▲ A drawing depicting Korea in the late 1870s, taken from the L’illustrazione Popolare (an Italian illustrated newspaper). Photo courtesy Robert Neff
Sometime in the summer of 1801, a small Portuguese brig, the Sto Antonio, departed Timor bound for Macao. The ship’s primary cargo appears to have been people- passengers and slaves of various nationalities. It is unclear what sparked the violence, but while out at sea the passengers and slaves suddenly attacked and killed the ship’s ten-man crew. The mutiny was obviously poorly thought-out as none of the mutineers knew how to navigate. With no crew the ship was at the mercy of the elements and drifted north.
Later that summer, on a windy day, the Sto Antonio appeared off the coast of Jeju. Of the 40 people who had departed Timor only a dozen or so still survived and they were in poor shape. Desperately needing water, they chose amongst themselves five young men, Ferdinando, 25, Andrei, 24, Venancio, 22, Fernando, 32, and Mariano,32, to go ashore and find water. In a small boat laden with empty water casks and buckets the five men rowed ashore unaware that they were being observed by Koreans.
As the men filled their water casks the wind suddenly strengthened and forced the Sto Antonio away from the coast. The mutineers aboard the ship fired a cannon several times in a desperate attempt to alert the landing party but it was too late and the ship soon disappeared from view.
The landing party was quickly taken into custody by Jeju officials, and questioned. According to Chong Tong-yu (1744-1808), the men wore brightly-colored clothing, “but no shoes, they trod the dirt with bare feet, no different from beasts’ hooves.” They were adorned with earrings and rosaries, and four men had shaven heads that they covered with red-spotted scarves. It was noted later, after their hair had grown back, that the hair “was as curly as sheep’s hair.”
The foreigners were unable to read or write Chinese characters but instead tried to communicate by writing words in a strange language “that looked like tangled threads.” Eventually more than 100 of the foreigners’ words were translated into Korean including their names and ages.
The Koreans were fascinated with Fernando and Mariano, whom they described as having “skin as black as lacquer.” At first the Koreans thought that the men had intentionally covered themselves with lacquer, but Fernando and Mariano assured them that they were born with black skin, as were many people in their homeland in the south. This was met by disbelief and the Jeju officials decided to test them: “To try them and make sure they were really from the south, a chestnut was shown and they said it could be found in their country. After being shown rhinoceros horn, they gestured with their hands and heads and mouths, showing their teeth, adding that these animals lived in their country. Rice, soup, fish, vegetables, rice cakes, noodles, wine, soy sauce, gold, silver, copper, tin, thin silk and cotton textiles were brought, and they said that nothing was unknown to them.”
Satisfied that the foreigners were telling the truth, they were well treated, and soon moved to Seoul where they were sent to China with the tribute embassy in October 1801. What should have been a joyous occasion for the men was instead filled with sorrow and disappointment. While en route to China, one of them fell sick and died. When they arrived in China, the Chinese government refused to accept them; claiming that it did not know their home country and thus could not repatriate them. The Koreans were forced to return them to Jeju Island, where, in 1805, another man died from illness.
There appears to have been another attempt by the Korean government to send the three men to China to be repatriated, but the details, and the men’s final fates, are still hidden in the past.
While the men may have cursed their own fate, their abandonment in Korea may have actually saved their lives. After the Sto Antonio was forced away from Jeju by the wind, it drifted to the Gotos Islands of Japan where it was captured by the Japanese and taken to Nagasaki. The Chinese and the Indian survivors were sent to China, while the others were turned over to the Dutch authorities in Nagasaki. The Dutch, in turn, questioned their wards and then sent them to Macao where they were punished, most likely by death, for their roles in the mutiny aboard the Sto Antonio.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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