How a cultural misunderstanding started a war, part 1

In the 19th century a number of Western countries, including the U.S., attempted to open up trade in the east. Korea, known as the Hermit Kingdom, resisted firmly, trying to keep China as a buffer between them and the west. Several western countries attempted to sail into Korea and negotiate some further trade relations. They were rebuffed, usually politely enough, but coolly. One or twice hostilities were the result. A French ship had most of its crew captured or shot.
Another ship that fared poorly was the Steam Ship Sherman. It was not a government ship but a privately owned American merchant ship seeking for trade opportunities- and, it was rumoured, for plunder.It was more heavily loaded with weapons than the usual trade ship. The Captain had a reputation for being an adventurer. Only three people on board were Americans. The rest were Malaysian with two or three Chinese, and the Malaysians had a reputation (deserved) for piracy.

In 1861 it sailed into Korea and headed upriver toward what is now Seoul. Its captain ignored all orders to turn back, and refused to recognize anybody who contacted him as high enough ranking officials to be worth listening to. When the ship was stranded on a sandbank during a storm, according to one account, when the General Sherman found itself stranded on a sandbank after a storm, the captain (knowing he’d created some hostility between himself and the locals) sent some of his men out to hunt up some food supplies to steal and hostages to kidnap to use as bargaining chips. His ship was destroyed and all the crew killed. It’s likely the American government didn’t know that’s what had happened since all the surviving witnesses were Koreans and there were no diplomatic relations between Korea and the U.S.
Korea did persecute Catholics at the time, and a French ship had also had some of their crew murdered, but there were more incidents both before and after where western trade ships were treated politely. In some cases, ships arrived and their captains attempted to establish a trade relationship and they were politely declined and redirected home. In several cases western ships were shipwrecked on Korean shores and the survivors were treated well and then sent to China, where they could be returned to their own governments as China had opened some trade with western nations and had settled trading companies and government representatives in the country.  So there are several reasons to suspect that the S.S. General Sherman was not an innocent party and there was no reason for the American government to be particularly concerned about it.

 

But the matter did not end there.
TBC

Soundtrack to Mr. Sunshine

The K-drama Mr. Sunshine (it’s at Netflix as well)

The Five Year’s Crisis: 1866 to 1871, Korea in the Maelstrom of Western Imperialism by Kim Yongkoo

The Trespassors, Korea, June 1871

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2 Comments

  1. Stephanie
    Posted March 30, 2019 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Great article. I enjoyed Mr. Sunshune very much, but until I saw it, I was not familar with America’s involvement with Korea during the Age of Imperialism.

    • Headmistress
      Posted March 30, 2019 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      Same here.

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