Visiting the Chosun Kingdom on a steam corvette

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Visiting the Chosun Kingdom on a steam corvette

Mózes Csoma
Ambassador of Hungary to Korea 

This year marks the 130th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation between the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the Chosun Kingdom of Korea. It is little known that two years earlier, in 1890, an Austro-Hungarian steam corvette visited the seaport of Chemulpho to conclude the treaty, but their mission failed at that time.
The steam corvette, called Zrinyi, departed on May 1, 1890, from the Austro-Hungarian seaport Pula (today’s Croatia). The physician on board was a Hungarian man, Dr. Ferenc Gaspar, who later published his recollections about the long journey. According to his book which was published under the title of “Forty thousand miles under sail and steam,” the ship was loaded with hundreds of sea biscuit boxes, 40 barrels of salted meat, hundreds of various food cans, a large quantity of cheese and noodles, a few thousands of bottles of beer and a hundred liters of wine. The corvette also had a library with hundreds of books. They carried a lot of empty papers and pencils to teach the sailors who had never attended elementary school how to write. Last but not least, the ship was loaded with thousands of cigars and a huge quantity of tobacco.
The Zrinyi corvette was 60 meters (197 feet) long and had three masts; the longest was 30 meters high. The ship was equipped with a steam engine that was capable of moving at a speed of 10 miles per hour. There were 231 people on board, and the corvette was able to carry enough drinking water for them for three months. However, the ship was also equipped with water distillation machines which could create drinking water using sea water.
Scene from the seaport of Chemulpo published in Dr. Gaspar’s book. [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

Scene from the seaport of Chemulpo published in Dr. Gaspar’s book. [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

“Corean style” pork in Nanjing
The Zrinyi crossed the Suez Canal, sailed along the Red Sea, moored in the port of Aden, Ceylon and Singapore and then moved toward Shanghai. At that time, Shanghai was often referred to as the Paris of Asia. The naval physician, Gaspar, also praised the bustling city with appreciative words. According to his recollections, various kinds of entertainment were available in the international city: British theater, Italian opera, hotels, tennis courts, soccer fields and croquet lawns.
The next station of the Austro-Hungarian corvette was Nanjing, approaching the city by the Yangtze River. In the city, the officer corps of Zrinyi was invited to a dinner by the daotai (local governor) whose name was Lian Zuozheng. According to the recollection of Gaspar, when they entered the residence of the daotai, they had to cross four courtyards to reach the inner hall, which was the venue of the dinner. The Austro-Hungarian guests sat down at the tables with the high ranking Chinese officials and started to chat, with the assistance of the local interpreters. However, it was very sultry in the hall and the vast majority of the food prepared was unfamiliar to the foreigners. Gaspar wrote that they were offered 40-50 kinds of special food such as swallow’s nest soup from Cochinchina (today’s Vietnam) and “Corean style” pork.
From top: Dr. Ferenc Gaspar (1861- 1923), the physician on board; the Aus- tro-Hungarian steam corvette Zrinyi, which sailed to Korea in 1890; Dr. Gas- par’s book “Forty thousand miles un- der sail and steam.” [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

From top: Dr. Ferenc Gaspar (1861- 1923), the physician on board; the Aus- tro-Hungarian steam corvette Zrinyi, which sailed to Korea in 1890; Dr. Gas- par’s book “Forty thousand miles un- der sail and steam.” [HUNGARIAN EMBASSY]

From Port Arthur to Chosun
The Zrinyi corvette also moored on the southern tip of the Liaodong Peninsula, the strategic naval port of Lüshunkou, because one of the sailors suddenly needed an emergency medical treatment at the nearest hospital. At that time, Lüshunkou was only a countryside village, but a great number of Chinese soldiers were stationed there. However, fifteen years later, the place became internationally famous under the name of Port Arthur, one of the main battlefields of the Russo-Japanese war.
The Austro-Hungarian mission to Korea started from the Chinese seaport of Zhifu, located in the Shandong Peninsula where the Zrinyi’s captain hired a guide who knew the sea route to Chemulpo (today’s Incheon) well. According to Gaspar, the Chinese cities they visited were more important for Austria-Hungary from the commercial point of view than Korea, but the isolated ”Hermit Kingdom” looked much more interesting for the sailors than any other places they had visited. At that time, the legacy of Korea’s long isolation was still visible. Gaspar wrote the followings in his recollection: “At the estuaries of certain rivers, enormous rocks pile over each other in such order that it is all too obvious that they were put there not by nature, but by human hands.” The purpose of the obstacles was to prevent foreign ships from entering the country.
The Zrinyi corvette arrived at Chemulpo on Sept. 21, 1890. The Hungarian naval physician observed the local residents around the seaport, and stated that Korea was a “democratic country” because the general attire of its citizens was very similar to each other. All of the residents were wearing white clothes regardless of their social status. Gaspar met with a German missionary, Father Joseph Wilhelm, who had been living in Korea for a long time while helping the local residents as a paramedic. The missionary asked the Hungarian physician to join him to treat the patients in the neighboring villages. Gaspar and the missionary visited some villages around Chemulpo where the circumstances were very difficult. According to Gaspar, the small houses were made of mud and straw, and sometimes 8 to 10 people were living there.
Misunderstanding in Seoul
To conclude the treaty, the Zrinyi’s captain, Wladimir von Khittel, and his officers went to Seoul on horseback. Gaspar wrote that the Austro-Hungarian visitors were solemnly welcomed by the Korean Foreign Ministry, including Foreign Minister Min Chong-muk. The Koreans said that it was their pleasure to establish ties with the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, but they couldn’t start the negotiations due to the strict protocol of the mourning period in the court, because the stepmother of King Gojong was buried not long ago.
However, as it was recently discovered by Prof. Park Song-sun of Dankook University, Queen Shinjeong’s death was not the only reason for the failure of the Zrinyi corvette’s mission. During the talks with the Korean diplomats, captain Wladimir von Khittel emphasized that he was responsible only for the general preparation of the ties, but it wasn’t in his capacity to negotiate about the details. Furthermore, the fact that the Austro-Hungarians were escorted by the German consul, Ferdinand Krien, was misinterpreted by the hosts. The Koreans believed that the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was a vassal state of the German Empire, and that was why they were escorted by the German consul. Probably, this misunderstanding was the main reason why the negotiations were postponed. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Min Chong-muk asked a French diplomat, Victor Collin de Plancy, to help them clarify the situation.
The treaty between the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the Chosun Kingdom was finally realized one and a half years later. It was signed in Tokyo on June 23, 1892, by the Austro-Hungarian envoy, Baron Rüdiger von Biegeleben and the Korean chargé d’affaires, Kwon Jae-hyung. A few months later, the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, departed for a long journey around the world by the warship Kaiserin Elisabeth. The journals in Budapest speculated that probably he would visit Korea too. Unfortunately, the visit to Korea wasn’t realized and the diplomatic missions weren’t opened in Seoul or Vienna. Therefore, the German consul in Seoul was authorized to continuously represent the interests of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Korea.
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