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Travelling down the Han River in 1903: ‘Glad to be alive’

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July. 10. 2021

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2021-07-10 08:52

Travelling down the Han River in 1903: ‘Glad to be alive’

The river port of Yongsan, circa the 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
The river port of Yongsan, circa the 1900s. Robert Neff Collection


By Robert Neff

In May 1903, Charles Allen Clark, an American missionary, made his first trip outside of the comforts of Seoul. Clark was still relatively new to Korea and his language ability and familiarity with Korean culture were still somewhat lacking. He did, however, provide an interesting view of what it was like to travel down the Han River to the Yellow Sea at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Clark and another missionary departed Seoul through the South Gate on May 4, Buddha’s Birthday. They were not alone. Accompanying them were Clark’s teacher, the party’s cook and the cook’s mother-in-law.

Clark declared that “heathendom was in gala attire” and that every house was decorated with flags and streamers. “Huge fish-shaped balloons [floated] from poles over houses where male children had come during the year.”

The streets were crowded with people from the countryside who had come to the capital to sightsee and were entertained by “a dozen cheap Japanese theatres [that] had sprung up in [the middle of the] night.”

The South Gate, circa 1900. Robert Neff Collection
The South Gate, circa 1900. Robert Neff Collection


Although Clark had seen the Han River before (when he arrived in Seoul), he professed being surprised on this trip, due to its size. He declared it to be as big as the mighty Mississippi River and in some places over a half mile (800 meters) wide. He noted that even upriver from Seoul, the tide from the Yellow Sea had an effect on life along the river ― especially in regards to transport.

“When the tide is running out [the sailors] get in the stream and float. It carries them over four miles (6.4 kms) an hour. When the tide goes against them they anchor. Time is no object to them. They won’t carry a cargo except for exorbitant prices. One fourth the value of their boat for a fifty mile (80 kms) freight is a fair charge. One cargo keeps them in tobacco and rice for a month. Between times and, in fact all of the time, they are absolutely indifferent as to whether they go anywhere or not.”

Looking about the river, Clark noticed a large “number of pleasure boats on which young boys were dancing for the amusement of their rich patrons.” While watching them, he got his first introduction to Korean music, and, like many early Western visitors, he did not find it to his liking.

He denounced it as the “the queerest conglomeration of rhythmless, tuneless, irregular sounds” that he had ever heard, but acknowledged that his Korean hosts seemed to find pleasure in it.

Isabella Bird Bishop's boat during her exploration of the upper Han River in the mid-1890s. Robert Neff Collection
Isabella Bird Bishop’s boat during her exploration of the upper Han River in the mid-1890s. Robert Neff Collection


The music wasn’t the only thing that bothered him. Their vessel was a rickety old sampan about 25 feet (7.6 meters) long with one long oar behind and two men to row.” The captain was definitely a character that Clark would remember; “he had one eye and a [cleft] lip and was grizzled and worn with age and weather.” The crew were extremely talkative ― especially one man who took the liberty to “volubly” explain everything they saw on the river.

Conditions aboard the boat were cramped. At the bow, “the slimy old anchor” was stored, which took up nearly a quarter of the ship. Then the two crewmen had their quarter of the boat, from which they rowed from, another quarter was covered and used for the goods and baggage, as well as the sleeping quarters. The final quarter of the vessel was reserved for Clark and his missionary companion.

At three in the afternoon, the one-eyed captain raised anchor and the ship began to “meander casually” down the river. They passed the river ports of Mapo and Yangwha where they noticed hundreds of ships ― many of them flying colorful flags or banners that were used in the prayers to the patron gods for protection.

Entertaining Korean gentry in the late 19th or early 20th century. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection
Entertaining Korean gentry in the late 19th or early 20th century. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection


Clark recalled:

“As we passed one boat, a large one, there was a tremendous hubbub, beating of drums, shouting, singing, and waving flags. It continued for some minutes. Then we saw them begin to lift their sails and at the same time a great cloud of smoke arose ― incense apparently. As the boat began to glide away we saw they had left on the water a great mass of burning material. It was the incense burning and continuing their prayer to the storm god for safe guidance.”

River travel was inherently dangerous. It was fairly common for the small steamships plying the river to run afoul of a sandbank or strike a submerged rock ― in fact, it was rather strange when they didn’t. There were also pirates on the river who occasionally plundered lone ships, killing the crew and passengers so there would be no witnesses to their crimes. Some of the more superstitious believed water ghosts haunted the river, seeking companionship through the deaths of the living.

And, in the exaggerated accounts of one American doctor from San Francisco in 1907, tigers leapt from the banks of the river onto unwary boat passengers while crocodiles waited in the river’s depths for someone unlucky enough to fall in.

Boats on the river in the early 20th century. Robert Neff Collection
Boats on the river in the early 20th century. Robert Neff Collection


Throughout the afternoon and evening the boat continued slowly to drift down river. At night, the teacher, cook, the cook’s mother-in-law, and the vessel’s crew all slept in the sleeping quarters. “I don’t know how they managed it,” observed Clark but he opined that “it must have been spoon fashion.”

Clark and his companion had their own small shelter set up: a simple dirty thin mat was draped over a pole providing them with a flimsy roof that allowed the breeze and the moonlight in. “[We] slept the sleep of the just, unheeding the smell of the old anchor or the water-bugs, rocked in the cradle of the deep,” declared Clark.

Later, in the middle of the night when the tide changed ― Clark was awakened when the rowers went to their position and began to row the boat. “It was pleasant to lie and listen to the lapping of the wave, the singing of the boatmen on other boats, or the various faraway noises from the land.”

In the afternoon they arrived at Ganghwa Island. Clark explained that “in ancient times the king used to flee [to the island] in times of war.” It was here that “the famous turtle seal of state, the symbol of royalty” was kept. He noted that it was the scene of our (meaning the United States’) “little war of the 60s.” (Clark tried to quote William E. Griffis but mistook the year ― the French attacked the island in 1866 and the Americans in 1871).

Some of the larger boats that plied the Han River and the coast in the late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection
Some of the larger boats that plied the Han River and the coast in the late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection


Clark’s further description of the island seems somewhat mixed; there is pride but also a sense of loss.

“I was most interested in the forts of the island. There must be at least a hundred ― old heavy ruins they are now, covered with moss and ivy. Nearly all are deserted. They once guarded the Han securely and kept Korea a hermit. They couldn’t stand long before modern war guns, and, as they fell, so the walls of exclusion went down.”

After they left the island, Clark and his companions landed on the mainland and journeyed on foot to Gaeseong. The discomforts of the tight space aboard the boat were soon eclipsed by the agonies of sore feet (covered with blisters), bed bugs and fleas in less-than-humble inns and meager rations.

On May 23, Clark and his companions returned to Seoul where Clark promptly wrote a letter to his family. The final sentence of it was powerfully short: “Glad to be alive.”

Tomorrow we will examine another river adventure, but this one from 1971.

Ganghwa Island, circa the 1890s-1900s. Robert Neff Collection
Ganghwa Island, circa the 1890s-1900s. Robert Neff Collection


Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books including, Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.

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