Travellers’ Tales, Or How the West Learned about Corea

Brother Anthony (President, RAS Korea)
Tuesday, March 26, 2013 -
7:30pm to 9:00pm
Second floor Residents’ Lounge, Somerset Palace
7,000 won (non-member); free for members

It is generally known that the Dutchman Hendrick Hamel was the first European to spend a considerable time in Korea then return home and write an account of the country. That account was published and translated into several languages. But what did people know about Korea before his shipwreck in 1653? And how was more discovered after him, both prior to the opening of the country from 1882, or even after that? How did Dutch ships come to be in this part of the world, and who else was interested in Korea?

This evening’s lecture begins with the earliest European mentions of Corea, dating from the Middle Ages. Few people are familiar with the extraordinary adventures of the Portuguese adventurer Fernão Mendes Pinto, probably the first European to reach Japan; his visits led to the arrival in the 1540s of Portuguese and Spanish merchants and missionaries in Japan. From there the Jesuits sent reports mentioning the Japanese invasion of Corea in 1592. Then there is the extraordinary tale of how an Englishman-turned-samourai helped the Dutch to gain a foothold in Japan.
Early maps depict Corea as an island, and the arrival in Corea of shipwrecked Dutch sailors in the 17th century did not really contribute much to detailed geographical knowledge. Then the focus shifts from Japan to China, where succeeding generations of Jesuit missionaries contributed what knowledge they could gain of Corea to a Europe that was increasingly fascinated by exotic lands. In the earlier eighteenth century, the very different accounts of Hamel and the Jesuits were compared and combined in a variety of ways in popular encyclopedias, but it was the development of surveying to prepare accurate, large-scale nautical charts that brought a new kind of explorer to the waters (and occasionally the land) of Corea. The decision to force Corea to open its doors to the modern world finally gave explorers access to Corean territory, and more detailed travellers’ tales began to appear. The final section of the lecture will mention some of those who pioneered the exploration of the land that had for so long been closed, and published accounts of their journeys in books that mostly used the spelling “Korea” familiar today..

Brother Anthony came to Korea in 1980, he is emeritus professor at Sogang University, chair-professor at Dankook University, translates Korean poetry, and has been President of RAS Korea since 2011.

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