Saturday, August 09, 2008

A Yankee in the Land of the Morning Calm: The Northern Frontier, Chapter 2 Preview

I thought you might enjoy another sneak preview of my third novel--A Yankee in the Land of the Morning Calm: The Northern Frontier. Here is the second chapter.

Like the two previous Yankee in the Land of the Morning Calm historic novels, the book follows the life and adventures of an American in Korea during the late 19th and early 20th century. 
Each book includes a number of sketches, which highlight the key events and characters. Considerable effort has been made to provide an accurate snapshot of Korea during this time of westernization, modernization, and colonialism.  Book Three is set in North Korea, at a time when a number of American lived and worked in Asia's most profitable gold mines.  I hope you enjoy my work.... BTW I expect to see the new book in print this fall. To check out Book One and Two, Click Here

Chapter 2 “A Vibrant People”

The waves of a high tide crashed into the seawall as Josh, Red, and the other miners walked down the Chemulp’o wharf. Overhead scores of terns and gulls squawked. In an hour a Japanese steamer would take them across the bay, up the coast to Hai ju, and then to Chinnampo, located on inlet to the Taedong River. At Chinnampo they would take a company-owned sloop further up the coast to the Chông Chôn River to Anju. Once at Anju, they would transfer to a flat-bottomed boat better able to navigate up river. The final leg of the trip was overland about 20 miles south.

Boarding the small tugboat-sized Japanese steamer, Josh and his companions worked their way to the “First Class” cabin. Adjacent to the ship’s tight Second Class accommodations packed with 10-12 passengers, “First Class” offered few frills other than a table with six chairs.

Taking a seat, Josh pulled out a hand-sketched map of the trip. Huddling around him Red and the four other miners studied the trip ahead of them. A few hours later, the small steamer anchored near Hai Ju, just north of the Han River estuary. Minutes later, after three Japanese merchants debarked and some wares were transferred, the ship was back en route. By late afternoon, the ship had skirted the west coast of Hwanghae, one of the northern provinces, and headed into the Taedong River estuary.

The General Sherman
Entering the estuary and with hours to occupy, Josh felt the timing was right to share the amazing story he’d pieced together of the General Sherman, which had steamed up the Taedong River in the 1860s.

Josh explained “Before my first visit north, my mentor Townsend along with the Protestant missionaries briefed me on the an ill-fated American trade expedition to Pyongyang.” Josh noted, “ During mid nineteenth century, Western intrusion into Korea was ‘unwelcome and unwanted.’ Korea’s rulers and members of the aristocratic class of scholar-officials, called yangban, had carefully watched the effects of Western penetration into China and Japan. Korea’s conservative leadership was appalled by their Asian neighbors’ violation of the centuries old Confucian norms and attempts at modernization. Yangban elitists feared open borders would pollute Korea—a morally superior, self-sufficient, Neo-Confucian state. In fact, I’ve actually seen stone pillars once erected across Korea telling the populace:
Not to fight back when invaded by western barbarians is to invite further attacks, and selling out the country in peace negotiations is the greatest danger to be guarded against.

Continuing with the story, Josh had heard that a Boston merchant W. B. Preston living in Shanghai acquired a former American Civil War era ship, which had mysteriously made its way to China. In late July 1866, with a cargo of cotton textiles, glassware, mirrors, tin ware, and other trade goods the ship headed to Korea.

On board the ill-fated ship were nineteen members: Americans Captain Page, Chief Mate Wilson and the owner W. B. Preston, from Britain, supercargo George Hogarth, and Reverend Robert Jermain Thomas. The remaining members were Asian and had “dark skin.”

Twenty-six-year old Thomas, a Welshman representing the National Bible Society of Scotland, had preached in Shanghai since 1863. After hearing of the brutal government persecution of Korean Catholics, the missionary pledged to bring Protestantism to the Hermit Kingdom. When word of the expedition, circulated among the Anglos in Shanghai, Thomas sought out Preston and accepted an offer to serve as the vessel’s interpreter.

A few days later, the General Sherman headed for Chemulp’o across the Yellow Sea, but winds and tide drove the ship northward. With no plan other than trade, the vessel steamed up the Taedong River estuary rumored to lead towards Pyongyang, a provincial capital. The crew dropped anchor at Keupsa Gate at the border between the northern Pyongan and Hwanghae provinces. The governor of Pyongan province, hearing reports of a “warship” sent an emissary to investigate the foreign presence. Reverend Thomas explained to the official, using a Chinese crewman as an interpreter, that the ship was from the land of miguk (United States), in search of Korean gold, tiger skins, rice, and ginseng. The government emissary informed them that Korea did not trade with foreigners and that only the King could change this law. To speed their return, the emissary then offered to provide some provisions. The crew asked for flour and eggs. The official gave the crew rice, beef, chickens, and eggs hoping that the foreigners would heed his words and depart Korea amiably. Quite shocked, the official left the ship only to see Captain Page, on Preston’s urging, ignore the official’s directives, weigh anchor, and sail up the river.

Over the next several days river village officials repeatedly tried to turn back the schooner at Juyongpo, Songsanri, and Sahpogu. They informed the crew that Christian missionaries and foreign commerce were banned in their land by the laws of the Royal Court. In contrast to the official policy, commoners along the river found the ship a subject of much interest. At every stop Reverend Thomas visited with local villagers, preached religion, and distributed Bibles. At Pohri, more than five hundred Bibles were handed out. Often with the stops, Thomas and the crew invited the curious locals onto the Sherman. There were occasions when the ship was in danger of capsizing due to so many Koreans being on board. One can only imagine that despite official warning, the apparent goodwill of the commoners encouraged the crew to proceed upriver.

Soon the vessel reached Mangyungdae, down river from Pyongyang, where rapids stopped the Sherman from continuing. Fortuitously, during the night it rained in the surrounding watersheds, which fed the Taedong. Combined with an unusually high tide, the rainfall raised the water level. Page and his crew apparently thought that the high water was normal and proceeded upriver over the rapids and inland until they reached Yangjak Island, mid river near the regional capital. Enraged at report of the foreigners’ progress, the governor sent the deputy commander of Pyongyang to the vessel with an ultimatum that the King was to be informed of the foreigners’ actions--having ignored orders to stay put at Keupsa Gate and insisting on trading--both of which were strictly forbidden.

“Destroy them utterly”
Meanwhile, word of the foreigner’s advance finally reached Seoul. There high-ranking Confucian officials quickly reacted believing that this “black ship” was actually a vanguard for an invasion of the French angered by a recent purge of Jesuits priests.

Josh noted, “I heard from an eyewitness who recalled the Seoul edict to the local officials: that if the invaders did not leave at once they were to ‘Destroy them utterly.’” Perhaps the misconception by the Korean government of the ship’s country of origin sealed the fate of the crew, for if the ruler had known the General Sherman was not a French warship, a less aggressive stance might have been ordered. Josh remarked with a smile, “I’m guessing, but if the General Sherman was once a Civil War schooner, complete with armaments –no wonder some saw it as a huge threat.”

Josh explained that soon after, the Northern Frontier governor received a directive from Seoul to mobilize troops and confront the foreigners. Armed with muskets and whajôn (fire arrows) that could travel eight hundred feet and then explode, the troops were dressed in dragon cloud armor, a folded cloth reputedly impervious to bullets. Marching through the streets of Pyongyang crowds cheered as the army headed to confront the invaders. In tow, and adding to the excitement were several antiquated cannons. Assisting the troops were hundreds of volunteers, including a group of tiger hunters, men known for their courage and tenacity.

Meanwhile, with the ship anchored in the river, six of the General Sherman’s crew boarded a small blue dinghy and headed to shore. They were spotted by the deputy commander, who with a band of Koreans tried to capture the small craft. Amidst the skirmish, the deputy was instead abducted and taken hostage by the westerners who quickly returned to the protection of the Sherman.

The next day the conflict escalated as the locals became infuriated by word of the deputy’s detainment. Rumors also spread throughout the region that the Sherman’s crewmembers even kidnapped some Korean women. The mood of the commoners shifted quickly from that of days earlier when the ship was but an object of curiosity. No doubt, the presence of Cantonese crew members did little to quell suspicions. Chinese pirates had historically raided the region and their presence on the armed ship only enflamed Koreans’ long seeking revenge.

Josh added, perhaps the gravest mistake the Sherman’s crew made was not knowing the independent, manly spirit of the locals. Years before Josh had learned that the makeup of Northern Frontier society differed from the Southern provinces and made for what some familiar with the region considered a “more vibrant, restless population.”

As the tide receded, the ship’s crew concerned over the dropping water level tried maneuvering the schooner upriver. Unsuccessful due to the unexpected drop in the river’s water depth and fearing the ship would soon run aground, the Sherman’s leaders had only one option left: negotiate. With the deputy commander as hostage, several crew members again boarded a dinghy and rowed towards shore hoping to parlay with the local Pyongyang officials. Shouting to the Koreans on shore, the westerners announced that they wished to talk, but only within the walled city of Pyongyang. Since no one on the Sherman’s dinghy was an interpreter, the offshore negotiations failed to make any headway.

Reacting, the civilians began pelting the dinghy and the Sherman with rocks, and threats. The local inhabitants of Pyongyang were renowned for their skill at rock throwing. In fact, Josh said, “Commoners in Korea had even fought as effective rock-throwers in previous wars.” Adding to the situation, one of the Northern Frontiers rock-throwing champions felled a schooner’s crewman. Soldiers armed with muskets and bows soon joined in the confrontation. Back on the river and still a distance from the Sherman the dingy crew came under an ever-increasing barrage of insults and rocks. With few options, the men beached their boat on a sandbar. Seeing an advantage, a group of Koreans stormed the beached dinghy and rescued the deputy. Amidst the confusion, the crew escaped and returned to the relative safety of the Sherman.

Nevertheless, over the next few days, the crew’s fate was sealed as the river level continued to drop and the General Sherman grounded firmly on a sandy shoal. Fear and panic reined among the crew, who fired cannons and rifles sporadically from the ship to keep the mob at bay. Cannon thunder echoing across the province added to the tensions, the retort drawing an ever-growing crowd of irate spectators.

To break the stalemate, the Pyongyang governor commanded an all-out attack on the ship. Following orders, the local military boarded a makeshift kôbuksôn (commonly called a Turtle boat) and launched an assault on the Sherman. They hoped the time-proven covered naval craft once successful against the Japanese would now work against this new generation of foreign invaders. However as the kôbuksôn approached the General Sherman and fired, the aged Korean cannon’s shots bounced off the thick skin of the modern American warship.

Lacking success with the kôbuksôn attack, the local military turned to another tactic. They tied boats together and loaded them up with firewood and a mixture of saltpeter and sulfur. Long ropes were attached to the boats, the firewood lit, and while adrift, pulling the vessels into the grounded General Sherman. On the first attempt, the fire extinguished itself before the boats reached their target. A second array of fireboats was more successful, but the vigilant Sherman crew pushed them away. A third set was launched, reached the enemy, and lodged against the steamship. The American ship soon was engulfed in flame and smoke.

After a futile attempt to extinguish the conflagration, the crew fearing suffocation from the stench and vapor of the burning sulfur-saltpeter concoction began to jump into the water. Pyongyang troops in boats surrounded the larger ship. Some crewmembers waved white flags, but most were hacked to pieces before they could reach shore. For the few that did reach shore, the government acted swiftly and after a tribunal executed the men. No Anglo is known to have survived the ordeal.

In the days that followed the incident life in Pyongyang slowly returned to normal--the Sherman’s cannons silent, its steam-powered engine quiet. Farmers soon returned to their crops and the gentry to their scholarly pursuits and administrative responsibilities. In Pyongyang, many items were salvaged from the General Sherman including cannons, rifles, and an assortment of metal pieces.

As a sign of triumph, the Sherman’s anchor chains were hung from the East Gate Tower. The eradication of the foreign invaders was seen as an act of national security and local pride. At least, in the minds of the Pyongyang officials their action towards the Sherman’s crew was justified. Josh recalled that on his first trip to Pyongyang in the early 1890s, he had passed through the East Gate Tower and seen the chains, oblivious at the time to what they represented.

Confrontation, Treaty, and Trade
With the shore finally in sight and most of the trip behind them; Josh brought the saga to a close--noting some outcomes of the Sherman incident. First, seeking answer to the ill-fated voyage, in 1871 an American Naval expedition sailed to the Korea—their purpose to secure a treaty with the Koreans. Local fortifications, spotting the American ships, fired on the U.S. forces, who returned their shots. Troops were deployed in and around two forts, Kwangsôngjin and Ch’ojijin, on Kangwha Island near Chemulp’o. Korean forces greatly outgunned fought to the last man. Reports tell of weaponless Koreans, who in an act of desperation resorted to throwing gravel at U.S. troops, while others fled the attack and committed suicide rather than accept defeat. The Navy fleet then proceeded up the Han River towards Seoul only to meet increased resistance.

After remaining on the river for weeks, the Americans became increasingly dismayed at the prospect of negotiating a treaty. Finally, with no hope of success, they put out to sea and returned to their base in China. To Korea’s conservative leadership, the departing Americans only confirmed the virtue and morality of their strict isolationist-nativist policies. To the Americans, the failed expedition confirmed to many that this was indeed the Hermit Kingdom. Outside the U.S.’s Kangwha Island military action, America showed little interest in the Sherman incident or Korea in the months and years that followed.

Several years later America sought friendly relations with Korea primarily motivated by the need to protect shipwrecked seamen and prevent another incident like that which befell the General Sherman. This was finally accomplished when America in 1882 signed the Korean-American agreement, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce. With pride Josh noted. “My mentor Townsend was one of the first Anglo traders to venture to Chemulp’o and the Hermit Kingdom. I followed less than ten years later.”

Sitting back for moment, Josh paused sensing the miners were still eager to learn more about the fate of the Sherman and its crew. Smiling, Josh said “Much of the story is still a mystery. In fact, I’ve even heard the Sherman might not have been destroyed as reported, but that story would have to wait. Chinnampo’s in sight and we’ll needed to collect our belongings and prepared to debark.”

The men spent the night at a village inn catering to foreigners. The Japanese-owned lodging offered few comforts, but the miners were a rugged lot. Their occupation meant years spent in American West boomtowns like Placerville, Leadville, and Deadwood. Still no one complained when they left the village the next morning in a company owned and run sloop. Their next stop, Anju, up the Chông Chôn River. Hugging the shoreline the sloop made its way north before entering the mouth of the river. Josh explained how on his past trips he had been either trekked overland or gone by ship up the Taedong River to Pyongyang. With the mining operations north and east of Pyongyang sailing further up the coast before heading inland made sense—water travel faster than by foot.

Although the trip so far was without incident, Josh did have concerns—concerns he’d not shared with Red and the other miners. In Chemulp’o and again in Chinampo, Josh had heard rumors circulated that rebel Chinese Boxers might cross the Korean-Chinese border. Word was that troops from Seoul and Pyongyang were to be dispatched.

Josh, not wanting to worry the miners, hoped they could get to the OCM mines quickly. Once there, the miners were collectively well armed and skilled at defending themselves.

As the sloop passed up the Chông Chôn River the abundance of the region became apparent. Rich alluvial soil meant fields of millet, rice, and cotton. Mulberry trees also meant silk. Equally important, the river provided easy transport for the Frontier’s natural resources--timber, iron, and coal were always in demand. In fact, the region stretching due north from Pyongyang all the way to the Chinese border offered much. Moreover, their isolation meant events in Seoul had little impact on the provinces. The locals showed little interest in changes outside their world.

The sloop arrived in their final port of call—Anju. Pulling into the river port, Josh noted they had arrived on market day. Thus meant the remote village would be crowded and vibrant. For hundreds of years, peddlers traveled a circuit across the country. On a specific date, merchants, peddlers, farmers, acrobats, dancers, and beggars converged on villages across Korea. Unlike Seoul, Pusan, and Chemulp’o where first Chinese and more recently Japanese shops were established and daily trade now occurred, commerce in rural areas centered on market day. Here one found the paths and roads leading into hamlets full of local farmers bringing their wares for sale or barter. Stalls lined the village filled with straw hats, shoes, and mats; iron pots, iron spades, horse shoes, nails, and tools; foods ranging from grains, pears, parsnips, and chestnuts to fowl, pigs, and butchered meats. Showing the growing foreign trade, umbrellas, Japanese and British textiles, cigarettes, and other luxury items added to the variety of goods.

As the day of market activity drew to a close, Josh, Red, and the miners watched while the merchants and peddlers packed their ware. Other merchants conversed over a drink or two, before readying to depart for the next village on the circuit. Returning to the sloop, Josh and the men, too, organized and readied their gear. The next day they would load their belongings into a smaller flat bottomed boat and continue upriver. This final leg would require a team of porters to pull the boat against the river current. That night as the men sat by a campfire on the shoreline, Josh, knowing the flat bottomed boats were not the most reliable warned the men to keep their gear off the boat’s floor, especially their bedrolls.

With dawn the men warmed themselves sipping black coffee. Cutting open a can of hard tack they soaked the biscuits in the brew, which made the “molar breakers” edible. Minutes later they assembled the porters and along with two pack horses climbed into two of the boats. A few hours and the men would be upstream and ready for the overland trek about 20 miles south to the mines. As they traveled upriver, fewer signs of civilization were apparent. Occasionally a small hamlet could be seen in the distance, the straw roofed homes called choga nestled again the hillside.

Reaching a point where the waterway narrowed so that even the flat-bottomed boats could no longer navigate up the Chông Chôn River, the men went ashore. Securing their gear to the packhorses, the men followed a worn trail south. Passing along the river edge of wooded glen, the terrain and vegetation changed as they headed up and down rolling slopes and valleys. Pines, oaks, and aspen grew in abundance. Zigzagging up a rather steep hillside, the terrain grew more barren and rock covered. The men now about 10-15 miles into the trek, thought it might be best to find a safe encampment for the night.

Noting the sun would be out until at least 8:45 pm, Josh listened to the men’s concerns of safety, but also harbored secret fears of invading Chinese Boxers. Moreover, unlike the safety villages offered, two local dangers lurked—bandits and tigers. Josh weighed the options, and urged the miners to push on a little longer.

Following the trail down a steep path, another steep hill lay ahead. Climbing the ridge, the men drew sighs of relief when they spotted mining operations below in the valley. The sound of steam-powered machinery broke the long silence of the day’s overland trek. In minutes, they would be at their destination, the long journey of weeks at an end; months of hard and honest work by ahead.


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