First Czech traveler in Korea honored

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First Czech traveler in Korea honored

In early February 1886, a middle-aged journalist arrived in Seoul, carrying baggage that included a bathtub, after trekking through the long and muddy path from Jemulpo, a port village about 20 miles west of the capital.

Max Taubles, a Bohemian immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen working for the U.S. magazine Harper’s in San Francisco, got a room at a local Korean inn with the help of a Chinese legation and stayed there for the next six weeks.

Dr. Horace Allen and George Foulk, charge d’affaires of the U.S. legation, tried to offer Taubles a safer residence where many Westerners were staying because at that time many Korean people were suffering from smallpox. But Taubles refused for reasons that are still unknown.

On March 15, six weeks after he had stepped onto Korean soil, the journalist died of the deadly disease, despite having received medical treatment from Western doctors. He was the first Western journalist to die in Korea and the first Bohemian to visit Korea since Korea opened its doors to the West in 1882.

On March 11, the Czech Embassy in Korea marked the 125th anniversary of the death of Taubles, a little-known figure in the early diplomatic history between the Czech Republic and Korea and the first person born in today’s Czech Republic to come to Korea, with a small gathering at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club in central Seoul.

“We don’t know why Taubles came to Korea, but it doesn’t seem that he visited Korea as a journalist,” Robert Neff, a Seoul-based historian said. “He didn’t send any articles about Korea to Harper’s, he tried to hide himself from other Westerners and all of the things he had brought with him to Korea were sent back to the U.S. [after his death.]”

According to Neff, right before his death Taubles requested that his business books not be opened by anyone and that they be shipped back to the United States.

That makes his visit to Korea even more mysterious for historians like Neff.

Neff said, “I found some records that show he was a collector, especially of Chinese items and I guess he might have gone to Korea to buy and sell Chinese products.”

According to the historian, Taubles’ body was buried in the foreigner’s cemetery in Jemulpo on March 17 by two American missionaries and some Korean soldiers.

“Sadly, Max Taubles did nothing to increase our knowledge of Korea neither in Bohemia nor elsewhere but undoubtedly he earned his place in the history of Czech-Korean ties as being the first person born in what is today the Czech Republic to ever have set foot on Korean soil,” said Jaroslav Olsa, Jr., ambassador of the Czech Embassy in Korea.


By Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]
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