthur Adams, the ship’s surgeon, wrote:

“During our surveying duties, where it was indispensably necessary to land and erect marks, they frequently showed symptoms of hostility, and when not opposed in a determined manner, were inclined to assume a hectoring demeanour, threatening and commanding us to retreat; but we always found that their courage consisted chiefly in a system of intimidation.”

He later added: “When they wish to intimidate their enemies, and make a great show of martial power, they collect all the heroes, with their swords and spears, and assemble by hundreds, mingling their shouts with the discordant sounds of gongs, trumpets, and a harsh shrill instrument resembling in noise the bagpipes.”

Belcher was somewhat familiar with the accounts of earlier British explorers in Korean waters and, undoubtedly, the ill-deserved reputation of Koreans reacting violently towards shipwrecked survivors. The perceived provocation by the Koreans only served to strengthen his conviction that they could not be trusted and had to be dealt with harshly. Other than the occasional fistfight, it is surprising that these initial encounters along what is presumed to be Udo’s coast did not result in violence but, as we will see, that all changes after the Samarang arrives at Jeju City.

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