▲ Steamship circa 1890s. Photo courtesy Robert Neff
Genthe’s first day in Jeju had hardly gone as planned. Governor Yi had informed Genthe that he was not to climb Mount Halla under any circumstances because it would anger the mountain spirits and lead to the destruction of the islanders. Almost as if in support of the governor’s declaration, a sudden and violent thunderstorm drenched the island with rain. The gods had spoken.
Genthe was unwilling to accept no for an answer. The following day he went to the governor’s residence and pressed him for permission to climb the mountain. It is not clear what caused the governor to change his mind but eventually he gave in and agreed to provide Genthe with whatever assistance he needed.
Messengers were sent to the various villages around the island informing the residents that Genthe was to leave unmolested in his attempt to scale the sacred mountain. The governor also provided Genthe with porters, supply horses, interpreters, a bodyguard and a guide who acknowledged he “had heard of the summit but [had] never been there.”
Genthe spent the rest of the day exploring the area around Jeju City. Genthe was extremely observant and faithfully noted his observations in his diary. One observation he made was the hundreds of eagles and vultures that circled a small peak near the city. The great birds had been attracted by the sickening sweet smell of hundreds of decaying bodies – massacred Christians who had been buried in shallow graves.
Early the next day, Genthe and his 12-man party set out for Mount Halla but not before the governor begged Genthe to reconsider or at least postpone his ascent for another couple of weeks when the island’s crops would be harvested. Genthe refused.
Except for being followed for some time by “children, beggars and a great crowd,” Genthe’s party was unmolested. Considering the sacredness of the mountain, the islanders’ fierce reputation and their general dislike of the governor, seems odd.
That night, intending to stay at temple but discovering too late it had been destroyed, Genthe and his party imposed themselves upon a large number of woodcutters who dwelt in a small cabin built into the crevice of the mountain.
Despite the large number of people (Genthe, his 12 men and the 23 woodcutters and their families) in the small cabin, it was bitterly cold. As many foreigners before and after him, Genthe discovered that the distribution of alcohol dispelled not only the frigidness of the weather but also the hard feelings of men compelled to do something they don’t want to do.
With the light of morning, Genthe and three men – the others refused to leave – made their way to the summit.
Genthe was impressed with the view from the summit and promptly declared that “one feels like a king at such heights.”
Genthe was probably the first Westerner to see the small lake located at the summit. He had been told by the islanders that it was extremely deep and was an access to the underworld. Thirteen years earlier, Charles Chaillé-Long claimed that there were three lakes at the summit and had been told that “Halla-san is the beginning of the world; it was there man was first created.”
Genthe spent a few hours taking measurements and pictures of the summit before he returned to the cabin. The following day he returned to Jeju City, anxious to board the steamer that the captain had promised would be waiting for him, but the steamer was not there – nor would it come during the entire time Genthe was upon the island.
For several weeks Genthe waited in vain for the steamer. During his wait he tried to visit Udo (Cow Island) off the eastern coast of Jeju but was thwarted by the Japanese fishermen who refused to assist him. Dejected, Genthe returned to Jeju City.
Genthe continued to learn as much about the island as possible. It is from his writings that we learn prior to the 19th century the islanders did not bury their dead but instead set them adrift on large rafts. His visit to the jail revealed that even though torture had been outlawed in Korea, it was still practiced on the island. He did note that the Korean jailors were not as cruel as their Chinese counterparts.
Finally, after several weeks, a ship was sighted on the horizon. Joy turned to despair when it continued to sail away from the island. He later discovered that it was a Japanese warship.
Unable to endure it any longer, Genthe hired a tiny dilapidated fishing boat to take him to the mainland. Despite everyone’s advice, he set out during rough weather and nearly paid for the attempt with his life when a storm badly battered the boat and forced him to return to Jeju for repairs.
Undaunted, as soon as the boat was repaired, Genthe set out once again. But he wasn’t alone. Several Koreans, including a teahouse madam from Mokpo who had come to the island to collect some unpaid debts, had stowed away aboard his small boat in a desperate attempt to get off the island.
Genthe almost basked in the obvious danger. In his diary he wrote: “This trip on a small boat from Jeju; to be separated from the wet death by a plank a few inches thick, is the ultimate thrill.” But Mother Nature is both fickle and cruel. Instead of a violent sea he found himself threatened with complete calmness – a calm that was so severe that he was forced to row his badly overloaded boat.
Eventually Genthe managed to get to the mainland and returned to Chemul-po where, after a short stay, he eventually went in search of other adventures.
Considering the great harrows he faced and the accomplishment of being the first Westerner to climb Mount Halla, it is strange that, for the most part, his exploits have gone unnoticed for so long.
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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