The 1871 War with Korea, part V

It has been a while since I last posted about this story.  Nobody asked me about it and I figured that meant nobody was interested, and this is probably true.  But I was discussing this with a friend recently and she was interested and wanted a written copy to share with another friend who would be interested so I decided to finish it up.  I find it endlessly fascinating.

Previously: In 1871 we had a little war with Korea when we sent a small fleet of ships to map the area and ask for official recognitio and trade relations.  A collosal misunderstanding ensued because neither side could understand the cultural norms of the other- and I do think America was most to blame.  If  you are going to another contry to ask for favours, it behoves you to know their culture. But then, cultural differences were not deeply understood at the time.


So, under the mistaken impression that they had permission…

The fleet continued to travel, to map the channel and surrounding shores and bodies of water for about a week , when a Korean junk approached them and a small body of men on board indicated they wished to board. Rodgers had them conveyed to his ship:
” They were the bearers of a letter which stated that from our former communication it had been learned that we were Americans, and announced that three envoys had been appointed by the Sovereign to confer with us.

These messengers were persons of inferior grade, and came merely to announce the approach of the superior officials.  They were assured of our desire to preserve peaceful relations, and our purpose not to commit any acts of violence unless we are first attacked.  This assurance was received with great apparent satisfaction.

The next afternoon, May 31, the envoys previously announced made their appearance.  The minister, deeming it proper not to receive them in person until their positions and powers were ascertained to be such that he could do so without derogation to the dignity of his own rank as minister plenipotentiary, deputed Mr. Drew, his acting secretary, to conduct the interview.  Mr. Drew conversed with the envoys in the Peking dialect.  The conversation elicited the fact that the Coreans were officials of the third and fifth rank, and that they brought with them no credential letters, and, so far as could be ascertained, that they were not intrusted with any authority to initiate negotiations.      Under these circumstances, Mr. Low determined not to see the envoys, and they were informed that only officials of the first rank, who were empowered to conduct negotiations, could be received; and to such alone could a full announcement of the objects of our coming be made.
This next sentence is tragi-comedy.  Rodgers neatly summarizes Korean manners and diplomacy at the time:“

Their object appeared to be to learn all they could of our purposes and intentions, without committing themselves by the direct expression of assent or dissent to what was said to them; but their manner of non-objection conveyed the impression of actual compliance with our wishes.”


It’s nearly maddening to read this 150 years later.  Rodgers observed clearly and precisely, but his deductions were entirely wrong.  He had not the wit, imagination, experience, background knowledge or cultural understanding to make sense of his observations.  He sees all but knows nothing. He clinically describes observation without ever realizing he has a key here to mutual understanding and friendship if he only knew it. But he does not.  “Their manner of nonobjection” only conveyed the impression of compliance to somebody with no knowledge of eastern culture, to somebody with an inborn expectation that nonobjection is consent. But in Korea, especially then, ‘nonobjection’ was the very opposition of consent or compliance.  It was as firm a refusal as the envoy could politely give, but neither group understood the other at all.
“They were assured of our non-aggressive disposition, and were distinctly told that only to resent assault should we resort to arms.  They were informed that we wished to take soundings of their waters, and to make surveys of the shores.  To this they made no objection.  We expressed the hope that no molestation would be offered to our parties in landing or passing up the river, and requested that word be sent to their people that they might preserve the friendly relations which were desired.  It was further stated that twenty-four hours would be given to make this announcement to people along the river, before any movement was made.  To all this they made no reply which could indicate dissent.  So, believing that we might continue our surveys while further diplomatic negotiations were pending, an expedition was sent to examine and survey the Salee River, which empties into this bay, and leads into the River Seoul, which passes near the city of Seoul, the capital and residence of the Sovereign.”

My very first impression on reading the above was that the Koreans were, in fact, indicating dissent by not giving express permission.  It was as clear as day to me they were saying no in a manner that would have been perfectly clear to representativesfrom any other eastern country- and it was only eastern countries with which they had any official and welcome dealings.  They expected that by not giving express permission, it was understood that no permission had been given. If the Admiral had been Chinese or Korean, he would have known that. .


Later I found this account by somebody who has lived in Korea and made a study of Korea’s military history:


“The simple, but very serious miscommunication was that the Americans took the Koreans’ silence for compliance, while it was actually disagreement.  To Koreans, unless specific permission is given to do something, it is not allowed.  Specifically, in regards to the Kanghwa Straits, even Korean vessels were not allowed to sail it without written permission by Korean authorities.  Also, “the Korean laws prohibited foreigners to pass a barrier of defense” (Paullin 1910, as quoted in W.M. Kim, 445).  Captain McLane Tilton wrote to his wife, “Indeed the people we have communicated with, altho’ they did not say they would not fire upon us, should we continue up the River, let us infer they wouldn’t, and we were obliged to return their fire to maintain a dignified position” (Tyson Amphibious Landing in Korea, 1871 1966).


And seriously, why on earth would any nation permit a foreign fleet, armed, clearly used at times for war, to come explore its coasts and water bodies, sounding them for depth, all the way up to the seat of its government?


”  Korea certainly didn’t.  Rodgers indignantly reported that:

“ at the forts which defend a short bend in the river, not far from its mouth, the Coreans unmasked batteries, and, without any previous intimation of their objection to our approach, or warning of their intention, opened a heavy fire upon our boats and ships.  treacherous assault was not expected by our people, but they promptly resented it.

They resented it with gunfire, and the rest is TBC.

Series of Posts:

How a cultural misunderstanding started a war, part 1

Korean war of 1871, Part 2

1871, An America War in Korea, part III

1871, American War in Korea, part IV

The 1871 War with Korea, part V

War with Korea in 1871, Part VI

War With Korea, 1871, Part VII

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  1. Cat
    Posted July 19, 2021 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I should have commented on this earlier–I read your previous installments and did find them fascinating. I had never heard of this chapter of history before watching the first episode of Mr. Sunshine ages ago. I really appreciate the research you’ve done and the recounting of all that went on with this! And like you I would love to see Korean historical records of the whole thing from their point of view.

    “And seriously, why on earth would any nation permit a foreign fleet, armed, clearly used at times for war, to come explore its coasts and water bodies, sounding them for depth, all the way up to the seat of its government?”

    I agree with this so much. Really don’t understand how anybody could think that this would be okay without explicit permission, and even then it’s just weird! Like getting permission from your neighbour to measure the length of his sidewalk–even if he says it’s okay it’s a little invasive for you to ask in the first place unless there’s a really good reason. I guess maybe mapping a river as part of exploring the world is a decent reason. MAYBE.

    • Headmistress
      Posted July 21, 2021 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

      Mr. Sunshine is what started my interest, too. Plus, I was living surrounded by a number of Korean friends at the time, and I asked a couple of them if that was a real historical thing, and they said yes, and they knew all about it and were suprised I never heard of it.

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