▲ While recorded foreign visitors to Jeju were extremely rare for centuries, in this historic 1901 photo French Bishop Damange and his missionary team stop briefly in Jeju. Photo from "Jeju History Through Photos, Vol. 2"
Editors note: This is the first in a special series by Korean history expert Robert Neff regarding Jeju’s role in Korea’s transformation from the Hermit Kingdom to today’s outward-looking nation.
Prior to its opening to the West in 1882, Korea was often described as a Hermit Kingdom. But was it as isolated from the world as many people believe?
In the ninth century, Khordadbeh, an Arab geographer, wrote about the trade relationship between the Arab world and Korea. He described Korea as being rich with gold and that some “Musselmans” (Arabs?) settled in Korea to engage in trade exporting ginseng, deerhorns, nails, saddles, porcelain, satin, aloes, camphor, and other products. In the early eleventh century, an international trading port was established near modern Kaesong in North Korea. Ships from China, Japan, the Loochoo Islands (Okinawa) and the Sarcaren in Arabia, often visited the port and traded such exotic items as rhinoceros horn, parrots, books, crystal and agates for rice, gold, silver, ginseng, cow livers, paper, and tiger pelts.
Korea’s early contacts with Europe occurred much later, and were not trade related but were associated with the violence of weather and war.
In 1577, Sao Sebastiao, a Portuguese lorcha, commanded by captain-major Dominges Monteiro of Macao, bound for Nagasaki, Japan, encountered a severe storm and was forced into Korean waters. As it sailed along the Korean coast it was spotted by the excited population and immediately several junks, loaded with soldiers, were launched. They intercepted the Portuguese ship, killing many, if not all the crew, and set the ship afire.
According to the Annals of Ching T’ak, in 1582, a Westerner was discovered on Jeju Island. The Westerner, who called himself Ma-ri, was dressed in black clothing and, judging from the sparse amount of information concerning him, was unable to read or write Chinese. Had he been able to write Chinese he would have been able to communicate with his Korean rescuers. He was later taken to China by the annual Korean embassy, but what became of him is unknown.
There is a great deal of speculation as to who Ma-ri was. He may have been a Catholic priest, explaining the clothing, but it seems unlikely that he would have no knowledge of Chinese. He may have been a Portuguese sailor and his name Ma-ri, may have actually referred to his profession as a mariner. One theory suggests that he was a surviving member of the Sao Sebastiao, but offers no explanation as to Ma-ri’s whereabouts prior to being discovered in Jeju.
If Ma-ri was the first European in Korea then the second was Gregorio de Céspedes, a Portuguese Jesuit who arrived in Busan on December 27, 1593. He was brought to Korea by Konishi Yukinaga, one of the commanding generals of the Japanese army during the Imjin War. General Konishi was a Christian who was troubled by the war and desired a priest to help quiet his troubled mind and to provide him with spiritual guidance. Céspedes went “from camp to camp, castle to castle” preaching, aiding, and converting Japanese soldiers until April 1594, when he returned to Japan to answer charges of religious sedition. Céspedes apparently had little, if any, contact with the Koreans during his short stay in Korea.
Not only did the Portuguese come to Korea during the Imjin War as missionaries for the Japanese army but also as mercenaries for the Chinese army. These Portuguese warriors were known as Haegui (Sea Ghosts), and were described by one witness as having “jet black skin, and yellow hair that spreads like a cushion girth.” Another witness described them as having yellow eyes, skin as black as pitch, and curly beards and hair “like a black sheep’s hair.” Although they were described as being from Bulangkuk (Portugal or Spain) they may have actually been from Portuguese territories in Africa.
Not only did they look ferocious to the Korean population but they possessed great swordsmanship and even gave a demonstration of their fencing skills to King Sunjo at the Korean palace. In addition to their weapon skill they were also accredited with other supernatural abilities including being able to stay under the sea for several nights.
According to a Korean military officer, the Haegui were able to “easily penetrate into the enemy ship” which has led some modern researchers to believe that the Haegui served as underwater demolitionists and helped sink a number of Japanese ships.
At least four Haegui were in Korea with the Chinese army, but whether they actually took part in battle is unknown. Other than a painting commemorating the Chinese assistance in ending the Imjin War in which the Haegui are portrayed, and a few brief descriptions of these legendary and controversial soldiers in old Korean records, very little evidence exists of their role in Korea during the war.
Ma-ri and the Haegui are just two of the many mysteries of early foreign encounters in Korea. Over the next couple of issues we will examine some of these early encounters with Korea, especially those dealing with Jeju Island.
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