At the end of each summer, a few typhoons usually roll through Jeju (제주). They first appear as model images on computer screens, cyclones of various intensities taking form in the Pacific Ocean. A spectrum of lines from green to purple to red signaling various wind intensities. The days before a typhoon can be some of Jeju’s most pristine. Sunny skies and no wind. But residents watch the projections change and it becomes a topic of conversation. “This will be a big one!” people say with misplaced excitement. “I love a good storm,” others say.
In 1653, there were no computer projections. The halcyon days before the storm didn’t have any of the surreal anticipation that we feel today, except maybe to those with knowledge who could detect subtleties in the weather. It takes wisdom to spot an ominous pivot in a fair wind. In that year, a group of 64 Dutchmen on a small shipping vessel called the Der Sperwer (The Sparrowhawk) pulled in behind a small island off Jeju’s southern coast. The ship was making its way from China to Japan, and a wind had picked up and gotten worse over the course of a few days. The typhoons are still deadly today, and an unprotected wooden boat was like a ripe section of tangerine being held up to the storm’s hungry lips.
One of the first things I did upon arriving in Jeju in 2011 was to explore the nearby southern coast. There’s a stunning giant ice cream scoop of a mountain called Sanbangsan (산방산) there that draws you in. At the mountain’s base is a cave and Buddhist temple. Follow a trail down to the coast and you’ll find a rusted amusement park outpost. Past that, something strange: a giant replica Dutch ship. At the ship’s base is a bronze statue of a man on a bench. Tourists stop by and pose with him and move on. He just stares and stares, his bronze features glinting at different sunny angles.
The man’s name is Hendrick Hamel (하멜). A bookkeeper for the Dutch East India Company, Hamel was one of 36 crew members who scampered onto Jeju’s shore after a typhoon descended and shattered their ship. He and the remaining crew spent a year on the island, awaiting word from the capital about their fate. Subsequently, they spent over a decade in Korea, being bounced to Seoul and then to the secluded Jeolla province before making an escape to Japan. At that time during the Joseon dynasty, Korea had a policy of preventing foreigners from leaving the country once they had entered.
Hamel described in detail his travels in a journal that was published after he left Korea. These days, Hamel is celebrated as the first westerner to give an account of Korea from within the country. This celebration seems strange though, as his writing is marbled with a tone of discontent. It’s clear from the outset of his thirteen year stay that he did not want to be there. The initial capture of his crew was somewhat traumatizing, and there was a fear of being killed (partly due to a language barrier), but the crew soon settled into a routine in which they were given relative freedom and good treatment during their Odyssean stopover.
As I read excerpts from Hamel’s journal, there is a small thrill as he mentions my area. “At night we stayed at a little place called Tadjang (TaejOng).” It’s a brief glimpse back in time, and leaves me longing for more description of houses, trees, anything. Daejeong (대정), the area that he mentions, is the site for the “Global Education City”–a development project by the Jeju government to provide private education in country to Korea’s best and brightest. A dense jungle was clear-cut to make way for the sprawling project. Schools sprang up from the earth. I landed in 2011 to brand new facilities in the clearing dust of the new construction.
I think about Hamel and my arrival. For my first seven years on Jeju I chose to be here, but what mindset did I bring in? In culture shock trainings they talk about the “honeymoon phase” upon moving to a new country, where everything about your new location feels fresh and invigorating. This is also a time when ignorant missteps abound. I remember complimenting people on how well they spoke English and I cringe. One of my first jobs at my new school was to help South Korean students select “western” names. It was all too easy to bring a colonizers mindset into an environment built around the economic power of the english language.
Hamel didn’t seem to have even a honeymoon phase. His stay in Korea began with fear. Despite his initial terror of being killed by the locals, however, he was soon welcomed in. He was given soju and food. He was even venerated for his whiteness. He says, “Actually most Koreans didn’t think at all that we were ugly. They admired the whiteness of our skin. The possession of it is being regarded at as something desirable.” This welcome doesn’t seem too far off from the treatment that most white foreigners receive in Korea. An instant status is imputed based upon skin color (South Korean beauty standards still esteem pale skin). Add to this the culturally honored title of teacher, and most foreigners enjoy a level of status here that they might not otherwise.
In his description of the island, Hamel’s language is stripped of any wonder or care. Hamel describes Jeju with the detached tone of a scientist. Jeju and its inhabitants become museum pieces. He even takes a jab at the people of Jeju in the process:
This island which is called Schelue (Cheju ) by them and Quelpaert by us. It lies as previously mentioned on 33 degrees 32 minutes latitude, twelve to thirteen miles south from the south point of the mainland or Coree. It has at the inside or the north side a bay, in which the ships come. From there they sail to the mainland. It is dangerous to come in for those who don’t know it. It can’t be sailed by those who don’t know it, because of the invisible cliffs. Many who sail there and miss the bay, eventually drift to Iapan. There is, besides that bay, no roadstead or port of refuge. The island has a lot of visible and invisible cliffs and reefs on all sides. The country is very populated and is fertile for the life stock: there is an abundance of horses and cattle. Yearly they give a lot of income to the king. The inhabitants are poor people and considered to be simple by those of the mainland, they aren’t esteemed very high. There is a high mountain, full with trees and further there are mainly bare mountains without any trees and many valleys where they cultivate rice.
What motivated Hamel? Was it pride? opportunity? Ambition? Curiosity? According to him, he was on his trip “…to continue our journey in the name of God.” When god places him on Jeju, though, he instantly wants to escape. His lack of reverence for his journey is strange. Everything is bent toward the idea of getting out. Eventually, the king apparently became tired of the crew and placed them in their Jeollam outpost. After being moved to Jeollam, eventually Hamel and a small group of the original crew were able to get out aboard a small fishing ship bought from a local.
And what were my own initial intentions for moving here? I took it for granted that the English language is a commodity. That my citizenship immediately bestows status. There were and are times when this is forgotten and benefits are blindly enjoyed. I came to Jeju for a job and ended up loving it here. But for what reasons? I still don’t speak the language past the level of a toddler.
I think about a forced year on Jeju. Up until this point, during my first seven years here, I have been free to leave. The fog of COVID that has shrouded the world has stopped me in place. There are days when this is suffocating. I picture a house in my home state of Maine with a hometown life. I picture a life that doesn’t exist for anyone in the current state of affairs.
Pushing up against this mental boulder becomes exhausting, but luckily isn’t constant. This too has been a time to see the island up close. This year has been one of connection with the island. I spend my free time running, hiking, surfing, taking Korean lessons, helping with cleanups. I immerse myself in all that Jeju has to offer and try to make friends outside of the school bubble. I familiarize myself with the wild lapping waves of Iho beach (이호) and the smooth rolling ones of Jungmun (중문).
I wake up at 3am to run a leg in a 24 hour event to support the conservation of a local landmark. Songaksan (송악산) is a small mountain that juts out into the sea and is at risk for being the newest victim to Jeju’s ongoing development boom. There is some speculation that this might be the point where Hamel and the crew first arrived. Driving my car through quiet Jeju in the early morning, I put some soft music on the radio and roll my windows down. Daejeong is silent at 3:30 AM. My running partner and I strap on headlamps and begin our loops of the small mountain. We don’t talk much, listening to the wind stirring trees and waves in the dark early hours.
This year on Jeju has been a time to ask myself an important question: do I love this island itself or the privilege that allows me to be here? How will I choose to describe Jeju to others?
The replica of The Sparrowhawk near Hamel’s purported point of arrival on Jeju serves as a small museum. You can walk inside a door and peruse a strange array of artifacts. There are creepy full size replicas of Dutch seamen and a small cinema where you can relive the shipwreck. Walking out, you find Hamel on a bench with his far off stare faced toward Sanbangsan.
I wonder why the museum exists? Is is a point of pride for being associated with the popularity of Hamel? Is it guilt for keeping him against his will? Hamel’s account of his stay in Korea achieved massive notoriety and brought lots of attention to the country, but it wasn’t exactly a positive portrayal. His descriptions contain some strikingly negative portrayals of Koreans. In discussing their morals says, “…they lie and cheat and that’s why they can’t be trusted.” Despite being at the mercy of another culture and another geography, Hamel never humbles himself. What was the rippling effect of his stay and what it represented? Commerce, development, tourism, globalization?
And so I look at my year on Jeju as a chance to connect with the island. Sometimes it can take years to appreciate the small details that make something worthwhile. Initial frustrations get smoothed over into long-term endearments. What irks in the moment becomes nostalgic. The hard winds of Jeju leave indelible marks.
Maybe Hamel didn’t quite grasp that in his year here on the island. What did he take with him when he left Korea? He was always mentally bent toward the idea of home and escape. Perhaps that’s why his journal reads as such a clinical text. Maybe that’s why he’s stuck on a bench, perpetually facing Sanbangsan, staring toward understanding.
Excerpts from Hamel’s journal that I consulted for this piece can be found here.