Early British Intercourse with Korea

Early British Intercourse with Korea

Lord Amherst’s career is not usually regarded as one of the most glorious of the British diplomats'. He is best known as the Governor-General of India who, in January 1824, ordered the troops in at the start of the First Anglo-Burmese War “to humble the overweening pride and arrogance of the Burmese monarch" and to bring conflict between the two countries “to a speedy termination." The war lasted two years; 15,000 of the 40,000 in expeditionary force died, and the East India Company lost £13 million and its monopoly in the China trade.

However, although this is the best known, it is not the only Asian episode in Amherst’s diplomatic career. In 1816, the East India Company’s Court of Directors, bridling from “the increasing vexatious impositions of the local authorities of Canton" decided a mission should be sent to Peking “to obtain due protection and security for the British trade." Amherst, latterly ambassador to the court of Sicily, was chosen to head it.

The naval part of the expedition was entrusted to Captain Murray Maxwell, commander of HMS Alceste, a frigate of forty-six guns, with Captain Basil Hall, commanding His Majesty’s brig Lyra, in support.

The mission was a failure. Amherst’s refusal to kowtow to the Emperor meant he was refused even so much as an audience. However, it bore other fruit. As the ships were not required in China in the five months between Amherst’s departure (from Taku) for Peking and his return (overland) to Canton, HMS Alceste and HMS Lyra were sent on a survey of the coast of Korea.

Their journey represents one of the very first encounters between the peoples of Britain and Korea. Captain Hall’s account of it is the most detailed description of the country and its people by a European after Hendrick Hamel’s more famous Journal of the Unfortunate Voyage of the Sperwer, of 1668. Now, 200 years after its initial publication, we have decided to give the story of Britain’s first contacts with Korea a fresh airing.

Portrait of Lord Amherst, taken from the frontispiece to Henry Ellis’ Journal of the Proceedings of the Late Embassy to China (1817).

The embassy, which was financed by the East India Company to obtain redress for its grievances against the Viceroy of Canton, was a failure. The Chinese Emperor insisted on seeing Amherst privately as soon as he arrived in Peking on 29th August 1816. Amherst, thinking the Emperor planned to demand he perform the kowtow during the embassy’s public reception, begged ill health and refused to go.

Incensed by the Ambassador’s refusal, the Emperor ordered that the British depart forthwith. The British pleaded, but were told the decision was final and that “even compliance with the Tartar ceremony would now be unavailing." They were sent a “handsome breakfast”, but there the embassy terminated.

The British, however, were permitted to return overland to Canton and did not leave China until January 1817—sufficient time for their naval escort to complete an exploration of the Korean coast and Okinawa.

Letter from Richard Cocks to William Adams and Richard Wickham at Edo, dated Christmas Eve, 1613. In it, Cocks requests them to obtain a receipt from the king of Firando for a payment made to him. The passage in Japanese script beneath is probably the receipt in question.

The East India Company’s first mission to Japan was led by Captain John Saris, who reached Hirado in his ship, the Globe, in June 1613. After setting up a factory there, he left in December of the same year, leaving behind seven merchants—Richard Cocks, Richard Wickham, Edmund Sayers, Tempest Peacock, William Eaton, Walter Carwarden, and William Nealson.

William Adams, the first Englishman in Japan, had arrived before them, in 1600, when the Dutch ship Liefde on which he was sailing was wrecked. Adams became a confidante of the Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa and later acted as go-between with the English representatives.

John Saris made an attempt to open trade with Korea by sending Edmund Sayers there from the island of Tsushima. However, the effort led nowhere, as Richard Cocks explained in his letter to the factors in Bantam of 25th November 1614. (The letter, which travelled with the Sea Adventure to Siam, did not reach Bantam until 19th May 1617). 

Most early maps depict Korea as an island. This one, published as part of Jan Huyghen van Linschoten’s Itinerario in 1596, is oriented with the East at the top. (Things have been turned through 90 degrees to confuse foreigners.)

It is based on Portuguese sources, which Linschoten—a Dutch man—was able to consult in his role as personal secretary to the Archbishop of Goa (1583-89). It is said to be the first map of the region to be published by a non-Portuguese and to have been instrumental in the breaking of Portugal’s trading monopoly in East Asia.

Korea is the pink, round island abutting the Chinese coast in the top left-hand quadrant of the map. The green-fringed island above it (and so to the East of it) is Japan.

Frontispiece to Hendrick Hamel’s Journal (1668)

In 1653, Hamel was sailing from Batavia to Japan on board the Sperwer (Sparrowhawk) when he and 35 crew were shipwrecked on Jeju.

After a year on Jeju, where the governor Yi Wonjin was sympathetic, and where Hamel met Jan Janse Weltevree—wrecked in 1627—the survivors were sent to Seoul. There, King Hyojong refused their request to be sent to Japan. Instead, they served in the King’s guard.

In 1657, the Dutchmen were sent to Jeolla province, where they were permitted a relatively normal life, the quality of which depended on the attitude of the commandant in charge and the quality of the harvest. In 1663, as food grew short, the Dutch were split into three parties—twelve, including Hamel, being sent to Yeosu. In 1666, they escaped to Japan, where Hamel wrote his account.

Hamel returned to Batavia in 1667, where he vainly spent the three years to 1670 claiming his back salary. He died in Holland in 1692.

Two woodcuts from the same edition of Hamel’s journal. The first shows the crew’s capture, when the four senior Dutch officers were made to wear “an iron chain on which a bell was hanging (like the one the sheep in Holland have around their necks)" and “crawling forward, were thrown face down in front of the commander”, whilst the remainder of the crew cowered in a tent on the shore. The second portrays their punishment after a failed attempt at escape. “Each received 25 blows on the bare buttocks with paddles as wide as a hand, rounded on both sides and about a fathom long. After this, they had to keep to their beds for about a month."

Chart Shewing the Track and Discoveries of His Majesty’s Ships Alceste and Lyra in the Eastern and Yellow Seas, from the 1819 account by John Macleod, Surgeon of the Alceste.

Note how the line travelling North-South to the left of the islands marked as the “Corean Archipelago" (a little to the west of 125 Degrees) is marked “Coast according to former charts." (The actual coast is slightly to the east of 126 Degrees.)

The Eastern coast of the Korean peninsula is here marked as “examined by Broughton."

Further traces of Broughton’s voyage may be found in the map provided in Isabella Bird Bishop’s 1897 account of Korea and Her Neighbours.

Here, the large bay on the eastern side of what is now North Korea, where the peninsula is at its narrowest, is called “Broughton Bay" and the narrow passage between the southern coast at Busan and the island of Tsushima is given the title “Broughton Straits.” 

William Robert Broughton (1762—1821), commander of HMS Providence during the 1797 voyage of discovery to the North Pacific.

Broughton’s first command was the brig Chatham during Vancouver’s voyage to the Pacific Northwest (1791-92). He surveyed some islands in Queen Charlotte Sound, named in his honour, and explored the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, before being sent back to England for instructions.

Returning to the Pacific in 1795, he was unable to relocate Vancouver (who had returned to England) and so crossed the Pacific for a survey of the North Asian coast, including the Kurile Islands, Japan, Okinawa, and Formosa. He reached Korea from the north, finally returning to England (via Ceylon) in February 1799.

Broughton later served at the Battle of the Basque Roads (1807), in the Mauritius Campaign (1810) and the Java Expedition (1811).

Busan Harbour in 1899.

In 1797, Broughton wrote “It has a safe entrance, and no dangers to be apprehended on either shore. Two miles to the West of the black rocks on the north side of entrance, is an abrupt high head-land, which I named Magnetic Head from its affecting our compass needles. North of this head is a fine sandy bay, with good anchorage, where we remained during our stay, having the sea open for two points of the compass in which angle we saw distinctly the island of Tzima.”

Felice Beato’s photograph of Corean Officials on an Interview on Board the Colorado, from 31st May, 1871.

On the afternoon of 14th October 1797, Broughton described a deputation of “some superior people who came up from the harbour."

“They were dressed in large loose gowns, and were paid great deference to by the common people. They had on large black hats, with high crowns, manufactured with a strong gauze not unlike horse hair, very stiff and strong. They tied them under the chin; and these hats, serving as umbrellas, were three feet in diameter.

Each person carried a fan, with a small fillagree box attached to it, containing perfume; and a knife handsomely mounted was fastened round their waist. A boy attended each of them, who had charge of their tobacco pipes; and whose occupation was to keep their dresses smooth. Most of them wore their beards long."

The Japanese Choryang Waekwan, Busan, was built in 1768 in the South-west corner of the harbour.

The island opposite the harbour entrance is Yeong-do, which means this picture is of the view looking East.

There was a superior-built area in Busan that Broughton’s crew were repeatedly told by the Koreans not to approach, and it is possible that this was it. If so, the warning was friendly advice.

Extract from the Royal Chronicle of the Chosun Dynasty (Vol.47), describing Broughton’s arrival in Korea, from a Korean perspective.

For the full document and a text in Hangul (in addition to this this English translation), see the website of Henny Savenije: www.british.henny-savenije.pe.kr 

The explorations of the Alceste and Lyra in the Yellow Sea from Basil Hall’s Voyage to the West Coast of Korea.

On the way to the Pei-Ho River, Hall realized the Lyra was sailing with her keel in the mud. However, the risk of running aground was slight, “as it was ascertained, by forcing long poles into the ground, that for many fathoms below the surface on which the sounding-lead rested … the bottom consisted of nothing but mud formed of an impalpable powder." In time, Hall predicted river silt would turn the Yellow Sea into “a vast alluvial district, like Bengal or Egypt."

The details of his survey he banished to an appendix, as possessing no popular interest. By contrast, those on board the Alceste enjoyed a few human encounters and the fortune to see the Great Wall snaking its way from the hills to the sea.

Murray Maxwell first went to sea on HMS Juno in 1790, aged 14. His first action was in the siege of Toulon, from which Juno had to make a desperate escape under fire from the city batteries. In 1795, he was taken prisoner when HMS Nemesis was captured by a superior French force in the neutral port of Smyrna. Released, he was taken prisoner again when his next ship, HMS Hussar, was wrecked of S. France in 1796. Raised to Lieutenant in October 1796, he was not employed at sea again until 1802.

After the Peace of Amiens, he first served in the Caribbean. He was raised to captain in 1803. In 1807-8, he joined HMS Alceste, which saw action along the Iberian coast in support of the Peninsular War. Thereafter, he was most active in the Adriatic where, in the Action of 29th November 1811, he was responsible for the destruction of a French armaments convoy.

For this he was rewarded with the command of HMS Daedalus in 1812 but, in July 1813, she ran aground off Galle in Ceylon and had to be abandoned. Maxwell was exonerated in the resulting court martial and reappointed to HMS Alceste. In 1815, he was made Companion of the Order of the Bath and, although the war ended after Waterloo, he was retained for service at the special request of Lord Amherst. 

Islanders of Sir James Hall’s Group, from John Mcleod’s Narrative of a Voyage in His Majesty’s Ship Alceste.

Hall wrote “It is scarcely fair, perhaps, to judge of people upon so short an acquaintance, at a moment, too, when with some reason they might be under the influence of alarm at so unusual a visit … but I certainly never encountered, during any voyage, people more resolutely unsociable than these islanders. A disdainful sort of sulky indifference, rather than any direct ill-will, was the most obvious trait in their deportment." However, “The same cordiality on the part of the children prevailed everywhere we went to, however uncourteous the reception of the parents might be."

Sir Basil Hall (1788-1844), son of Sir James Hall, an eminent geologist, joined the Royal Navy in 1802, aged 13. He was commissioned lieutenant in 1808.

In 1811, when serving on HMS Endymion, he was one of the party that made the first landing on Rockall, an event he later recounted in his book Fragments of Voyages and Travels. This was published in nine volumes between 1831 and 1840.

Before the voyage to Korea, Hall had also explored Java in 1813. Hall published another of his travelogues, Extracts from a Journal Written on the Coasts of Chile, Peru and Mexico, in 1823.

Hall’s journals provide one of the accounts of the wreck of the Arniston off South Africa in 1815. By then a captain, he was highly critical of the fact the ship did not have a marine chronometer with which to calculate longitude.

Hall contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and wrote scientific articles on the trade winds, the geology of Table Mountain and a comet he observed in Chile.

Track of His Majesty’s Ship Alceste and Lyra Sloop along the Western Coast of the Peninsula of Corea from Captain Basil Hall’s Account of a Voyage to the West Coast of Corea and the Great Loo-Choo Island (1818).

The line marking the centerfold of the chart represents 36 Degrees of latitude.

The Sir James Hall Group of islands is at top left. Hutton’s Island is one of the westernmost of the group spreading from the point protecting Basil’s Bay at middle right. (That is, towards the top left of the islands marked “COREAN ARCHIPELAGO’”)

Basil’s Bay is where the British had their encounter with the Korean chief with the broadest of broad-rimmed hats and a fondness for cherry brandy. The point is the site of the modern day Taeanhaean National Park in Chungnam-do.

On the coast between Sir James Hall’s Islands and Basil’s Bay (but unmarked on this map) is the mouth of the Han River and, slightly below it, Incheon. The British passed these by, unaware.

Corean Chief and his Secretary, from Basil Hall’s Voyage to the West Coast of Korea.

“The secretary sat down before him with all formality, and having rubbed his cake of ink upon a stone, and arranged a long scroll of paper upon his knee, began the writing, which was at length completed, partly from the direction of the Chief, and partly from his own ideas, as well as the occasional suggestions of the bystanders.

The written part was then torn off from the scroll and handed to the Chief, who delivered it to me with the utmost confidence of its being understood, but his mortification and disappointment were extreme on perceiving that he had overrated our acquirements.” 

Corean Chief and his Attendants, from John Mcleod’s Narrative of His Majesty’s Late Ship Alceste

“He was saluted, on leaving the Lyra, with three guns, which was repeated by the frigate. As he shoved off from the brig, one of his attendants, having in some way or other misbehaved, was by his order extended on the deck of the boat, and received, in a summary way, about a dozen and a half blows with a flat bamboo over the seat of honour; and, as the culprit squalled, a number of his companions standing around him joined in the howl, either in derision, or to drown his noise. This ceremony finished, a flourish of trumpets and other instruments announced his approach.” 

At the end of their visit, the British walked to another village, where two men and a dog were the only living creatures willing to receive them—“the dog being the least surly of the three”. Since they were ignored, they took an opportunity of looking more closely at on of the houses.

“The door was made to turn on an upright movable bar, fitted into a cross-beam above, and a hole in the threshold stone below. Before it lay a neat smooth little court, surrounded by a close hedge, of a sweet-scented red and white flower, resembling the honeysuckle in shape … The roof was of thatch, resting on a network of rods, and the eves extended more than a yard from the walls, at once affording shade to the narrow verandah in front of the house, and giving shelter to the windows from the rain—a precaution quite necessary to its existence, as it was composed of oiled paper, pasted over small square openings in a wooden frame. The walls themselves were built of stones and mud, most inartificially put together—a want of neatness and skill that did not apply to the more difficult branch of architecture, the framework of the roof, this being constructed precisely on our principles.” 

The Engagement of Capt. Sir Murray Maxwell in H.M.Ship the Alceste, 1816, with the Chinese Fortresses on the Bocca Tigris, both of which he immediately silenced. Drawn by Mr Mcleod, Surgeon.

Mcleod wrote: “(The Chinese) are a people, who, by early education and constant habit, are manoeuvrers, and always enjoy a much higher satisfaction in obtaining any purpose by fraud, trick, and overreaching, than by the most direct, candid, or honourable means; and afford a strong exemplification of the distinction between low cunning and true wisdom." He added, “Half measures seem to be a bad system in any dealings, but more especially with uncivilized people, for they are apt to attribute forbearance to fear, and acquire, under that impression, fresh courage." Presumably, Lord Amherst would have shared his approach to diplomacy.

Pulo Leat, an Island in the Strait of Gaspar. HMS Alceste on fire. From an album of sketches made in January and February 1818 by CW Browne, RN of His Majesty’s late ship Alceste and Julia.

The Alceste was badly holed when she struck the rocks and the drop from the reef on which she was held was 10 to 17 fathoms on all sides. Rather than attempt to refloat her, the decision was therefore taken to use her anchor to hold her position, while the crew abandoned ship.

Alceste was later set ablaze by Dayak pirates.

Track of the Barge & Cutter belonging to His Majesty’s late ship Alceste, with His Excellency The Right Hon. Lord Amherst & Suite on Board From the Wreck to Batavia, by Mr John R. Mayne, Master of the Alceste, 1817.

From Henry Ellis’ Journal of the Proceedings of the Late Embassy to China.

In the bottom left hand corner are the Straits of Sunda between the Eastern tip of Sumatra and the Western tip of Java. The island at top centre is Pulau Bangka (marked Banca), with Pulau Liat (marked Leat) the second island off its Eastern shore. Very roughly, the distance from Pulau Liat to modern day Jakarta is 275 miles (450 kilometers.)

“The boats were utterly incapable of conveying half our number anywhere; and, as some must necessarily go to the nearest friendly port for assistance, Captain Maxwell judged it best that his Excellency should proceed with a proper guard for Batavia … This being what is termed the north-west monsoon, there was every likelihood of the boats reaching Java (the current being also in their favour) in three days." They departed on 18th February and the relief arrived for the 200 they left behind on 3rd March. 

Fort Maxwell from John Mcleod’s Narrative.

“Wednesday, the 5th, landed Messrs. Ellis and Hoppner (returning with the Ternate):- the recollection of the voluntary promise made by the former at parting, now fulfilled … gave a new glow to every feeling of friendship, and, on entering Fort Maxwell, they were received with heartfelt acclamation by the whole garrison under arms.

This fortification and its inhabitants had altogether a very singular and romantic look … The wigwams of some … the rude tents of others; the wretched, unshaven, ragged appearance of the men … gave, more especially by fire-light at night, a wild and picturesque effect to this spot, far beyond any robber scene the imagination can portray.” 

The First British Contact with Korea

The first English effort at trade actually pre-dated Hamel. It was the initiative of John Saris, captain of the East India Company’s voyage to Japan in 1613. In a letter written to the Directors on his return to Plymouth, on 17th October 1614, he wrote “I make noe doubt but your seruant Edward Sares is by this tyme in Corea, for from Tuschina (Tsushima) I appoynted him to goe thither, beinge incouradged by the Chineses that our broad cloth was in greater request ther then hear. It is but 50 leagues ouer from Iapann, and from Tuschina much less."

It did not take long for the holes in the Chineses’ argument to become apparent. On March 9th 1614, Richard Cocks, whom Saris had left in charge of the Japan operation, wrote to Richard Wickham saying he “Has received a letter from Ed. Sayer from Tushma, who had only sold as much Cambay Cloth as brought 31 Tais, with 5 Pecul of Pepper, and he expects that the King and another man will tae about 24 yards of Broad cloth. Sayer is out of hope of any good being done there or at Corea, and is very desirous to go for Focaty (Hakata)."

Part of the problem was that the people on Tsushima were in no real position to help open doors to the Korean trade. On 25th November 1614, Cocks wrote a letter explaining why and, at the same time, throwing light on the Koreans’ unusual approach to haulage:

Cannot as yet get trade from Tushma into Corea, neither have they of Tushma any other privileges but to enter into one little town or fortress, and in pain of death not to go without the walls thereof to the landward, and yet the king of Tushma is no subject to the Emperor of Japan. We could vent nothing but pepper at Tushma, neither no great quantity of that and the weight is much bigger than that of Japan, but sold at a better rate. Understand that there are great cities in Corea, and betwixt that and the sea mighty bogs, so that no man can travel on horseback nor very hardly on foot, but great waggons have been invented to go upon broad flat wheels under sail as ships do, in which they transport their goods. Damasks, satins, taffeties, and other silk stuffs are made there. It is said that Ticus Same, otherwise called Quabicondono (Kwanbaku), the deceased Emperor of Japan, did pretend to have conveyed a great army in these sailing waggons to have assaulted the Emperor of China on a sudden in his great city of Paquin (Peking), where he is ordinarily resident, but he was prevented by a Corean nobleman who poisoned himself to poison the Emperor and other great men of Japan, which is the occassion that the Japans have lost all that which some twenty-two years past they had gotten possession of in Corea etc. (1)

So much for the earliest efforts of the East India Company. What might the experience of Hamel have led the British later to expect? It has to be said his encounter had not been a happy one. He had only got to Korea as a result of a shipwreck in 1653 and, after he had arrived, he found the Koreans most unwilling to let him leave. Eventually, he and some of the crew managed to persuade a fisherman to sell them a boat. In this they sailed to Nagasaki, which they reached in September 1667, 13 years and 28 days after they had been washed up on the southern isle of Jeju.

Given Hamel had spent most of the intervening period in virtual captivity, it is unsurprising his picture of Korea is not of a land of milk and honey. The commandants watching over him get mixed reviews and, although he sometimes tells us he was “rather well provided for, according to the fashion of the country, with houses, furniture and small gardens”, at other times essentials were in short supply, and it was necessary either to beg for them or to gather wood for barter. The three years to 1663 were years of real hardship, in which “thousands of people died of hunger”, guards were deployed to protect travellers against highwaymen and the warehouses against looting, and “in order to keep alive, ordinary people and the poor mostly ate acorns, the inner bark of pine trees and wild vegetables."

It is clear Korea was under acute pressure from Peking, and had suffered from the invasion of the Japanese, but Hamel never makes explicit why he was detained.(2) He says that another Dutchman he met, Weltevree, had been simply told by the King “If you were a bird, you could freely fly (to Japan.) We do not send strangers away from our country. We will take care of you, giving you board and clothing, and thus you will finish your life in this country." Whatever the cause, as he embarks on his account of his final escape, he explains he decided to try his chance rather than “constantly live in sorrow, sadness and in slavery in this heathen nation, brought on us every day by a crowd of spiteful people."

The Expedition of William Broughton

At a minimum, then, the impression is of a country endowed with modest resources that has little desire to engage with the world. Englishmen even with long memories might not have recalled how unsuccessful John Saris’ efforts at trading with Korea had been, but Hamel’s descriptions provided little incentive to mount further expeditions.(3)

And yet, a study of the chart in Mcleod’s account “Shewing the Track and Discoveries of His Majesty’s Ships Alceste and Lyra in the Eastern & Yellow Seas" reveals that Maxwell and Hall’s 1816 expedition to Korea was not, in fact, Britain’s first. The eastern coast of the peninsular, it transpires, had previously been “examined by Broughton." The reference is to Captain William Broughton, who published a narrative of his voyage of discovery to the North Pacific in HMS Providence (1795-98) in 1804.

In fact, the Providence was wrecked near Okinawa in May 1797 and never made it to Korea. Broughton reached the Peninsular in a smaller vessel he had purchased in Macau. On 24th September, he tells us he abandoned a plan to pass through the La Perouse Strait separating Hokkaido and Sakhalin to explore the Kuriles because of “the want of provisions in the (smaller) schooner" and because the prevailing westerlies would prevent his vessel from returning to the Sea of Japan for an examination of the Korean coast. Instead, he took a more direct course to the south.

In the initial stages, Broughton’s narrative comprises the dry language of the ship’s log. It didn’t help that “every part (of the country) presented a most uncomfortable prospect" (4th October—a comment with which, if they knew better, the inhabitants of modern North Korea might agree.) On 12th October 1797, however, it comes to life when Broughton sees fires on the island of Tzima (Tsushima), showing it to be inhabited—“a grateful sight, and what we had long been unaccustomed to on the coast of Tartary."

On 14th October, Broughton saw some fishing boats and prevailed upon the crew of one of them “to come on board." Under their guidance, the English anchored that evening in a sandy bay, in four fathoms of water (and steady rain and mist) half a mile from the mainland of Korea.

Early in the morning we were surrounded by boats full of men, women and children, whose curiosity had brought them off to see the strange vessel. They were universally clothed in linen garments made into loose jackets and trowsers, quilted or doubled; and some of them wore loose gowns. The women had a short petticoat over their trowsers; and both sexes, linen boots, with sandals made of rice straw. The men wore their hair in a knot tied up to the crown, and the women had theirs twisted and plaited around their heads.

The features and complexions of these people resembled the Chinese, particularly their small eyes; and in general all our visitors were extremely ordinary in their persons; but it is to be remembered there were no young women of the party; the females being composed entirely of old women and children.

Thus, in possibly the first encounter between representatives of the Royal Navy and the population of Korea, the English sailor hints at what we assume is usually on a sailor’s mind after many months at sea. Everything passed off peacefully, however.

As the mist cleared, the anchorage revealed itself to be in the extensive harbour of “Chosun" (actually Busan) “terminating in small bays that afforded shelter from all winds." Many villages were scattered around its fringes, one of which—to the north-west—was “a large town, encircled with stone walls, and battlements upon them”, near which several junks were moored, protected by a pier. Another mole was located further to the south-west, “near some white houses of a superior construction, enclosed by a thick wood." The English went ashore to find wood and water and were permitted to take a walk, in which they were “attended by numerous parties of the villagers." As they approached one village, they were stopped and begged not to proceed further, but otherwise there was no sign of the inhospitality Broughton might have feared.

In the afternoon, the party returned to their ship, where they “were visited by some superior people who came up from the harbour." Although the ensuing “conversation" is best described as an exercise in mutual incomprehension, Broughton says the visitors “were seemingly pleased with their reception."

From this moment, however, the Englishmen’s latent doubts about their welcome came more to the fore.

After a brief survey ashore, rendered imperfect by the magnetism from their nearby rocks which threw the direction of their compass needle, Broughton returned to his ship to find it crowded with visitors; “nor could we get rid of them till dark, and even with great difficulty, using almost violence to induce them to go into their boats." Even then, after dark, they returned in boats full of men “and very desirous to come on board." When this was not permitted, they came to anchor alongside, which conduct, “as we were unacquainted with their intentions … appeared to us suspicious; and we prepared for the worst, having every body stationed at their quarters."

On 15th, after breakfast, two boats came with visitors “dressed in a superior style to any we had yet seen."

In each were some soldiers carrying small spears, that were as staffs to their colours, which were a blue sattin field, with their arms in yellow characters. The hats of the soldiers were decorated with peacock’s feathers. They made me a present of salt fish, rice, and sea-weed (ficus facharinus).

The English plainly saw their visitors were “extremely anxious" for their departure, but they refused to go until after their stocks of wood, water and refreshments had been replenished. The deputation offered to provide what was being asked, saving the cattle that the crew pointed to grazing on the shore. As “money appeared to have no value to them”, the English had “no other means to induce them”, so they had to bear the disappointment “of seeing daily what we could not procure."

These great men were dressed in the same form as the others we had before seen, but their garments were much finer; and the outer one was of a light blue or tiffany. Under their chins, as if tying their large black hats, they had a string of large beads, either agate, amber, or black wood, which was suspended in a bow over their right ears. Some of their hats were tipped with silver around the crown.

The attendants and those in office paid these men the most submissive respect, always speaking and answering the questions put to them in a stooping posture, looking upon the deck.

It now occurred to me these people must have arrived after dark last evening, and were the same to whom we had refused admittance, while our suspicions led us to suppose they had some other view to gratify other than mere curiosity, by coming so late.

The arrival of these “new friends" at least meant the ship was no longer besieged by quite so many visitors. Ashore, however, “the assemblage of people was so great as to materially affect our operations, notwithstanding the military were so stationed to keep off the crowd, which they did at times most effectively, by exercising upon their persons large bamboo sticks." There ensued a few days whilst the English, with the villagers’ assistance, stocked up on their supplies. When some sailors were landed opposite the schooner to observe the latitude, they instantly were joined by a military guard from the village, who “attended to their motions" until they returned on board. By the afternoon of 18th, the stores were complete but, on being urged again to leave, Broughton announced he would stay two days longer “to observe the sun."

On 19th, it rained without intermission, which permitted the Koreans to demonstrate the effectiveness of the parchment covers for their hats (and their umbrellas of the same kind) and Broughton to make a further discreet survey of the harbour.

On 20th, the Koreans caught up with him and voiced their disapproval of his activities, warning him that if he landed at the white houses up the harbour, they would be very ill treated, if not put to death.(4) Again, the English were “strongly urged" to depart, but Broughton delayed saying the sun had been obscured by the weather and a great sea was in the offing. Guard boats were placed alongside.

On 21st, Broughton managed to slip away before daylight to complete a sketch of the harbour unseen. “It appeared our absence had thrown the village into great confusion: boats were dispatched in every direction after us, but we had escaped them all." After his return, the ship received a visit from one of its principal visitors “who seemed particularly pleased at our preparations for sailing." Broughton presented him with a telescope and a pistol “the only articles he seemed desirous of possessing”, and they parted “with mutual satisfaction." In the sight of great numbers of “our Corean friends" on the adjacent hills, the British at last set sail.

Commenting upon his stay in Busan, Broughton makes the following concluding remarks:

It will be observed how little opportunity we had to make any remarks upon the customs and manners of these people, from their avoiding as much a possible any intercourse with us. … It appears by their behaviour they are by no means desirous of cultivating any intercourse whatever with foreigners. They seemed to look upon us with great indifference, which I suppose was owing to the insignificancy of our vessel; or perhaps, their not comprehending what nation we belonged to, or what our pursuits were, made them solicitous for our departure, probably from a suspicion of our being pirates; or some other reason we could not divine.

There were several large villages scattered about the harbour, all of them seemingly very populous … The houses were small, all of one story, and thatched. The lands were cultivated in the Japanese manner, rising in ridges above each other between the hills, which gave them an opportunity of easily conducting water to the rice grounds. We saw horses, hogs, poultry, and black cattle, of which articles much as we were in want we could not procure. Money, at least of European coins, they had no idea of; but they perfectly understood the value of gold and silver, their knives, &c. being ornamented in the workmanship of those metals.

They were well acquainted with guns and firearms, but we saw no appearance of offensive weapons amongst them, nor did they seem any way apprehensive of the small force we possessed. All their attention was paid to expedite our departure; and yet many articles of European manufacture excited their curiosity, particularly our woollen clothing.

As a commercial nation, of course they were well acquainted and conversant in trade; but with us they did not seem desirous of making any exchanges whatever, which may be owing, probably, to the articles we possessed being of no value in their estimation. Indeed we had nothing to excite their attention, or satisfy their curiosity, except our wearing apparel.

On departure, the schooner soon found itself in hazy weather “completely surrounded by a cluster of islands, which rendered our navigation very intricate" and through which it was hard to identify a passage. Although many vessels were passing to and fro, none approached until, after noon on 25th October, the ships were visited by a boat from a large town two miles to the north-west. “They brought with them a paper in written characters, perfectly unintelligible, to which we could make no reply."

About an hour afterwards we saw several boats coming off, and one of them in a gay stile, with several soldiers carrying silken flags and a larger one of red and purple in the bow. They pulled to the music of trumpets; and the military were armed with sabres. Under a canopy was seated a very consequential man upon a leopard’s skin, with cushions to rest upon, and a suite of attendants about him, all habited in the same stile with those at Chosan.

This “consequential" man transferred to the schooner without ceremony and, protected from the sun by an umbrella bearer, asked a number of questions to which, unsurprisingly given the lack of understanding, he received no satisfactory answer. In particular, he seemed anxious to learn the numbers of the British, insisting they be counted in front of him—a liberty Broughton did not permit “which seemed to displease him."

Unlike the people in Chosun, the man appeared “very desirous" the British should stay some days, and seemed much surprised at Broughton’s refusal to do so.

This man was particularly haughty in his manner, and treated us by his behaviour with the most sovereign contempt. After staying about half an hour he went away, leaving two boats with us as spies, as we supposed upon our conduct. They anchored close to us, and two others were sent away with messages.

Instead of going to the village, we observed the great man remained with his boat at the point of the island… The instant we made sail, the boat from the island followed us, hooting and hollowing and sounding their trumpets for us to stop; we paid no attention to them, and finding they could not come up, they relanded again at the other extreme of the island.

What this man’s intentions were I cannot determine, but to me I must own they appeared suspicious; and I did not think it necessary to wait the result of them at the expense of the clear weather.

And that was the last real interaction between the British and the Koreans on this particular visit. Broughton saw people and boats in the distance as he cruised about the archipelago, but couldn’t induce them to approach. And so, on 27th October, he bore off to “Quelpaert”, the name by which he knew the island on which Hamel had been shipwrecked. Then, after a few days exploration and with his narrative reverting to its former dry style, Broughton made for Macao.

However, it is not quite the end of the episode, because we are fortunate to have a report from the Royal Chronicle of the Chosun Dynasty, which gives us the Koreans’ impressions of the British:

On the day of Imshin (6th September 1797, Lunar Calendar), the Governor of Kyongsang Province, Lee Hyong-won, came running and reported the following in writing: “A strange ship from a country arrived off the Yong-dang-po Bay, Tongnae County. There were 50 people in the ship. All of them had their hair tied or pulled back. They wore either hats made of thick white material on their heads, or hats made of wisteria. The shape looked just like our warrior hat. They dressed themselves in thick black material, 3 Dae long. The shape looked like Hyopsoo in Korea. They wore thin trousers. They were high-nosed and blue eyed. They were asked to answer the name of their country and why they came to Korea after having drifted at sea. They neither knew nor understood any Chinese, Japanese or Mongolian. We provided them with brushes to write and their writing resembled mountains covered with clouds. Though pictures were drawn, we still could not understand. The ship was 18 Bal long (30 metres) and 7 Bal wide (7 metres). Cedar wood was used for both the left and right planks of the ship, which were all covered with copper plates. They were firm, elaborate, exquisite and complete so that there was no leakage even in water."

The Admiral in charge of three provinces, Yoon Duk-kyu, came running and reported in writing: “The drifted people looked like Westerners with high noses and blue eyes when I rushed to Yong-dang-po Bay to see them after receiving the report of the Tong-nae Magistrate, Jung Sang-woo. In addition, the cargoes in the ship were all western goods such as glass bottles, telescopes and silver hole-less coins. We could not understand their language and pronunciation at all, but recognized only a four-syllabled word Nang-ga-sa-gee, which referred to the island of Nagasaki in Japan. It seemed that this merchant ship arrived here after having drifted here and there from the island of Nagasaki.

Looking at us, they pointed their hands to the vicinity of Tsushima, motioning the wind by blowing with their mouths as if they were waiting for the right wind. Orders were given to them and we had them sail after having waited for the wind to be in their favour."(5)

That was a relief, then—and not entirely misplaced, as it was to be nearly twenty years before another ship commanded by the high-nosed British again cast its shadow upon the Korean coast.

The Expedition of Murray Maxwell and Basil Hall

Even without the company of the 10-gun brig Lyra, HMS Alceste would have appeared much more imposing to the Koreans than Broughton’s vessel of 19 years earlier. She was, in fact, a 46-gun French Armide-class frigate (the Minerve) that had been captured off Rochefort by HMS Monarch in September 1806. With a keel length of 129 feet, she was 39ft longer even than HMS Providence had been, and had a crew of around 300.

HMS Alceste had left Spithead for China on 9th February 1816 and, after an uneventful journey, she met with the Lyra in the Bohai Sea at the end of July. After Lord Amherst and his suite had been landed at Taku on the Pei Ho (Hai) river on 9th August, the two ships separated, Alceste exploring the Gulf of Lea-tung (Liaodong Bay, north of Dalian), before reuniting with her escort on the Northern side of Shantung, at the end of the month.

From there, on 29th August, they sailed directly East, along the 38th parallel, towards the coast of Korea, a country “so completely unknown that it held no place on our charts, except that vague sort of outline with which the old map-makers delighted to fill up their paper and conceal their ignorance."(6) The coast proved to be rather further to the East than expected:

On approaching the land, and making observations to ascertain our true place, we discovered that according to one authority, we were sailing far up in the country, over wide forests and great cities; and according to another, the most honest author amongst them, our course lay directly through the body of a goodly elephant, placed in the centre of a district of country in token of the maker’s candid confession of ignorance.

First landfall, on 1st September, was at a group of islands, which Maxwell named after Sir James Hall, an eminent geologist (and Basil’s father.)

The inhabitants, who received us with looks of distrust and alarm, were evidently uneasy at our landing, for they were crowded timorously together like so many sheep. Having tried every art to reassure them, but in vain, we determined … to take a look at the village. This measure elicited something like emotion in the sulky natives, several of whom stepped forward, and placing themselves between us and the houses, made very unequivocal signs for us to return to our boats forthwith.

There was nothing in the appearance of these islanders which we recognized as Chinese, in dress, language, or appearance, and in their manners there was none of the courtesy which we met with everywhere in China. It was once evident indeed that they were a much ruder people. Their colour was a dark copper, and the expression of their countenances, though certainly rather forbidding, was not as some of our party described it savage; I think this epithet much too strong, yet there was undoubtedly something wild about them, although not amounting to ferocity …

Their hair, which was black and glossy, was twisted into a curious conical bunch, or spiral knot, on the top of the head, and there was not the least appearance of the Tartar tuft. Two or three of their number … wore vast hats, the brims of which extended a foot and a half in all directions, so as to completely shade the body of the wearer. The top, or crown was disproportionately small, being made no larger than just to fit the top-knot of hair, which stood eight or nine inches above the head.

Immediately it transpired that the Chinese interpreter (a servant of the embassy accidentally left behind at the Pei-ho river) was completely unable to communicate with the villagers. The party therefore retired to the top of a nearby hill where, enchanted by the “stupendous scene" of countless unexplored islands, they took a picnic. Returning by another route, they caught sight of the women of the village who, their children strapped to their backs “in a rude species of cradle”, were engaged in husking rice by beating it in great wooden mortars—until the arrival of another of the ship’s boats sent them scattering to their huts, “like rabbits in a warren."

Amongst the houses “rudely constructed of reeds plaistered with mud, the roofs of all shapes, and badly thatched with reeds and straw, tied down by straw ropes”, they saw bullocks and poultry but were unable to persuade the villagers to part with them, for anything. “They refused dollars when offered as a present and, indeed, appeared to set no value upon anything we shewed them, except wine glasses; but even these they were unwilling to receive." (7)

Hall then engaged in a fruitless attempt to buy “a singular kind of rake" which the owner employed to give him “a violent push … followed by many abundantly significant gestures, implying that the sooner I took to my boat, and left him and his inhospitable island, the better he was pleased." The British chose to depart. They were “utterly uncertain what was to be met with next" but, despite their rebuff, Hall says, “everyone was in high spirits at the prospect of encountering new scenes and new people."

The next port of call (on 3rd September) was another small island some distance to the South-East, the geology of which was particular enough to merit minute investigation by the scientists of the party. (The island was named after James Hutton, the proponent of geologic time.) (8) Whilst the research was being conducted on the beach, a party of islanders assembled on the cliffs above, indicating “by indignant shouts, and the most significant, though ill-mannered gesticulations" their anger at the posse of cognoscenti hammering at their rocks 200 feet below.

In order not to provoke them further (and for fear their clamour might be supplemented by “the more potent argument of a shower of stones”), the party rowed around to a beach on the western side of the island. As the inhabitants approached, the British took off their hats and made a low bow, “upon which the foremost of their number addressed us in a long speech, in a tone of voice that was heard on board the ships half a mile off." Unable to explain in words their peaceful intentions, Hall made for the brow of a nearby hill.

The natives put a negative on this resolution as far as they could, without using absolute violence. Sometimes they placed themselves directly across our path; and sometimes, bawled in our ears some very angry words, at the full stretch of their voices, apparently impressed with the belief that mere loudness would make their words more intelligible."

(A fine case of the English pot calling the Korean kettle black.)

One very busy personage now took his station before us, and baring his neck, drew his fan from end to end across his throat. … Hereupon a great speculation was set afloat amongst us, as to the import of this significant gesture. One thing was plain; it had reference to cutting off heads, but our party was equally divided as to whose heads were to suffer. Some thought the natives were in alarm for themselves, while others considered this ugly sign a threat to us.

After a brief pause to take in the view, the party started back towards the boats and instantly the mood changed. “Instead of obstructing our way and roaring in our ears, they were all smiles and assistance; a man on each side seized our hands, and warning us of every obstacle, escorted us along the path, and over the slippery stones on the sea bank, with a degree of assiduity extremely ludicrous." There was a brief moment when the sight of a watch caused the natives to crowd around, inspecting the second hand as if it were alive. However, one of the crew then let off his fowling piece, which instantly sent the villagers helter-skelter “like a shoal of fish when a stone is cast among them." It was time to be off.

In the morning, the two ships threaded their way between the islands on a glass sea towards the mainland. At three in the afternoon, they found what promised to be a sheltered bay behind a point of land, but it proved too shallow even for the Lyra. Ashore there was a commotion “resembling the sort of bustle into which a colony of ants are thrown by the thrust of a spade." Maxwell and Hall took one of the ship’s boats and headed for the shore. In no time, a fleet of more than a hundred canoes and small boats, all of them decked out with long streamers and crowded “almost to sinking" with people, came out to meet them.

On arriving within a couple of boats’ lengths of the headmost vessel, our ears were saluted with sounds not unlike those of the bagpipe, which issued from three pipes, or trumpets, played by men raised high in the bow of the boat. In the middle part of the deck, between the masts, we discovered a huge blue umbrella, held by two men over the head of a very important-looking personage, seated cross-legged on a mat, surrounded by attendants in richly-coloured dresses.

This fine patriarchal figure had a full white beard reaching down to a richly embroidered girdle, confining a lustrous mantle of blue satin. In his right hand he wielded, “with an air of mighty importance”, a slender black rod, tipped with silver, with a small leather thong at one end, and a piece of black crepe tied to the other. In his left, he grasped his pipe, trimmed from time to time by an attendant, who took the tobacco from a silver box carried by a little boy.

Maxwell and Hall crossed over to the chief’s boat, but realized almost immediately that they had committed a faux pas. The press of vessels about them also made them uneasy, so they proposed they repair to the Lyra. Reckoning the ship’s cabin was too small to accommodate the chief’s hat, it was decided to entertain him on the quarterdeck. A chair was fetched, but “the chief seemed to despise these European inventions, and would accept of no accommodation but his own mat." As soon as he was seated, the men from his boat, and about twenty others leaped on board, climbing the rigging, crowding the poop, and forming a seated line along the length of the hammock netting.

Once the necessary decorum had been established, the chief launched into an oration lasting a full five minutes, unaware that his audience (including the interpreter) understood not a word of what he said. There was a pause. The chief turned to his secretary, who rubbed a cake of Indian ink on a blue stone, drew forth a camelhair brush and wrote a dispatch at the chief’s dictation onto a long scroll of paper. It was handed over. Maxwell signified his lack of understanding with as much grace as he could manage. The chief was mortified “and showed by his gestures and the angry tones of his voice how stupid he thought us."

A glass of cherry brandy was produced for the old man, and his disturbed features became smooth. To the rest of the assemblage was distributed rum and the situation was salvaged, although the chief seemed to be “sitting on thorns … continually ordering and counterordering his officers and people in a most petulant manner."

Finally, as it grew dark, he signalled it was time to leave. With some difficulty, he returned to his boat, but instead of shoving off, it remained alongside, the chief sitting still and silent, his pipe in his mouth. Unsure of what this meant, Maxwell and Hall decided they should return his visit. When they were seated on a corner of his mat, he looked about as if in distress at having nothing to entertain them with. A bottle of wine was sent for and given to him. It was poured into bowls, which he touched with his rod to indicate they might have a taste. The oddity of his entertaining the company at their own expense seemed not to discomfort the Chief one jot; on the contrary “he carried off the whole affair with so much cheerfulness and ease, as to make us suspect he enjoyed … the scene and circumstances fully as much as we did ourselves."

For a second time, he made to leave but, this time, instead of making for shore, he steered towards the Alceste. Captain Maxwell just managed to beat him to it, and changed into his coat and epaulettes to receive him. This time, the cabin was thought large enough to fit the chief’s attire but, although he was amazed by the magnificence of it, he once again insisted on seating himself on his mat. “It appearing to be etiquette for the head to be covered”, says Mcleod in his Narrative, “the whole party, consisting of Captains Maxwell, Hall, and other officers, conformed to this rule, and, squatting on the cabin-floor, with gold-laced cocked hats on, amid the strange costume of the Coreans, looked like a party of masquers."

The chief now asked to inspect a mirror which had caught his attention. When it was put into his hands “he seemed mighty pleased with the image it reflected" and continued for some time pulling his beard from side to side, until he spied one of his attendants looking over his shoulder. This quite upset his good humour. The attendant was “scolded in set terms “ and dismissed from the cabin. It seemed scarcely five minutes could pass without the chief finding fault with one of his people—an exercise of authority which the British suspected was designed to impress upon them an idea of his importance.

Whether or not this fretfulness was feigned while in the cabin, no one could doubt the sincerity of his displeasure a minute after he came onto the quarterdeck to take leave. On passing the gunroom skylight, his quick ear caught the sound of voices below, and looking down he detected some of his people enjoying themselves, and making very merry over a bottle of wine with the officers of the ship. On his bawling out to them, they leaped on their feet, and hurried up the ladder in great consternation. The alarm soon spread along the lower deck to another jovial party of the Coreans, who were carousing with the midshipmen.

As they emerged through the hatchway, the chief pushed them about with his rod to identify the miscreants. One, who had hidden a handful of biscuits in the sleeve of his robe, tried to secrete them away in a coil of rope, but was discovered. The chief rummaged for a while under the guns and around the main mast in an effort to turn up something more, but nothing was revealed and he then departed, Hall helpfully pointing out to those sleeping sailors in his escort that had stayed near the Lyra that they needed to get a move on if they were to catch him up before he reached shore.

At daybreak the following morning, the Lyra’s crew woke to the sound of gongs and martial airs being played on shrill pipes. The chief was on his way again, this time accompanied by another man of rank, whose urbanity earned him the epithet “the Courtier." Breakfast not being quite ready, they were taken on a tour of the lower deck. The cramped conditions meant that the state hat, which had been resolutely kept on despite the inconvenience it caused the wearer (and everyone around him), had to come off—much “to the old boy’s evident mortification." However, he was soon in his element, “turning everything he could lay his hands on topsy-turvy”:

He next went into the kitchen, where he lifted the lids from the cook’s boilers, dipped his little rod into the boiling cocoa, and inspected all the tea kettles and coffee pots. The lustre and sharpness of one of the ship’s cutlasses delighted him so much that I asked him to accept it. The offer seemed to produce a great struggle between duty and inclination, but it was of no long duration, for, after a moment’s consultation with the Courtier, he returned the glittering weapon to its scabbard, and, as I thought with a sigh, returned it to its place. What his scruples were on this occasion I could not imagine, for he had no such delicacy about anything else, but seemed desirous of possessing samples of almost everything he saw.

Indeed, by the time the tour was finished, the immense sleeve into which the chief stashed away his winnings, hung down “like the pouch of an overgorged pelican." (By contrast the Courtier, who had been given one of Hall’s books but had insisted in giving his fan in return, when discovered, was given a furious look “that left him ready to sink into the ground with fear.”)

The party re-emerged on deck, where a carronade was fired for the chief’s benefit and with the muzzle so depressed that it sent it sent its shot skipping across the surface of the sea. “Had a thunderbolt fallen amongst the natives, it could not have astonished them more”, says Hall. They could scarce believe their senses when it was revealed that the shot had weighed thirteen pounds.

At this juncture, Maxwell transferred to the Lyra and the group retired to the after-cabin for breakfast. The hosts were delighted when the chief took sugar and milk with his tea, ate heartily of his hashed pork, and insisted on using a knife and fork when he did so.

The facility with which this Corean chief, who but a few hours before must have been entirely ignorant of our customs, could accommodate himself to our habits, was very remarkable. On many occasions where he could not be supposed to act from our immediate example, he adopted the very same forms which our rules of politeness teach us to observe; and if we did not deceive ourselves, this observation which was actually made at the moment, is so far curious as it seems to show, that however nations differ in the amount of knowledge, or in degrees of civilization, the usages which regulate the intercourse of all societies possess a striking uniformity.

The English now signalled they were ready to visit the town, as they imagined they had been invited to do the evening before. In this they were unfortunately mistaken, but they persisted, and the Chief resisted, even to the point of crossing into Maxwell’s gig, as if to show he was travelling under sufferance. When they reached the beach

… he held up his hands in despair, drooping his woe-begone countenance on one side, and drew his hand repeatedly across his throat, from ear to ear, unequivocally implying, that some one or other must lose his head on this occasion. … We tried to signify that our wishes went no farther than to walk about for half an hour … after which it was our intention to return on board to dinner. To the latter part of our discourse … his only reply was to repeat the beheading motion. … “How can I eat with my head off ?" was the interpretation suggested by the late Dr. Mcleod, a man of infinite jest … The humorous manner in which this was spoken, made all our party laugh; but our mirth only augmented the chief’s distress, and we began seriously to fear that we had proceeded too far.

The party was now surrounded by a few hundred of the natives. They began to be concerned they might pay dearly for their curiosity. Against their worst fears, the Chief instructed his escort to disperse the crowd (which they did by pelting them with stones, “thus inverting the usage of more polished communities, where these missiles are the established methods of the mob”), but the happy mood of the morning had been lost. The English returned to their ships and when the Chief paid a last visit to bid them farewell, “his sprightliness, unceremonious manners, and insatiable curiosity (gave) place to a cold and stately civility." The English tried their best to recover the injury they had caused. In the end, the gift of a Bible was accepted and it was thought they departed mutual friends.

From Basil’s Bay, the Alceste and Lyra sailed South West through the continuing mass of islands, in the process getting a proper appreciation of the strength of the tide and the risk it posed to their safety. Hall and Maxwell fell in with no more officials like the Chief, but they did explore a couple of villages, largely deserted, where they endeavoured to make friends with the handful of natives that remained. In this they were partly successful—they managed to share their pipes and some of their wine—but they never managed to break their reserve entirely and the mass of the villagers, who had concealed themselves, never came out of hiding.

On the last evening, as they were returning from one of their excursions towards the boats, they came across a small village which they decided to explore before dining, in hope of finding some natives to join them:

It was nearly deserted, for only two of the inhabitants remained. One of these was a very plain old lady, who took no notice of us, but allowed us to pass her door, before which she was seated, without even condescending to look up. The other was a middle-aged man, industriously employed in the manufacture of a straw sandal. … In order to rouse this stoical and industrious Corean, we thrust a button into his hands, which he received without the least show of gratitude, and put into a bag lying near him, but still went on with his work. Another button offered in exchange induced him to surrender his handywork; and I mention the circumstance as being the only instance during our visit to Corea of anything like traffic.

We made signs that we wished to examine his house,—that is to say, we opened the door and walked in. But even this proceeding elicited no show of interest in our phlegmatic shoemaker, who seizing another wisp of straw, commenced a new pair of sandals, as deliberately as if we had been merely a party of his fellow-Coreans inspecting the dwelling, instead of a company of European strangers, unlike what he could ever have seen before, or was ever likely to see again.

Finally, during dinner, the British spotted the heads of five or six natives peeping at them over the top of a nearby hill. Surreptitiously, the villagers crept forwards and one of them, on an impulse, offered Captain Maxwell his lighted pipe. In return, he received “a bumper of wine”, which he drained in one, calling to his friends as soon as he had done so. In no time, a party was in full swing, several bottles were finished and, as Hall puts is, “there was some reason to hope that the difficult passage to a Corean’s heart had been discovered." And then it was realized that the sun was setting. The Koreans called an immediate end to the jollity and, signalling that it was time for bed, escorted the British to the water’s edge, helped them rather roughly to embark, “and expressed the most lively satisfaction when they were fairly rid of us."

Thus, on 10th September 1816, ended the last interaction of any consequence between England and Korea until the arrival of Hugh Hamilton Lindsay on board his ship (coincidentally, or not, called the Lord Amherst) in 1832. Yet, it’s worth sticking with the crew of the Alceste for a little longer.

From Korea, Maxwell sailed to the Ryuku Archipelago (then known as the Loo-Choo Islands). There, he spent six weeks conducting a survey before he returned to the Pearl River on 2nd November 1816. The passage through the Straits of Formosa had been “boisterous in the extreme”, but Maxwell’s request to proceed to a secure anchorage for caulking and other repairs met with a blunt rebuff from the Tsoung-tou of Canton who knew Amherst’s embassy had been “in a great measure directed against his extortions."

Deciding the Chinese refusal was an act of “absolute hostility" and that tame submission would only encourage more of the same, in a light breeze Maxwell forced his way past the forts on the Bocca Tigris on the evening of 13th November, in an incident that was later euphemistically referred to as a “chin-chinning”, or an exchange of salutes. Finally, with Amherst and his suite on board, the Alceste departed for England on 21st January 1817. (9)

She was not destined to reach it. On 18th February, she struck an uncharted reef in the Gaspar Strait between Pulau Bangka and Pulau Belitung, about 450km (275 miles) north of Jakarta. Fortunately, though severely holed, she was stuck fast, and did not sink. This gave the crew sufficient time to reach safety on the island of Pulau Leat, 3½ miles away.

However, there was a shortage of water and of serviceable boats and so it was decided that Lieutenant Henry Hoppner and Mr Ellis would take Lord Amherst and his party to Java, and fetch help. With them went “a side of mutton, a ham, a tongue, about twenty pounds of coarse biscuit, and some few more of fine, seven gallons of water, (and perhaps more importantly) the same of beer, as many of spruce, and about thirty bottles of wine." Maxwell remained with 200 men and boys, and one woman, to salvage what they could from the wreck for their survival.

This turned out to be a harder task than it might have been, because the area was infested with Dayak pirates. Having been driven off the wreck in his first effort at salvage, Maxwell ordered the construction of a breast-work for defence on shore and then, on 22nd February, tried again. This time, the Alceste was set alight and destroyed, although some barrels of flour and, mirabile dictu, a case of wine and a cask of ale were retrieved.

On 24th, some pikes and muskets were recovered from the remains of the Alceste, whose upper works had been burned away, revealing what lay beneath, or floated to the surface. With these, the crew were able to beat off an attack on 26th. More pirates arrived in the coming two days, firing on the stockade with carronades from their proas in the cove.

By 1st March, there were fourteen of these offshore, with more arriving overnight. The situation was starting to look desperate, but then the sail of a rescue ship, the Ternate—sent by Amherst from Batavia—was spotted on the horizon and, coinciding with this, the pirates were driven off by an attack launched by the Alceste’s marines.

Accounts of the initial contact between different peoples from different cultures at different ends of the world always hold the promise of fruitful reading. An unusual feature of these first encounters is that they occurred so many years after Europeans were already familiar with the peoples of many other countries in the region. In both of these last instances, the interaction was brief and confined to the coastal strip. In a sense, it is unfortunate that, in the absence of an interpreter, the communication between the two sides was so fitful. On the other hand, if understanding had been more complete, some of the humour in these episodes would have been lost.

On their departure from the Korean coast in September 1716, Hall tells us that the English left “without much regret." The venerable Chief, he says, “with his snow-white beard, his pompous array, and his amusing and active curiosity, had made a considerable impression upon us all." He was good enough (for an Englishman) to concede the impression ran to a measure of respect, although he also says it was tempered by “his unmanly distress, from whatever cause it arose."

The extreme promptitude with which we were met at this remote spot, and the systematic pertinacity with which our landing was opposed, not only on the continent, but even at islands barely in sight of the coast, certainly imply an extraordinary degree of vigilance and jealousy on the part of the government. One can understand this better in China, where the circumstance of a strange ship calling at one of the outports, is a possible, though not a probable, event; and where the government, instead of encouraging foreign trade, are perpetually on the watch to repress all attempts at an extension of foreign intercourse with their Celestial Empire. But in Corea, where there is infinitely less probability of a foreign ship ever calling, the same watch against foreign interference, is far more curious.

The shadow of Hendrick Hamel can be detected in these remarks. When Hamilton arrived in Korea sixteen years later, he had the sense to organize a proper translator. Yet in his interview with his “chief”, his offer to connect the two nations “by friendly and commercial intercourse" was rebuffed, even to the extent that he was told his application—which had been accepted three weeks earlier—had not even been referred to the King. Hamilton signs off with the following remark:

I could not for a moment doubt that he is acting by express orders from the king, who, having finally come to a decision against admitting us to trade, now endeavoured to persuade us that the thing is so repugnant to their laws that it cannot be reported to him. The barefaced and unscrupulous manner in which (the chief) maintained this argument, by asserting that all the chiefs who had hitherto communicated with us were unauthorized liars, is too gross even for Chinese diplomacy.(10)

Fortunately, the previous encounters involving Maxwell and Hall had not been this frosty. They were friendlier characters, with a more developed sense of humour, and Hamilton’s mission, being a more formal event than their investigatory voyage, was a more pressured affair. One can see, however, that Korea’s reputation as the “Hermit Nation" had early beginnings.

The tale ends with a final, unexpected encounter. As the Amherst party sailed home from Batavia, they stopped at St Helena where, in August 1817, they called in on “the once mighty agitator of the world." Captain Maxwell was introduced. Bonaparte (who, Mcleod remarked, had “nothing descending in his manner" and could “behave himself very prettily if he pleases”) recognized the captor—in the Action of 29th November 1811—of his frigate, La Pomone and said “Vous etiez tres mechant—Eh bien! your government must not blame you for the loss of the Alceste, for you have taken one of my frigates." Did he appreciate that the Alceste was captured from the French also?

Whether, as has been suggested, he comforted Amherst on the failure of his mission with the aphorism “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world" is apparent from the account neither of John Mcleod, nor Basil Hall, nor Henry Ellis. Would Amherst have appreciated the remark if it had been made?

This account is the result of a chance encounter on Wikipedia that arose during some research into the life of Lord Amherst for a forthcoming article touching on the First Anglo-Burmese War.

Following the initial clues provided by Wikipedia, the principal sources for this essay have been Basil Hall’s Voyage of Discovery to the West Coast of Korea and the Great Loo-Choo Island (John Murray, 1818) and his subsequent Voyage to Loo Choo and Other Places in the Eastern Seas (Archibold Constable 1826). Hall’s account is supplemented by Henry Ellis’ Journal of the Proceedings of the Late Embassy to China (Edward Moxon, 1840), as well as by Capt. John Macleod’s Narrative of a Voyage in His Majesty’s Late Ship Alceste (John Murray, 1818.) All of these accounts are available online.

For Hendrik Hamel’s experiences, see his Journal of the Unfortunate Voyage of the Sperwer, which was published in an English translation by Jean-Paul Buys of Taize, as Hamel’s Journal and a Description of the Kingdom of Korea (1653-1666) (Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, 1994.) It has also been posted online by Henny Savenije (www.hendrick-hamel.henny-savenije.pe.kr)

William Broughton’s Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean was published by T. Cadelll and W. Davies in 1804. This is also available online.

(1) For John Saris’ letter, see The Voyage of Captain John Saris to Japan, 1613, Ed. Sir Ernest Satow, Hakluyt Society 1908, p. 210-11. For Richard Cocks’ correspondence, see Letters Written by The English Residents in Japan (1611-23), Ed. Murakami & Murakawa, Tokyo, 1900, p.130 and p.142. William Foster thought Edward Sares (also known at Edmund Sayer) was probably a distant relative of John Saris. He left Japan when the factory was withdrawn in 1624, served as a factor in Bantam, and sailed for the Persian Gulf in 1625. He probably died on a homebound journey to England from Surat in 1626.

Twenty two years before the date of this letter, in 1592, the Japanese Toyotomi Hideyoshi had launched his first invasion of Korea, at the start of the Imjin War.

(2) “Before the Tartar seized control of Korea this was a country of abundance and playfulness. People did nothing but eat, drink and be merry. But now they have suffered so much from the Tartars and the Japanese that in bad years they hardly have enough to keep going, because of the heavy tributes they have to provide, mainly to the Tartar, who comes three times a year to collect these." (RASKB edition, p.68)

(3) The French and English translations contained some infelicities that must have crept in from other sources. It is a relief to be told Hamel never saw any elephants in Korea, but a surprise to discover that man-eating crocodiles and alligators were common. “The Coresians often told us that three children were once found in the belly of one of these crocodiles."

(4) It is possible the reference is to Choryang Waegwan (or Weikwan), the Japanese trading and diplomatic post in Busan, which was established in 1678. If it was the village that the British were told not to enter, it needn’t have been an act of unfriendliness on the Korean villagers’ part, as the area was “off limits" to them also.

(5) For the Korean (as well as the English) text from the Royal Chronicle of the Chosun Dynasty (Vol.47), see the website of Henny Savenije: www.british.henny-savenije.pe.kr

(6) Hereafter, quotations respecting Korea are from Hall’s accounts, unless otherwise indicated.

(7) Actually, not quite. “One of the principal persons, or a man whom we assumed to be such from the dimensions of his hat, looked so wistfully at a claret-glass during a display which was made of the contents of our pic-nic basket … that we prevailed him to accept it. … But in a few minutes the same native came back, and without any ceremony thrust the glass again into the basket, and walked off, accompanied by all the party except one man, who the moment the angle of a rock concealed him from the view of his companions eagerly pointed to a tumbler in use at the moment to lift water from a spring, and having carefully hid it in his bosom, returned to the village by another road, evidently apprehensive of being detected by his countrymen."

(8) The Sir James Hall group of islands straddles what is now the sea frontier between North and South Korea. Hutton Island is some distance further south, not far from the Taeanhaean National Park in Chungnam-do. In travelling from one to the other, the British had passed by the entrance to Incheon harbour unawares.

(9) For the details of the events in the Pearl River and Amherst’s subsequent journey to England, see John McLeod’s Voyage of His Majesty’s Ship Alceste, p. 143ff.

(10) House of Commons’ Report of Proceedings on a Voyage to the Northern Ports of China, in the Ship Lord Amherst (London, B. Fellowes, 1833) p. 250. The full account of Hugh Hamilton’s experiences in Korea is contained in pages 215 to 259.

18 February 2018

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