Reading Hamel’s Journal and a Description of the Kingdom of Korea, 1653-1666


Hendrick Hamel (1630 – 1692)[1] was the first Westerner to provide a first hand account of Joseon Korea. After spending thirteen years there, he wrote “Hamel’s Journal and a Description of the Kingdom of Korea, 1653-1666,” which was subsequently published in 1668

Hamel’s Journal and a Description of the Kingdom of Korea, 1653-1666

  • Journal van de Ongeluckige Voyage van ‘t Jacht de Sperwer ( The journal of the unfortunate voyage of the jaght the Sperwer)

Moral standards

With regard to the moral standards, it has to be said that the Koreans are not very strict when it comes to mine and thine, they lie and cheat and that’s why they can’t be trusted. They are proud if they have cheated somebody and they don’t think that’s a disgrace. That’s why they can undo the buy of a horse or a cow even after four months if it becomes clear that the buyer has been cheated. But the sale of a parcel ground or other immovable goods can only be undone if the conveyance has not taken place yet.

On the other hand the Koreans are very gullible. We could fool them with anything. This was particularly true for the monks, who liked to listen to stories about foreign countries and their people. Furthermore they are very cowardly, as it seemed what we have heard from reliable people concerning their behavior during the Japanese invasion, when their king was killed and a great number of cities and villages were destroyed. From Jan Janse Weltevree we heard that when the Tartarians came over the ice and occupied the country, more soldiers hanged themselves in the wood, than had been killed during the battle against the invaders. The Koreans don’t consider this to be unworthy. They think that these people who commit suicide are pitiful people, who came into an emergency situation, in which they only could escape by committing suicide.
So it happened quite a few times that when Dutch, English or Portuguese ships on their way to Japan came into Korean waters, Korean war junks who wanted to take possession of these ships returned empty-handed to their base, because the persons on board did it in their trousers out of fear.
They can’t see any blood. If a Korean gets wounded during a battle, the others don’t know how quickly to leave the battlefield. They also have fear for diseases, especially contagious ones. As soon as somebody gets seriously ill, they take him out of his house, to put him in a small hut of straw, outside the city or village he lives in. Here nobody else visits him other than his next of kin, who brings him food and something to drink. Who doesn’t have any next of kin, runs the big risk, in the case of a disease, to be left completely unattended in a hut like that. When somewhere an epidemic breaks out, the entrance to the house of the sick persons is blocked with thorn branches. On top of that they put thorn branches on the roof of the houses to mark them as such.


The only people who have a trade post on Korean soil are the Japanese who own a factory on the southeast side of the city of Pusan. The Japanese who stay there come from the island Tsushima. They import pepper, sapwood, alum, buffalo horn, deer skins and more goods which are imported by us and the Chinese into Japan. Furthermore they have some trade with Peking (=Beijing) and the north of China. The trip to and fro takes three months, which is very costly. That’s why only the greatest merchants can undertake these trips. At the foreign trade they usually use linen as a means of trade. The greater merchants use also silver as a means of trade, but the farmers and the common people use rice and grains.
Before the Tartarians took over this country this was a country full of bliss and friskiness. The people did nothing else but eating, drinking and making love. But now they have to pay so much tribute to Tartarians and the Japanese that they have hardly anything to eat in feeble years. It is especially the tribute to the Tartarians who usually personally come to claim it three times a year, which pressures heavily on the economy of the country.

World Orientation

The Koreans believe that there are only twelve countries or kingdoms in the world, which were all once subordinate to the emperor of China and had to pay tribute to him. But that all these countries have liberated themselves in the meantime, because the Tartarians couldn’t conquer them. They call the Tartarians Tieckese (looks like the Chinese: Chong Kwo ) and Orankaij [barbarians], they call our country Nampankuk, [Southern Country] which is the name which the Japanese gave to Portugal. Because we look in their eyes the same as the Portuguese, the Koreans give us the same name. They learned the name from the Japanese already some 50 years ago, when they came to teach them how to grow tobacco. The Japanese claimed that the seed of the tobacco plant came from Nampankuk. That’s why the Koreans usually call tobacco Nampankoy. In this country they smoke a lot, both men and women. And they start early with it. Many a time I saw a four-year-old toddler smoke a pipe.
In their old scriptures it is written that there are in total 84000 countries in the world. The Koreans consider this to be a fable. They say this number has to include all the islands, isles, cliffs and rocks, because it would be impossible for the sun to shine on all these countries in one twenty-four hour period. If we mentioned a number of countries they laughed and said this had to be the names of cities and villages. Because their maps didn’t reach further than Siam (=Thailand)


Visit of the Tartarian envoy

When the Tartarian envoy visits the country, the king personally has to ride toward him with all his noblemen to pledge the necessary honor. He accompanies him to his accommodation. Music is made during this, while clowns show their tricks. In fact the envoy is shown more respect than the king himself, when he rides out.

In the parade which accompanies the envoy, also old pieces of arts are carried along and during the stay of the envoy, the street from his residency to the court is closed off by soldiers. These are lined up in long rows, two or three fathoms apart from each other. There are also two or three men who do nothing else then bringing notes which come from the residency to their king, so he knows any moment what the envoy is doing. Furthermore they do everything in their power to please the envoy, so he takes favorable messages about them to the emperor in Peking.

See: the pictures of before and after.


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