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A 17th Century Dutch Account of Korea
and a description of the Kingdom of Korea 1653-1666
By Hendrik Hamel
Revised Edition, Translated from Dutch by Jean-Paul Buys
Seoul Computer Press; Seoul, Korea; 1994, 1998
ISBN #89-7225-086-4 93910
Review by Jerry Winzig
On July 30, 1653, the Dutch merchant ship, Sperwer (Sparrow Hawk), set sail from Taiwan to Japan, laden with a cargo of deerskin, sugar, alum and other goods. The ship had arrived just two weeks before, having delivered a new governor from Batavia (modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia). Toward evening, a storm came up that drove the small ship off course and for the next two and a half weeks the Sperwer drifted between China and Taiwan, alternately becalmed and beaten by severe winds. On August 16, when the crew sited land and tried to drop anchor, the ship broke free and was smashed to pieces.
Only 36 members of the crew of 64 survived, most of them badly hurt. They didn't know it yet, but they were near what is now the modern-day city of Cheju on the north coast of Cheju-do island in Korea. But in the 17th century there was virtually no European contact with Korea, and the Dutch knew the island as Quelpaert.
When the Korean inhabitants discovered the crew, they placed them under guard and began a long debate on what to do with the crew. The king was consulted in Seoul, and he decided that Korea could not afford to let the crew leave, because that would end Korea's isolation and expose the country to foreign influence. So the surviving crew members were placed under a loose sort of house arrest and were eventually taken to Seoul and later to southern Korea. The terms of their confinement varied over the course of many years. Finally, in 1666, eight of the crew managed to purchase a small boat and used it to escape to Deshima (modern-day Nagasaki, Japan), where the Japanese hold them for another year until allowing them to return to Batavia (Jakarta).
Hamel's Journal was first published a year later, in 1668. It written by the Sperwer's bookkeeper and only surviving officer, Hendrik Hamel, who was 23 years old at the time of the shipwreck. Even with extensive footnotes, maps, and drawings, it is only 113 pages long, and consists of Hamel's chronological account of the crew's 13 years in Korea and a separate description of his impressions of Korea.
Hamel's account is spare, even terse, and many questions are left unanswered. The crew is allowed to live rather freely among the Korean population in several towns and cities, and Hamel says they made Korean friends. But there is no mention of how the crew related to Korean women or whether they ever had Korean girl friends or wives.
What we do find, with rather less prejudice than one would expect from a 17th-century European, is one culture's discovery of another culture and country. Hamel describes how their food allowances change from rice to barley when the provincial governor is replaced, and comments on how they are treated differently each time a governor is replaced annually. Through Hamel's eyes, we view the annual visit of the Chinese emperor's representative, the "Manchu envoy."
The first visit of the envoy results in a great deal of trouble for the crew. The Korean court tries to keep the Dutch crew hidden during the envoy's visit, but two of the crew members manage to approach the envoy and try to tell him about their predicament. This results in a punishment of 50 lashes for the rest of the crew (for not warning their captors about the plot) and the two crew members who approached the envoy are imprisoned and never seen again.
The chronological account of the crew's 13 years in Korea is only 33 pages long. In fact, the book is really a collection of historical documents, with very little commentary. Ten pages are devoted to the questions asked by the governor of Nagasaki upon their arrival in Japan, and the crew members' answers. Another 10 pages is a vocabulary of 143 Korean words and their meanings, compiled by another crew member, Mattheus Eibocken, the assistant surgeon, who was 19 when they first arrived in Korea. Another 20 pages are written by the translator, Jean-Paul Buys, and describe what happened to the crew members who did not escape in 1666 and the differences between various editions of Hamel's Journal. And there are 20 pages of Hamel's description of Korea.
What we really have, then, are several original 17th-century Dutch documents and a little background information. But there's no substantial commentary or interpretation. For example, Hamel reports distances in terms of "mijls" and the translator points out that there are several possibilities for what Hamel means by "mijl," including the so-called German mile, which is about 7.4 kilometers long.
This book asks us to become historians ourselves. What we make of the Dutch crew member's account is really almost entirely up to us. That's quite a challenge, because it means we have to do the research and discover for ourselves the true context of this story of 17th-century Korea. Hamel's Journal gives us a taste of the complexities of history and encourages us to find out more.
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