Hendrick Hamel (1630 – 12 February 1692) was the first Westerner to write and experience first-hand in the Joseon Dynasty era in Korea (1666). He later wrote "Hamel's Journal and a Description of the Kingdom of Korea, 1653-1666", published after his return to the Netherlands.
Hendrick Hamel was born and died in Gorinchem. He was a bookkeeper with the Dutch East India Company (the VOC). In 1653, while heading for Japan on the ship 'De Sperwer' (the Sparrowhawk), he was shipwrecked on Jeju Island off the southern coast of Korea along with thirty-five of his crewmates. 36 of the 64 members of the crew survived the shipwreck, and the men were promptly taken into custody and sent to Seoul (where the king was Hyojong of Joseon, who ruled from 1649 to 1659). They were forbidden to leave the country, but they were given some freedom to move and mix with the different classes of Korean society.
After thirteen years, Hamel and seven of his crewmates managed to escape to Japan, and from there to the Netherlands. In 1666, three different publishers published his report, describing their improbable adventure and giving the first detailed and accurate description of Korea to Europe.
Hamel in the Joseon Korea
The sudden appearance of 36 Europeans caused a major disturbance among the Koreans, even though the sailors unmistakably were victims rather than deliberate raiders. As castaways, Hamel and the others were treated well in the early months after the disaster. However, as soon as the novelty wore off, they again became the foreigners whom Korea had wanted to keep away from its shores. The speculation that they could have been spies from Japan perhaps added to the fate of the Dutchmen.
Hendrick Hamel, the most educated of the seventeen prisoners, wrote a report during their stay in Dejima about their stay and about the customs in Korea. Of his first encounter with Koreans after they had crawled ashore from the wreck of De Sperwer, Hamel wrote: "We panicked as we thought these people were ready to lynch us." He described some of the later humiliations he and the others suffered as the blatant disaster. Spurned in their quest for freedom, the men were obliged to adhere to the customs of the land and became all but imprisoned by the Koreans.
When the novelty of their capture was still fresh, the Dutchmen had been brought to the royal palace in Seoul, as a kind of novelty item for the king. Through interpreters and confidants, Hamel and the others were able to relay an urgent request to the king. They bade him to grant them their release so they could go back home and rejoin their wives and children. Hamel's entry in the journal conveyed the disappointment the men felt upon the negative decision.
It was obvious to the Dutchmen that the Koreans intended to continue to restrict their movements. Following the local customs soon they were no better than slaves.
In 1666, after thirteen years (during the reign of Hyeonjong of Joseon, 1659–1674) of what then had become imprisonment, eight men including Hamel were able to escape. They managed to seize a boat and soon reached Japan where they were able to travel on to the VOC trading mission at Dejima, the artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki. Although Japan also was closed to foreigners, its local rulers and people at least were not unfamiliar with Europeans, especially the Dutch traders. Hamel soon after returned to Gorinchem where he died in 1692.
Dutch Recognition of Hamel
Back in 17th century Holland, Hamel was just another of the many former VOC crewmen with stories to tell about his adventures. He had sailed the Seven Seas at a time when dozens of VOC ships plied their trade, fought sea battles, survived disasters, made discoveries and enjoyed adventures. Not surprisingly, the events described in his journal were regarded a mere curiosity.
Only recently has Hamel's hometown acknowledged his role as an explorer. In a major move to pay homage to its famous traveler, the old fortress town of Gorinchem now boasts a statue of Hamel. A second, similar casting was added to the Hamel monument in the South Korean town of Gangjin. The first public recognition of Hamel in the Netherlands occurred early in the 20th century, when a local street was named after him. The street still exists.
- Coree-Korea 1653-1666 (Itineraria Asiatica: Korea), Hendrik Hamel, Orchid Press,Thailand,ASIN 9748299481, 1981.
- Works by Hendrik Hamel at Project Gutenberg (Dutch)