Hendrick Hamel (died Gorinchem 1692) was the first Westerner to write about the Joseon Dynasty era in Korea (1666).
Hendrick Hamel was a bookkeeper with the Dutch East India Company (the VOC). In 1653, while heading for Japan on the ship 'De Sperwer' (the Sparrowhawk), he was shipwrecked on Jeju Island off the southern coast of Korea along with thirty-five of his crewmates. 36 of the 64 member of the crew survived the shipwreck, and the men were promptly taken into custody and sent to Seoul. They were forbidden to leave the country, because the Korean government preferred not to allow information about Korea to reach the outside world. However, they were given some freedom to move and mix with the different classes of Korean society.
After thirteen years, Hamel and seven of his crewmates managed to escape to Japan, and from there to the Netherlands. In 1666, three different publishers published his report, describing their improbable adventure and giving the first detailed and accurate description of Korea to Europe.
The Hermit Kingdom
During the time of Hamel's accidental discovery of the "Hermit Kingdom", Korea, like its neighbor Japan, had made great strides in keeping foreign influences and foreigners at bay. That decision by the Korean rulers was born out of necessity, as from 1592 onwards a number of bloody attempts had been made by Japan to conquer the peninsula and use it as a stepping stone to confront the Chinese empire. The first invasion by an army of 250,000 was successful until the Korean fleet was able to cut Japanese supply lines, forcing a retreat and an armistice.
Five years later, another Japanese incursion was halted by a joined Sino-Korean army. Again the Korean navy managed to deal its Japanese counterpart a devastating blow, but not before the Japanese - and the ensuing battles - had laid waste to virtually the entire country.
Because of their anti-Japanese feelings, the 17th century Koreans, ruled by kings of the Joseon dynasty, effectively sealed off the country, only allowing for time-honored relations with China. That relationship was tenuous at best, as China had added to Korea's post-war woes by raiding the country - for centuries a satellite state of China - in reprisals for political and especially tax infractions.
Not surprisingly, the sudden appearance of 35 Europeans caused a major disturbance among the Koreans. Though the sailors unmistakably were victims rather than deliberate raiders, they also were foreign and even alien to many Koreans. As castaways, Hamel and the others were treated well in the early months after the disaster. However, as soon as the novelty wore off, they again became the foreigners whom Korea had wanted to keep away from its shores. The fact that they could just have come from their arch enemy Japan perhaps added to the fate of the Dutchmen.
Gradually the fate of the survivors changed for the better. It was obvious to them that the Koreans intended to restrict their movements. From Jeju they were taken to the mainland and appropriated by the local ruler. As was common in those days, not only in Asia, people were a commodity, truly subjects of a ruler, without a voice or vote and to be used at the ruler's whim. The Dutchmen soon were no better than slaves.
Hendrick Hamel, the most educated of the seventeen prisoners, wrote a report during their stay in Dejima about their stay and about the customs in Korea. Of his first encounter with Koreans after they had crawled ashore from the wreck of De Sperwer, Hamel wrote: "We panicked as we thought these people were ready to lynch us." He described some of the later humiliations he and the others suffered as the blatant disaster. Spurned in their quest for freedom, the men were obliged to adhere to the customs of the land and became as repressed as the Koreans.
When the novelty of their capture was still fresh, the Dutchmen had been brought to the royal palace in Seoul, as a kind of novelty item for the king. Through interpreters and confidants, Hamel and the others were able to relay an urgent request to the king. They bade to grant them their release so they could go back home and rejoin their wives and children. Hamel's entry in the journal conveyed the disappointment the men felt upon the negative decision. The king answered that such was not the custom of the land. Foreigners never were granted permission to leave the realm.
In 1666, after thirteen years of what then had become imprisonment, eight men including Hamel were able to escape. They managed to seize a boat and soon reached Japan where they were able to travel on to the VOC trading mission at Dejima, the artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki. Although Japan also was closed of to foreigners, its local rulers and people at least were not unfamiliar with Europeans, especially the Dutch traders. Hamel soon after returned to Gorinchem where he died in 1692.
Back in 17th century Holland, Hamel was just another of the many former VOC crewmen with stories to tell about his adventures. He had sailed the Seven Seas at a time when dozens of VOC ships plied their trade, fought sea battles, survived disasters, made discoveries and enjoyed adventures. Not surprisingly, the events described in his journal were regarded a mere curiosity and never were judged on their true merits: a detailed description of life in the Hermit Kingdom as no Westerner had ever lived to talk and write about at home. Without Hamel's journal, Korea would have remained a truly foreign country for centuries longer.
Dutch recognition of Hamel
South Korea for decades has been celebrating 17th century Dutch sailor Hendrick Hamel's importance to the history of that country. Hamel's hometown only recently acknowledged his role and as an explorer. In a major move to pay homage to its famous traveler, the old fortress town of Gorinchem now boasts a statue of Hamel. A second, similar casting was added to the Hamel monument in the South Korean town of Gangjin.
The first public recognition of Hamel in the Netherlands occurred early in the 20th century, when locally a street was named after him (it still exists). However, few people knew the reason for that honour. Only recently, when Gorinchem's city fathers traveled to Korea to cement twinning relations with Kangjin did they to their embarrassment discover how much their townsman Hamel was revered in that country. An imposing monument to the onetime VOC bookkeeper had become a cultural attraction on the island of Jeju and the Dutch visitors felt painfully amiss in their own failure of recognizing him whom they since are calling their Columbus of Korea. As a first step in recognizing Hamel's contribution to the body of knowledge of Korea was the unveiling of a small statue of the explorer. The rendition of regional sculptor Jaapo Hartman served as a model for a larger casting destined as an addition to the monument at Jeju. A full-scale reconstruction of De Sperwer now features at Yongmori, the Jeju beach where the ship ran ashore. It contains a Hamel exhibition, and also a presentation on Korea's other favourite Dutchman, Guus Hiddink.
- Coree-Korea 1653-1666 (Itineraria Asiatica: Korea), Hendrik Hamel, Orchid Press,Thailand,ASIN 9748299481, 1981.