▲ A Korean gentleman, circa 1900. Photo courtesy Robert Neff collection
In the drizzling rain on the morning of April 25, 1851, a small bright green lorcha arrived off the western coast of Jeju. Lorchas were three-masted vessels with Western-style hulls and upper decks and riggings of Chinese design. They were often armed and were popular as merchant ships operating in Chinese waters. This lorcha, its name lost in history, was no exception with its five cannons and a well-armed mixed crew of Portuguese and Chinese sailors. Commanding the ship was Demetrius, a Portuguese resident of Macao who “if his abilities were not great, his pretensions were small.” They were not here for trade.
Earlier that month, the Narwal, a French whaler, had run aground on a small island off the Korean peninsula. Most of the crew (29 out of 30) survived and were taken in and cared for by the Korean islanders. Although they were treated well, they were not allowed to leave. In desperation, the first mate, Arnoud, and eight others left the island in the middle of the night in a small open boat and sailed to Shanghai seeking assistance in rescuing their fellow shipmates.
Louis Charles Nicholas Maximillian de Montigny, the pretentiously named but capable French Consul of Shanghai, heard of their plight.
Usually rescue missions of this nature were conducted by naval warships, but there were no French vessels in Shanghai at that time. Montigny decided to rescue the whalers himself and quickly charted the lorcha and put together a rescue party which included his interpreter, Michel-Alexandre de Kleczkoiwski, James MacDonald (an English merchant in Shanghai), Arnoud and four other members of the Narwal’s crew. They left Shanghai on April 21 in search of the shipwreck.
The lorcha, anchored a short distance off Jeju’s coast, fired three shots to announce its arrival. Alerted by the sounds of gunfire, a group of islanders soon appeared on the beach. Montigny, accompanied by MacDonald and an escort of eight well-armed men made their way to shore in one of the lorcha’s sampans (small boats).
According to MacDonald: “The people on the beach were of the lowest class, clad in the usual wide quilted jacket and trousers of unbleached coarse hempen cloth, yet their appearance did not seem to indicate less cleanliness or comfort than that of the Chinese.”
Naturally, considering Korea’s ill-deserved reputation of treating visitors with violence, the Europeans were quite wary of the Koreans but these apprehensions were soon set to rest.
“They [the Koreans] were good humored, cheerfully collecting shells, sponges, &c., for us in hope of being rewarded with a cigar.”
Within a short time a Korean official, mounted on a small pony, arrived and began “talking in a loud key and gesticulating with some vehemence of manner” at the crowd of Koreans. When Montigny approached, the Korean official gestured “in a way not to be misunderstood” for the Europeans to return to their ship. Montigny, in response, handed the official a slip of paper upon which was written in Chinese a desire to parley with him in a house where it was quiet and out of the pouring rain.
The Korean official read it “in a loud and interrogative sort of tone, then talked on for some minutes in a vociferous voice.” While the official droned on and on, MacDonald studied the small pony, which had “a height about equal to the diameter of its master’s hat”, and contemplated taking it for a ride.
When it became apparent that the Europeans would not return to their ship, the Korean official suddenly mounted his pony and began to ride off, much to MacDonald’s disappointment.
Montigny’s official account of the incident claims that one of his French sailors assisted the Korean official to the pony and then held it while they walked, but when the road became rough the sailor inadvertently released his hold and the Korean official fled. “[F]aster than we could follow, making more noise than a magpie all the while,” added MacDonald.
In the dreariness of the rain they trudged down a narrow road lined with “stone dikes on either side.” They were not alone for part of crowd of Koreans they had met on the beach followed them in amusement.
After a short distance they came upon a small village and fort. Seeing that the fort’s gate was closed, the Europeans made their way to the first small hut in the village and sought shelter from the rain. The Koreans, undaunted by the rain, gathered around the hut and stared at the foreigners.
Summoning one of the Koreans, Montigny inquired, in written Chinese, as to the identity of the Korean official. According to Mac- Donald, “we were told in reply [that he] was a Great-Frontier-Protecting-General, on reading which I am afraid some of us laughed rather disrespectfully, but our peasant scribe was not decomposed.”
Montigny then demanded that a message be sent to the Great-Frontier-Protecting-General informing him that his guests, the Europeans, were waiting to be received. The Korean refused insisting that “the General had no time for idle conversation.”
It was at this point, angered by the perceived insult, Montigny decided to storm the fort’s walls.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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