▲ Chemulpo (now Incheon), Korea circa 1900s Photo courtesy Robert Neff
Korea, known as the Land of the Morning Calm, was anything but calm in the early years of the 20th century. Accounts of political unrest, massacres and the threat of war peppered the pages of newspapers around the world. And while these articles may have caused uneasiness in the hearts of the readers who had family members in Korea, it also inspired adventure-seeking journalists and globe-trotters to visit Korea.
One of these adventure-seekers was Siegfried Genthe – a well-educated German journalist – who arrived in Korea in the summer of 1901. Genthe traveled extensively about the Korean mainland but was obsessed with the idea of visiting Jeju Island and climbing Mount Halla. When he asked about the possibility of visiting the island, he was told that the islanders were “rougher and more bloodthirsty than the Koreans, Chinese and Japanese had ever been, and were daring pirates who hated foreigners.”
Earlier that year, Jeju Island had been the scene of a horrible massacre of Korean Christians by the islanders. The French government nearly became involved when it was feared that two French priests were among the dead. Before the French could react, the Korean government sent William Franklin Sands, an American advisor, with a large contingent of Korean soldiers to the island and quelled the uprising and saved the priests.
Genthe appealed to Sands for assistance and received from him a letter of introduction and a passport allowing him to travel to the island. But Genthe would have to find his own transportation to and from the island.
In October, accompanied by three Korean servants who served as his cook, interpreter and secretary, Genthe made his way to Chemulpo (modern Incheon) where he sought passage to the island. It was no easy matter. Foreign ships were only allowed to visit a few open ports in Korea and Jeju was not one of them.
Finally, on Oct. 11, Genthe found passage “aboard a 20-year-old, 700 ton Norwegian freighter. The ship’s officers were Scandinavian. The crew was Korean.” The ship was most likely one of the Korean government steamers – possibly the Chow Chow Foo (also known as the Han Sung) – that occasionally visited the island.
On Oct. 14 the steamer arrived off the coast of Jeju but because there was no port, goods and supplies, including Genthe, had to be transferred to shore by huge rafts. Prior to going ashore, Genthe was assured by the captain that the steamer would return in five days to pick him up – it was a promise that was never kept.
Genthe was struck by the contrasts between the islanders and the mainlanders. On the mainland the Koreans wore mainly white but the islanders wore black and reddish-brown coarse clothing with broad-brimmed felt hats. When he landed he was surprised that it was the women who seized his baggage and transported it to his lodgings. In fact, the women islanders seemed to do all the work while the men and children merely watched from afar.
Black seemed to be the dominate color on Jeju. According to Genthe, “the soil, the houses, the beach, and the people” were all black. The streets of Jeju city were equally dark and squalid. “Nasty black pigs, with their abominable paunches dragging in the dust, dug into the dirt alongside naked children and meager black dogs.”
Upon hearing of Genthe’s arrival, the governor of Jeju, Yi Chi-ho, sent a welcome party to escort him to a spacious apartment. Genthe, in appreciation, sent his interpreter to the governor’s residence with French wine, California canned fruits, Russian tea, and Japanese cigarettes as gifts. These were all well received.
Later that day, the sound of trumpets and yelling announced the arrival of the governor at Genthe’s apartment. The governor, wearing yellow silk and red shoes, presented Genthe with wine and then made a rambling speech before he got to the point – “You may at no price climb Mount Halla.”
The governor then went on to explain that “never has anybody been on the summit, neither native nor stranger. The mountain spirits would surely plague the island with bad weather, thunderstorms, poor harvest and pestilence if anyone were to approach them and disturb their rest. A bad harvest would cause the people to blame you, the foreigner, and no doubt would result in your physical harm.”
But the governor wasn’t quite telling the truth. When Charles Chaillé-Long visited Jeju in 1888 he was basically told the same thing except that governor noted:
“One hundred days of sacrifices must be performed in any case before attempting to climb the mountain in order to propitiate the spirits of Halla-San.” If the sacrifices were not made or the mountain was defiled, “the people and the island and the crops would be certainly ruined by the rains which would surely follow.”
Just as Governor Yi finished warning Genthe that he must not climb Mount Halla, a horrendous thunderstorm struck the city. The roaring winds and the pounding rain were too much for the governor who fled back to his residence convinced that the mountain spirits had spoken – no one was to climb the mountain.
This article is based mainly upon Prof. David Nemeth’s articles of Siegfried Genthe. I am indebted to Prof. Nemeth for the copies he provided.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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