The Journal of Hendrick Hamel is an account of the thirteen years he spent in Korea under the Joseon dynasty when the ship he was sailing on shipwrecked off the Jeju Island in the southern coast of Korea. Contrary to the name ‘Journal’ the account of Hamel is not a daily report of the years he spent but rather a report he wrote for his employers. His employers were the Dutch East India Company and he wrote this journal specifically to inform them of any possible trade opportunities. His journal was published in the Netherlands soon after his release and arrival. It was a very commercial affair that served to satisfy the curiosity of the Dutch citizens about the foreign countries. Soon the journal became a classic of sorts and was translated into other languages like French German English and later on Korean. This multiple translations and publications also meant that the journal was soon distorted according to the taste of the public and also the talent of the translators. The importance of the journal is that it allows the reader certain up close and personal look into the lives of the 17th century Koreans that are not available anywhere else. Although the Koreans had written accounts of their Kingdoms this was the first time there was a published account by a European. The journal shows that during that time the European attitude towards Asia was more of appreciation and certain sense of equality than the later deprecating attitude and in its own way de-centers Europe. Through his personal observation Hamel also gives an insight into the problems created by intercultural contact and communication between different people. These insights into historical contacts between people are quite important in the current globalised world (Gunn, 2003).
A thorough reading of the text further reiterates the fact that it is in fact not a journal although it had been christened as such since the beginning. It was probably written in a span of few weeks when he and the other sailors were waiting in Nagasaki to travel onwards to Netherlands. A discovery made in 2003 by the Dutch literary historian Vibeke Roeper sheds light into why Hamel wrote the journal in the specific style it is now today. His description of Korea may not have been entirely based on what he saw and felt but rather was suited to be in tune to a specific format that was demanded by his employers.
Roeper a specialist who works on the narratives that describe the Dutch exploits in the seventeenth century explains in his book that Hamel’s account was structured based on very specific and detailed instructions from his employers. His employers were the United Netherlands Chartered East India Company (more famously known by its Dutch acronym VOC- Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie). Roeper also mentions that the journal answered a check list that all VOC employees had to pay attention to when they visited a foreign land or were stranded in one ( Roeper 2003). This check list included seven general topics that they had to have information on. They were the geographical nature of the region, the political organization of the state, its commerce, the current and future position of the VOC, agriculture, miscellaneous information about the country and its commerce. A reading of the journal suggests that Hamel had very closely followed this format and one can even see that he quotes the sub-headings. It turns out that Hamel followed this model very closely, and sometimes even literally quotes the sub-headings.
The primary purpose of the journal and the description of Korea were in no way to help the Koreans or help the Dutch satisfy their curiosity about the foreign lands. It was not also a tale of adventure to entertain the people back home. What it turned out to be was an account to his employers about the viability of trade in Korea. The journal also has accounts of the violent storms the Sperwer (The Dutch ship that the travelers were in at the time of the storm) encountered during its journey. It was merely a justification on the part of Hamel and his companions. They had to convince their employers that the shipwreck was inevitable and that Hamel and his companions did their best to save the ship. This was born out of the fear that there would be retributions for the loss of the ship.
Although the book or the journal offers its readers an account of the Korean people and their way of living in the seventeenth century, its main purpose is that of a survey to look for opportunities for the Dutch East Indian company. Hamel does not do the work of a historian but acts as an employee first and then a European. A passage that describes the Koreans in the book goes thus, “ this nation is much inclined to stealing, lying and cheating. One should not trust them too much. Sharp practice is a matter of pride to them; it is not considered a shame (Roeper, 2003).” This passage serves to explain the fact that Hamel when talking about the Koreans was not talking about the Korean people as a whole or the Korean society. He was rather telling his employers how conducive the Koreans would be to trade from the Dutch East Indian Company. The Company needed to know if the Koreans would honor the contracts it enters into and that were the point of those lines. In modern terminology this could be called as an exercise to inform the Dutch about the Korean Business culture.
This passage from the book is different from the views in the rest of the book. In the other passages, Hamel talks of the Koreans with a favorable attitude and does not give a negative opinion about them. Mutual trust was tantamount with good trade those days and Hamel exercises caution when he describes the Korean sensibilities towards business.
The original handwritten manuscript of Hamel changes substantially by the time it reached Netherlands and was published by various houses. Although he did not intend it to be for public consumption and was originally was for the seventeen gentlemen in the company, it made its way into commercial publication. From a report it soon became an adventurous tale that was lapped up by the Dutch. So what does this say about the Dutch in the seventeenth century?
It shows that the Dutch people were not only curious as to what was out there in the world but that they were also quite outward looking. Documents like the Journal served not only as a source of information to the public but were also used to garner public support for the various journeys that these companies undertook. The Dutch government and the companies needed public support for the commercial endeavors and expansion they made and the journals and other documents were changed accordingly. The journal its contents were of much importance to the Dutch East India Company as it was the first company in the world to go public (Gaastra, 2003). The shares that it issued could be bought by anyone in the Netherlands and thus favorable public support and opinion were very important. By knowing about the Koreans, the people were assured of their investment in the company. This was the reason that Hamel uses caution in his Journal when describing the Koreans and why the journal is not a complete description of the Koreans.
Hamel’s account of the Koreans in his book also came under string criticism owing to the dramatics added by the later publishers. In one translation of the book, Hamel is quoted as calling the Koreans cruel and that he and his fellow sailors were treated as savages. Other publications even included some pictures of crocodiles although there were no crocodile in Korea. It is mainly due to the over dramatization of the book to sell it to the Dutch public that Hamel’s accounts is not considered trustworthy by many, especially by scholars inside of Korea.
Hamel’s book also talks about the relationship between the east and the west during those times. The survival of the Dutch soldiers and the friendship they strike with the Koreans tell the readers that in spite of intercultural contact and difference in languages, there was no enmity among them. Also this account shows the difference in the western mentality in the seventeenth century as compared to their mentality in the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century, the Europeans looked on at the other nations with a sense of superiority and it was more about conquest than anything else. In the seventeenth century however it was still about trade and partnership and Hamel’s book is helpful in bringing this out. Although Hamel wrote to please his employers does not leave out the good and the bad. Since he is frank and does not hide anything this book turns out to be a true case study and not a story or a fable as was made out to be in other publications.
Hamel also gives a highly nuanced view of Korea. There are instances in the book where he chides the men for their bad treatment of their women but there are also other passages where he is in awe of the Koreans. He is especially impressed with the education system in Korea and their book culture. He also tells his readers about the organized culture that he witnessed in Korea. He is especially awed by the fact that the Koreans had a uniform system of weights and measurements throughout the country something the Dutch achieved only a century later (Hamel, 1994).
Hamel also talks about the high degree of bureaucracy in Korea around this time. This is further illustrated by the fact that Korea sent back to the Dutch the hides they found after the shipwreck. The fact that the records were kept for so many years tells of their efficiency. Although they were not released and sent on their way home as was done by the Chinese and the Japanese, the Dutchmen were not enslaved or treated improperly. In fact there was always a chance of them being integrated into the Korean society as it known from Hamel’s mention of another Dutchman. Jan Janse Weltevree another Dutchman who was shipwrecked earlier was not only integrated into the Korean society but was also treated well. If the sailors and Hamel were not persistent in their need to leave Korea they would have ended up getting the same treatment as Weltevree (Gari, 1971). Hamel thus shows that the Koreans in the seventeenth century were not bad and treated foreigners with respect if not a little curiosity. There are also other instances in the book where Hamel talks about the Korean royalty and their administrative system.
As an eyewitness to the happening in Korea at that time, Hamel’s book provides the readers with details that cannot be found in the Korean writings. It is so matter of fact that the reader is transported to the Korean society in the seventeenth century. Hamel describes a royal procession and how during these processions people could give their petitions. The things that leave the reader with a sense of awe is that the Koreans could petition against the government and that these petitions were gathered duly by a person appointed by the King. Hamel also talks about the reverence the people had for the King. The guards have a wooden stick in their mouth to prevent them from coughing and the people; too many of them go eerily silent during the procession out of respect for the king. An ordered society that revered the king was completely different from the society that Hamel came from and from his accounts the readers too share his surprise and awe (Griffis, 1885)
There are so many things that one can read from Hamel’s book. Firstly it shows the European mentality towards countries in the east. Hamel’s accounts completely differ from the accounts during the colonial era. It is also a book that was written when the Europeans were not in a position of power over the Koreans. It also describes the differences between the Korean society and the Dutch society. While the Dutch were a sea-faring people the Koreans did not travel the seas much. In spite of them not travelling much theirs was a culture that was rich and where education was predominant. This was true of many of the western nations of that time and the eastern nations too. The Europeans always found that the eastern civilizations were much more advanced than theirs.
Hamel’s account of his time spent in Korea is not the only book that is available about the views of the European sailors about other countries. His journal shares some similarities with other journals by other explorers such as the journal by Columbus. Columbus also kept a detailed account of his travels in search of India and sent back reports of the people he found. He also gave clear descriptions of the land and the nature of the people he found in the America’s. The difference between these two journals is that Columbus sailed with the idea of conquering and succeeded in it, while Hamel was shipwrecked and landed in Korea by accident. Another similarity is that both Hamel and Columbus refer to themselves in the third person in their books. This could have been either to distance themselves or to give more importance to their role in the whole episode.
History has always been the story of the victors and the popularity of Hamel’s journal and other accounts like his show us only that. Since these countries emerged victorious and powerful, we read more about his accounts of Korea than a Korean historical account. We also see that these journals served as a survey or a spy report for the rulers of the European countries. Wars were waged and trade was changed completely based on these recordings. If there is one lesson that could be learned from these books it is that these accounts were quite powerful in it that it changed the course of history of many countries. Also, the history of the people in those countries is an account that was shared by the explorers and not their own accounts. It is like their history was written for them and was not theirs entirely.
Roeper, Vibeke and Boudewijn Walraven, eds. Hamel’s World:A Dutch Korean Encounter in the Seventeenth Century. Amsterdam:SUN. 2003.
Gaastra, Femme. The Dutch East India Company: expansion and decline. Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2003.
Ledyard, Gari. The Dutch Come to Korea:An account of the life of the first Westerners in Korea(1653-1666). Seoul:Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch. 1971. (includes English translation, Churchill edition).
Griffis, William Elliot. Corea, Without and Within:chapters on Corean history, manners and religion with Hendrick Hamel's narrative of captivity and travels in Corea. 1885.
Hamel, Hendrik. Hamel’s Journal and a description of the Kingdom of Korea, 1653-1666. Jean-Paul Buys, tr. Seoul:Royal Asiatic Society Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication.1994.
Hove, H.J. van. 1989. Hollanders in Korea. Utrecht:Spectrum
G.C. Gunn. First Globalization: the Eurasian Exchange, 1500 to 1800. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003. p. 27.
M. van Groesen, The De Bry Collection of Voyages (15901634): Editorial Strategy and the Representation of the Overseas World. Dissertation, University of Amsterdam. Amsterdam: 2007.