Disturbing the Morning Calm: Korean contacts with Europe prior to 1600 CE.

By Ásfríðr Ulfvíðardóttir/ Rebecca Lucas.
Last Updated: 6th September 2009




By the close of the 16th century, the edges of the world were being slowly sketched and filled in. Reports were making their way back to Europe about the distant lands of China, Japan, and Malaysia. But, in 1594, news of a new land reached Europe; Korea. (Cheong and Lee, 2000; 262) This short essay aims to merely survey the English-language literature about the discovery of Korea, and her inhabitants, by Europeans, and in turn, what the Koreans thought of these new visitors to Asia.

Modern-day Korea is located on a peninsula, unsurprisingly called the Korean peninsula, with China to the north-west, and Japan to the east. Although its’ boundaries changed through its’ dynasties, the peninsula appears to have been always been identified as part of the various Korean kingdoms.

Figure 1
Fig 1: Map of eastern Asia, with the Korean peninsula highlighted. (Wikipedia, 2008)  

While modern, and recent history, has given Korea (particularly North Korea) the nickname 'The Hermit Kingdom', this does not appear to have been the case 4oo years ago. Indeed, it had been invaded numerous times prior to 1600, and had become a tributary to other rulers. The interactions between Korea, China and Japan also influence the circumstances by which Europeans first gained information about the area. It can be considered quite likely that prior to the 1590s Europeans had come across people who would identify themselves as being Korean, however it is not until the final decade of the century that any certain identifications can be made. These earlier contacts shall be examined, as they provide a good example of the range of encounters that may have taken place.

These encounters occurred during the Goryeo and Choson dynasties of Korea, and it is possible to divide this study into contacts during these time periods, as both had their major events which brought Europeans into contact with this Asian country.

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In the Mongol Empire

The first major dynasty, of the middle ages, is the Goryeo (고려) dynasty from 918 to 1392. During this time, the Mongol empire invaded, and Goryeo became a tributary of their empire. It should be strenuously pointed out, that this argument is not merely a re-hash of the idea that ‘Koreans having contact with Mongols is evidence that Koreans had contact with Europeans.’ Instead, Koreans were an integrated part of the Mongol empire, and had contact with Europeans, both as ‘Mongols’ and as Koreans who had taken advantage of the freedom of safe travel the Pax Mongolica provided. (Waugh, 2000)

Koreans were certainly travelling to China, and there is even a legend that a Korean physician known as Cho-I gave the Yuan emporer, living in the city, the idea to invade Japan. (Brinkley 1915: 358, Herriott 1945; 400) This idea was further elaborated upon by the highly patriotic author Nakaba Yamada in Ghenko. Yamada theorised that Cho-I and the European Marco Polo conspired together in order to convince the Khan to invade. (Yamada, 1915:74) This belief was so strong, that he felt it was worth illustrating with the drawing in figure 2. If this decidedly strange theory is true, and tracking down references has thus far led to a dead end, (Hulbert [ed], 1902: 37) then it would point towards contact between a Korean and a very famous European traveller.

Figure 2
Fig 2: Drawing from Ghenko, illustrating Yamada’s theory of conspiracy between Marco Polo and Cho-I (Yamada, 1915:74)
Click to Enlarge  

However, Polo was not the only European who may have observed Koreans while travelling in the Mongol empire. William of Rubruck, a Franciscan Friar travelled to the Mongol city of Karakorum, and in his Account of the Mongols mentions a possible envoy:

… [Korean]… envoys I saw at court… They are little men and swarthy like Spaniards, and they wear tunics like the chasuble (supertunicale) of a deacon, except with narrower sleeves. On their heads they wear a miter [sic] like a bishop's, except that in front it is slightly lower than behind, and it does not terminate in a point, but is square on top, and is of stiff black buckram, and so polished that it shines in the sun's rays like a mirror or a well-burnished helmet…  

Thomas T. Allsen, in describing Rubruck’s interaction with Koreans, claims that while in the Mongol empire he met Korean princes and notes that by this time Koreans were integrated into the Mongol empire, being utilised as shipwrights and sailors for the benefit of Yuan military incursions. (Allsen, 1997:2, 18) Another aspect of the workings of the Mongol empire was to transport workers from different areas and regions to distant locales, such as the movement of Russian slaves and soldiers. One regiment in the 1330s, comprised of Russians and Ossetes (from modern-day Georgia), were posted to the Korea-Manchuria border. It may be that they had contact with the Koreans then, although this is not recorded. (Franke, 1966, 49-72)

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Interactions between Joseon Dynasty Koreans and Europeans.

The second major dynasty of Common Era in Korea, is the Joseon dynasty (also Chosŏn, Choson, Chosun, 조선) from 1392 to 1910. From 1509, the Portuguese began to write of contact with the 'Gores', beginning with Diogo Lopes de Sequeira's travels to Malacca.(Cheong and Lee, 2000; 258) While some researchers have claimed that these 'Gores' were Koreans living on Ryukyu Island, it is more likely that they were the native Ryukyuan population. The primary name of these Gores was said to have been 'Lequois', possibly derived from Mandarin Liúqiú, which is the name given to the modern-day Ryukyuan Islands (Kerr, 2000; 126-7). What is clear is that the Portuguese didn't make the connection between the Goreans and Koreans. "Consequently sixteenth-century records on the Gores also made no contribution to the introduction of Korea to Europe." (Cheong and Lee, 2000; 258)

Korea had diplomatic relations with China, and send envoys across the China Sea, where Koreans once again came into contact with Europeans.

In 1520, Korean interprator Yi Sok returned from China and reported to the king about the Pullanggi (불랑기). This name is derived from the Chinese ‘Folangchi’ (佛狼機) which originally meant European, but by this time was used primarily to describe the Portuguese. He described them as being uncivilised, for overthrowing the ruler of Malacca in 1511, and for lacking social graces.(Park, 2004: 164) He had heard this information from Chinese officials. (Baker, 1990:52)

Sin Sang and Han Hyowon, who had headed the embassy the interprator was a part of, reported that the embassy of Koreans were in the same compound as the Portuguese, and in contrast to the rumours of Yi Sok, the ‘Korean visitors found them as having open and civilized minds.’ (Park, 2004: 165)

While this was only one meeting, the implications for technology were enormous. In 1603, Yi Su-gwang (1563-1629) theorised that the name Pullanggi (also Bullanggi or Bulranggi) has become synonomous with western-style guns, even though it originally had merely designated Portuguese people. The importation of this European technology should surely count towards ‘significant trade’ between Europe and Korea. The desire for these weapons can not be understated; by the 1630s, missionaries in China were approached expressively by Koreans for their weapons knowledge. (Baker 1990: 58, Hong 1964:5)
Within a century of the embassy meeting the Portuguese, the technological influence of the pullanggi had given Korea a new word to describe cannons, and were engaging in regular trade for said weapons, as well as reverse-engineering their own.

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European Cannons:
Evidence of Trade and Technology.

In 1517, the first European cannon was introduced to Asia via Gandong, China. (Military History Museum, Korea) However, the Ming dynasty Chinese did not introduce the cannon to Korea until 1592, 25-50 years after the first, dated, Pullanggi cannon was used from the reign of King Myeongjong (1545-1567). Designated as a Cultural Treasure of modern-day South Korea, it is known as the Bullanggijapo (Cultural Properties Administration, 2008)
As cannons were given serial-number type ‘names’, including the reigning king, it seems that its' inscription is what has determined that it is the first known European cannon in Korea.

For an image of the earliest extant European cannon in Korea (1545-1567), that was still being used until the 19th century (Military History Museum, 2008), please see the Cultural Heritage Administration website: Bullanggijapo Treasure No. 861  

Where did this cannon come from? Could it have been introduced to Korea by the Chinese? Certainly, this is one proposed route (Roh, 2001; 175). But it may have also come directly by Portuguese trade.

It is well-known, that the Portuguese introduced guns into neighbouring Japan, and were advising the Japanese on how to manufacture their own, (Perrin, 1979:19) however the Portuguese were also providing guns for defence to the Koreans (Swope, 2005:26).

Kenneth M. Swope notes that by the time of the Japanese-Korean war of the 1590s, one of the routes of aquiring guns for defence was through the Portuguese. They also copied the designs of cannons and muskets of the Europeans for their own weaponry. (Swope, 2005:26) The 16th century text Handbook for All State Affairs describes the ‘outstanding… new inventions in weaponry’ including the Pullanggi cannon (Kent and Lancour 1977: 209).
The European-stye cannon was so revolutionary, because it had such a fast firing speed and better aim. This in turn meant that only one cannon ball needed to be loaded and fired, using 1.5-7 yang of gunpowder. In contrast, the smaller hwangjapo or 'yellow' cannon was listed in a 1635 manual on artilery (Hwaposik Eonhae, 화포식언해, 火砲式諺解) as requiring 20 cannonballs and 3 yang of gunpowder (Roh, 2001; 175-6).

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Jesuit Missionaries:
Gregorio de Céspedes and Francisco de Laguna

In the spring of 1550, St. Francis Xavier crossed paths with Korean envoys dispatched to Japan during his sojourn in Hirado, and in Yamaguchi between November of 1550 and September of 1551 (Cheong and Lee 2000:261).

There were certainly attempts to travel from Japan to Korea, as the Jesuit Father Gaspar Vilela wrote home to Portugal describing in 1567 how he had intended four years previously to make the 10 day journey by sea, but had not done so due to civil wars in the region. (Gompertz, 1957: 43, 44) It should be noted that his geographical knowledge of the area was rather shaky, as he believed that one could travel on a road that led from the peninsula to Germany. Yet, it was not until the 1590s that a European was successful.

With the invasion of Korea by Japan, there came yet another chance for Europeans to come into contact with this small kingdom. Christianity had been introduced into Japan by Jesuit missionaries, including the previously mentioned St. Francis.

By 1577, the Portuguese Jesuit Father Gregorio de Céspedes had travelled to Japan in order to help converting the island, and by 1579 was regularly hearing Japanese confessions. (Cory, 1937:4) Céspedes seemed to have been a likable and persuasive man, as he began to slowly convert and baptise the soldiers, and their associated households, who were in the service of Toyotomi Hideyoshi who launched the Japanese Invasions of Korea. (Cory, 1937:5, 6) This small number of Christian converts needed to be ministered to, and so Céspedes travelled to Korea in December 1593 in order to travel “from fortress to fortress, contending against disorders of every kind, reforming abuses, confirming Christians for the administration of the Sacraments, and baptising numbers of pagans.” Cory, 1937:10) He was so busy that he did not write down any encounters or impressions he had of the Korean people, and complained instead about the cold weather. It seems that he was still in Korea in March 1594, as he had written a letter to Pedro Gómez in Nagasaki, who then passed on the news to the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Claudio Aquaviva, in Rome. (Ruiz-de-Medina 1994; 55 ARSI Jap-sin 12/182.) It was pointed out by Gompertz, that it’s quite likely that “all the Koreans with whom he came in contact were probably either prisoners or fugitives, in a state of terror or sullen apathy, and it would have been difficult for the most earnest enquirer to as certain much about their country and way of life in normal times.” (Gompertz, 1957: 41)
We know that he had contact with at least one Korean, as he took a boy back to Japan, in order to be better prepared for establishing a Jesuit mission on the peninsula. (Cheong and Lee 2000: 19)

Kim Hyeong-guk goes even further, claiming Gregorio de Céspedes was responsible for 7,000 Koreans converting to Christianity:

...he could only make contact with Koreans who had been captured and were about to be dispatched to Japan. Nevertheless, he taught Christian doctrine to the most literate Koreans, who then taught the others. As a result, the number of Korean detainees in Japan who converted to Christianity amounted to some 7,000. (Kim, 2007)  

If Kim is correct, the continual hopes expressed by Jesuit letter-writers, seems plausible if they already had evidence of the willingness of the Koreans to convert. The hopeful writings of an anonymous Jesuit historian in autumn 1597, that the Koreans would be converted, and claiming there was already a Christian population on the peninsula sounds less fanciful. (Moser, 1962: 16)

...It is true that in Coria another Christendom will by and by be planted, and that in this way a door will be opened to all of China; but as the war in Corai and the Christendom which may be established in it depends on good and bad luck; and the Chinas will put all their forces in the field to expel the enemy; and if they cannot do it while Hideyoshi is alive they may be able to do it after his death, we run the risk of losing the Christians who are over there and those who remain here.  

In the same year that the historian wrote about the hopes for Christianity, another Jesuit letter (ARSI Jap-sin 54 2v) indicates that there was still a need for the Jesuits to enter Korea. The 'wife of the damiyo of Arima' was about to give birth, in Korea, and so required the services of a priest. A Father, believed to be Francisco de Laguna, and a Japanese Brother were sent to Konishi's fortress, where they provided spiritual guidance to the Japanese Christians for two months, returning to Japan in 1598. Sadly, both the wife and her child died. (Ruiz-de-Medina 1994; 55)

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Portuguese Mercenaries, or Barbarian Sea-Devils?

In a mid-1598 entry of the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (Joseon Wangjo Sillok, 朝鮮王朝實錄, 조선왕조실록), there is an intriguing passage that some people have argued shows that Portuguese mercenaries fought alongside Korean troops (Walraven, 2003; 35, de Laurentis, 2008; 54). King Seonjo is said to have visited the Chinese Brigadier Peng Xin'gu, lodged in Seoul, who showed the king "some strange looking but amazing soldiers.... from a country called P'arang" who were skilled with muskets. (de Laurentis, 2008; 55-6, Ledyard, 2007ab, Walraven, 2003; 35) After a demonstration of their martial prowess with swords for the king, they were rewarded with 'a gift of silver.' (Walraven, 2003; 35) Professor Gari Ledyard, mentioned by de Laurentis (2008; 54-6), translated part of the Seonjo sillok and noted these foreigners were described as having curly black hair all over their bodies, except for their bald heads. (Ledyard, 2007a) While this is not an impossible description of a westerner, it becomes even more unlikely when combined with the other descriptions of their appearance; their pupils were yellow, and their faces, limbs, hands and feet were black.(Ledyard, 2007b) It is possible that these soldiers were from southeast Asia, India or even Africa (Ledyard, 2007a), so the existance of Portuguese soldiers, using the Sillok entry, is unproven.

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Koreans outside of Korea

With the slave trade in prisoners of war occurring in Japan, Europeans there certainly had extensive contact with Koreans, as for instance, the Florentine Francesco Carletti purchased five such slaves. Although to his credit he set them free in Goa, one named Antonio Corea accompanied Carletti back to Florence, reaching Europe in 1606. (Gompertz, 1957: 48) Vincent Caoun (also Kaun, Kwon, Kwǒn, Cafioye or Kahioe)(Ricci 21st Century Roundtable, 2009) was taken from Korea to Kyoto in 1598 and educated in the Jesuit seminary of Arima. (Rutt and Hoare, 1999; 34) Rutt and Hoare say he was 'destined to return to Korea as a missionary' (ibid.) however he never returned and was burned at the stake in 1626 in Nagasaki. There is also another baptised and Christianied Korean from this time, known as Tomás, described as being 'of noble birth' who was tutored in Manila by Spanish Dominicans, (Ruiz-de-Medina, 1994; 261-2, Gompertz, 1957: 48) however when they attempted to accompany him back to Korea in 1618 they were stopped at the border. The letters sent by Jesuits back to their superiors also mention Korean-born people who had converted to Christianity in Japan. One such example is in a letter by Luís Fróis in 1596.

"This year many POWs from Korea have been under instruction, men and women and children here in Nagasaki more than 1300, they say. Most of them were baptized two years ago, and they will make First Confession this year.... Most of them quickly learn the language of Japan, and so easily that hardly one of them needs an interpreter to help him make his confession."
Translation of ARSI Jap-sin 52 203v (Ruiz-de-Medina, 1994).  

There are also letters that mention individual Koreans, as well as noteworthy individuals who were named. Julia Ôta (also Ota-a, Otaa) had been taken into the household of Konishi Yukinaga, (also, Don Agustín, Tsu no kami domo Agustín) and brought back to Japan after the invasion. By 1606 she had risen through the ranks to 'serve in the palace of the Kubô' and be a lady of the court. (Ruiz-de-Medina, 1994; ARSI Jap-sin 55 283v, ARSI Jap-sin 57 243v.) Although the first mention of Julia is after 1600, it is claimed that it was through Konishi that God 'had revealed to her himself and his holy law.' (Ruiz-de-Medina, 1994; ARSI Jap-sin 57 243v) As Konishi had died in November 1600, then she would have converted to Christianity before then, and Pedro Morejón claimed that he baptised her, himself. (Ruiz-de-Medina, 1994; 245) After the banning of Catholicism from 1614, Julia refused to recant her faith, she was banished to the island of Niijima. (Ruiz-de-Medina, 1994; APT C-286 465, Biblioteca Nacional of Madrid, MS 3046) She also wrote to the Jesuits in Rome, via the transcription and translation of Pedro Morejón. (Ruiz-de-Medina, 1994; 243-245)

Carlo Spinola reported on 'Miguel the Korean' who had settled in Kuchinotsu, Nagasaki before the end of the Japanese invasion in 1598. Spinola implies that he had converted reasonably quickly upon entering servitude in Japan, as 'having been engaged to return to his country to take part in the war, he did not flee although he could have. Then coming back to Japan he continued to serve some years in order to free his sister from servitude.'(Ruiz-de-Medina, 1994; ARSI Jap-sin 58 72 seq.) Possibly the same Miguel is mentioned as an interpreter working in Osaka for the East India Company in 1615. (Turnbull, 2006; 90) He was martyred in 1615 and later immortalised in the writings of Félix de Lope de Vega Carpio in Triunfo de la fe en el Japón, 1618 (The Triumph of Faith in the Realm of Japan) alongside another Korean christened Pedro. (Park, 1993)

Sant Leo Karasuma, one of the twenty-six martyrs of Japan crucified in 1597, is claimed to have been a Korean layman (eg. Ball, 2002; 591). Blessed Gayo (Gaius) converted to Catholicism in Japan in 1599, and was martyred in Nagasaki in 1624 (Ruiz-de-Medina, 1994; 186, Rutt and Hoare, 1999; 34). There are other Christian martyrs who are known to have been born in Korea, however if they had converted to their new faith prior to 1600, and if they were converted personally by the European Jesuits is unclear. (See, for an example of such lists: England, 1994 or The Known Korean Martyrs in Japan.)

Although the information about encounters, cultural transmission and technology is brief, it brings the number of named Europeans coming in contact before 1600, to six. The number of anonymous Europeans who may have interacted with Koreans, as soldiers in the Mongol empire, as traders in cannons, and as peaceful envoys in China, is unknown. The linguistic and cultural influence of the Portuguese, to have had a European weapon named after them, should be considered significant. This is because it reveals the intertwined relationship the Koreans had with this Europeans as being profecient in weaponry as well as a trading partner in the 16th century. (Baker, 1990:54)

The identification of recent converts to Christianity as Koreans, despite having naturalised Japanese names, is also telling. As this identification is by the Jesuits writing reports and letters, then it logically would indicate that the Jesuits were aware of Korean Christians and were in close enough contact with these individuals to mention their activities and names.

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General European Knowledge of Korea

Letters were arriving from Japan, by Jesuit missionaries, about the mysterious peninsula to the west. These letters were then published from 1593 onwards, in Spanish, with translations into Italian and French in 1595-6. English translations were produced in 1599 and 1601, in Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations and Guzman’s Historia de la Missiones. (Cheong and Lee: 2000; 270-1) Italian translations were incorporated into the 1550s text Navigationi et Viaggi, increasing the circulation of information about Korea. (Cheong and Lee: 2000; 275-6) Although there were two Europeans who had set foot on Korean soil by 1600, on the other side of the world the literate population of Europe could read and learn about the kingdom.

In short, we have information from both Europeans and Koreans mentioning their contact with the other, although the extent of the contact is often vague, and the only two Europeans to actually set foot on Korean soil was Gregorio de Céspedes and Francisco de Laguna, it is apparent that there was significant contact between these two civilisations prior to 1600.

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