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The Dutch Came to Korea
Written by Cody Thiel
Researcher at The Korea Society
In 1668 CE Hendrick Hamel, a Dutch mariner, sailed into Amsterdam after a seventeen year journey throughout Asia. Hamel, along with seven other sailors, came home to Holland with stories of a peculiar land where only a handful of westerners had set foot. His book An Account of the Shipwreck of a Dutch Vessel on the Coast of the Isle of Quelpaert Together with the Description of the Kingdom of Corea, would later tell the tale of his adventures on the Korean peninsula.
Hamel’s journey first began as a young sailor in Holland. Leaving for Asia in 1651, Hamel worked on various ships for the Netherlands East India Company. In early 1653 he was assigned to be the secretary of a ship called the Sparrowhawk. For most of that year, the Sparrowhawk found smooth seas as it went from port to port trading its goods. But in August, the ship drifted into a violent storm on its way to Japan from southern China. Caught in the storm, the sixty-five sailors aboard the Sparrowhawk struggled unsuccessfully to keep their ship afloat. In the aftermath of the tempest only thirty-six of the sailors survived because they were washed ashore a nearby island. Without a clue to where they were, the sailors gathered on a small beach and gathered what they could from the wreckage to use as survival supplies. After gathering their supplies, they were able to figure out that they were on the island of Quepart, or Cheju Island, Korea.
Within in a day of their disaster they were spotted by a lone man, who quickly ran away at the sight of them. The man ran to tell the local authorities and after a day, returned with a group of a hundred men. The men surrounded the Dutch castaways and ordered that they follow them to a nearby house. Being unable to communicate with the group of men, the Dutchmen feared for their lives. Luckily, the governor of the island was more than hospitable, despite being unable to communicate with the Dutchmen. He provided food and housing for the Dutch. He also sent a report of the Dutch shipwreck to Seoul, the capital of the Chosŏn Kingdom.
The royal government sent their response to the Cheju governor’s report in October. In explaining the response Hamel writes,
On the 29th of October, our Secretary, the Master, and Surgeon’s Mate, were carry’d before the Governour, where they found a Man sitting, who had a great red Beard. The Governour ask’d us, Who we took that man to be? And having told him, We suppos’d him to be a Dutch-man; he fell a laughing and said, We were mistaken, for he was a [Korean]. After some Discourse had pass’d between us, that Man who till then had been silent, ask’d us in Dutch, Who we were , and of what Country? 1
Shocked to find their fellow countryman on foreign shores they asked how he had come to Korea. The man, John Wettevree, had been captured with two other men while gathering supplies on an expedition. His two companions had since died and he had fully integrated himself into Chosŏn society. The Korean king, Hyŏnjong, had sent Wettevree to be their interpreter and to escort the Dutchmen back to Seoul for further questioning.
Life in Chosŏn Korea
Upon their arrival in Seoul, the Dutchman pleaded with the king for their release. They hoped to continue onto Japan, where their previous employer, the Netherlands East India Company had a trading settlement. The king denied their request and instead placed them in the king’s guard. As compensation for their work as members of the king’s guard, they received a regular stipend of rice and clothing. They also received attention from all walks of life in Seoul. As the only group of European foreigners in Seoul there was an endless stream of people trying to catch a peek of the fair skinned barbarians.
Their time as part of the king’s guard would be cut short. During a visit from the Qing Chinese envoy, two of the Dutchmen attempted to escape with the envoy. The two men made it to the envoy, but the Chinese turned the two runaways back to the Korean court where they died in prison. Hoping to avoid another attempted escape, the king separated and banished the surviving Dutchmen to the southwest region of Korea, Chŏlla Province, in 1657.
In their new countryside homes, they served under the governor of the province performing a variety of labors. During their time in Chŏlla, a devastating famine covered the land. Hamel recalls the harrowing conditions,
The Year happen’d such a Drought, that all sorts of Provisions were very scarce. The following Year 1661, was yet more miserable, abundance of People were famish’d to Death, and the Roads were full of Robbers. 2
The famine took a toll on the Dutchmen and several of their comrades suffered death. In addition to the famine, the Dutchmen also suffered under the hand of oppressive overseers. A combination of these events motivated the few survivors to make an attempt at escape. To prepare for the trip they pooled their money together and purchased a small watercraft. They used it to travel throughout the southern coasts of Korea to beg for food and clothing.
Escape to Japan
At first, these trips were limited from one to two days, but soon the Dutchmen were allowed to make longer trips. The men used these trips to gather supplies and information about the area. Eventually they gathered enough to attempt a crossing to Japan. Sending for the Dutchmen that wanted to risk an escape, a total of eight, they left for Japan in the stillness of the night. Having successfully navigated into open seas, they worked their way towards Japan until they were picked up by Japanese ships. The ships escorted them to the Dutch settlement in Nagasaki.
Fearing to upset the Japanese or Koreans, the Netherlands East India Company negotiated with Japan the release of Hamel and his companions. Eventually they secured the release of their countrymen and gradually sent them back to Holland. Hamel, having spent thirteen years in Korea, wrote his account. The account was published shortly thereafter and later translated into French and English.
The original transcript still exists in the Colonial Archives in Holland. As one of the first accounts of a westerner in Korea, it provides valuable and often amusing insights into Korean life during the Chosŏn Kingdom.
*Note: Gari Ledyard’s The Dutch Came to Korea was used as the primary reference for the above article. Please see The Dutch Came to Korea for a more exhaustive resource on Hendrick Hamel’s account.
Ledyard, Gari. The Dutch Came to Korea. Republic of Korea The Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch: Republic of Korea, 1971.
Edited by Vibeke Roeper and Boudewijn Walraven. Hamel’s World: A Dutch-Korean Encounter in the Seventeenth Century. Amsterdam: Sun Publishers, 2003.