Quelpaert, a missed chance?

The fifteen crew members of the Sperwer, who came in contact with their countrymen, after their long stay in Korea, were of course extensively interrogated about all kind of aspects of their adventure. What interested the administrators in Amsterdam and the High Government in Batavia especially was the question if one could trade with this unknown country in a profitable way. That's why the description of country and people of Korea as it is written down in the Journael, will have been read with a lot of interest. This description and the oral explanation by Hamel and his mates obviously raised optimistic expectations by the administrators in Amsterdam. Anyhow in 1669 a ship was launched that was baptized Corea.

The High Government in Batavia was less enthusiastic. But also this council concluded that several products which were exported to Korea were brought to Japan by the VOC. Amongst these were products like sandalwood, pepper , hides, etc. They wanted to investigate the possibility to deliver these goods to Korea straight-away in order to make higher profits in this way. That's why, shortly after the arrival of Hamel in Batavia, an official document was sent, directed to Mr. Daniel Six, chief of Deshima, in which was asked to advice about this.

The answer of Six was not encouraging. He pointed at the monopoly for the trade with Korea, which was in the hands of the Daimyo of Tsushima . The Japanese would never allow that this monopoly was broken, according to the chief. In short, if the VOC valued continuing the commercial relations with the Japanese, they should not throw themselves in a Korean adventure. There was some more correspondence between Batavia and Deshima and between Batavia and Amsterdam, but eventually they took the advise of the chief at heart. As a consequence of the powerful position of Japan in that area, the VOC rejected further exploration of Korea. The good ship Corea, never set course to the country after which is was named.

Without doubt an attempt to harbor a VOC ship at a Korean port shortly after 1670, in an attempt to make commercial relations with Korea, have failed. If it is only that the Koreans were of the opinion that they were bothered enough by the Hollanders. Furthermore they stuck to their decision not to make any contacts besides the contacts with other foreigners with the Tartarians and the Japanese (In the case of the Japanese and the Tartarians they had not much choice!).

This decision was based on the bad experiences which the Koreans had in the past with foreigners. It was only a century ago that the Hideyoshi invasions took place, and the memories of the invasion of the Manchu's in 1636 was hardly faded. The Korean desire to be left alone had always been very strong, even before the Hideyoshi invasion.

The coast of the country was carefully guarded and the harbors locked. On top of that the appearance was given that the country was poor. To the foreigners they pretended more or less: You have nothing of value here, because there is nothing. This isolating policy was enforced so consequently that when the Korean isolation was broken, it was the last country outside Europe which was disclosed.

The Japanese were also not very keen on foreigners. But while the Koreans kept the door firmly closed, the Japanese put theirs ajar. This was related to the fact that Japan was a powerful country and possessed a strong military and naval force and therefore had more self-confidence.

Already in 1543, the Japanese government granted the Portuguese to establish a factory on the island of Hirado . It was for the Japanese a lucky coincidence that when they changed the Portuguese for the Hollanders as commercial relation one century later. This happened on a moment in history where Portugal lost it's importance as a world power indefinitely, like the Spanish Empire, of which the decline already started with the sinking of the Armada in 1588. In that year was the young Republic an insignificant dwarf state that in the swampy delta of Schelde, Meuse and Rhine hardly could keep its head above the water. A year before, in 1587, a soldier from Leicester called our territory:

.....the biggest quagmire of Europe. Nowhere in the world you will find so much bogginess. It's everywhere swamp. Indeed it's the buttock of the world, full of blood and veins, but with no bones in it.

This was written by Sir Henry Unton, troops captain of the cavalry in the English expedition army, which rushed forward to the help of the moribund Republic in his desperate looking battle against the Spanish oppressor. Obviously the English thought this such a suitable description of Holland that they used this in the course of the 17th and 18th century every time when the political situation gave a reason. They used it in leaflets against the Republic der Zeven Verenigde Provincien (The republic of the seven united provinces).

Sir Henry wrote his letter though from Middelburg, and the Province of Zeeland was in those days more sea then land, and much land was drowned or half drowned. As a consequence of the war circumstances the maintenance of the dikes was neglected, while some of the dikes were perforated sometimes on purpose to hinder the advancement of the Spanish troops. As a consequence Zeeland was nothing more then a collection of silts, from which some cities like Middelburg, Veere and Zierikzee stood up like little islands. It's no miracle that Sir Henry complained about the bogginess.

That this buttock of the world would develop in two generations to a center of power and civilization, nobody could surmise. Also modern historians are amazed about this development, which, speed-wise, only is equaled by that of Japan at around 1900. In de Nederlandse Geschiedenis als afwijking van het algemeen menselijk patroon (1988) (the Dutch History as a deviation of the common human pattern) the authors are seeking an explanation of this swift development in the physic-geographical circumstances of the young republic. They end their argument with the rhetorical question :"Doesn't the "Homo Hollandicus" arise in the first instance from the swamp?" For Japan the Hollanders were as trade partners much more acceptable, because obviously they were also hostile against both the Portuguese and the Spaniards, and they were as less charmed by the catholic religion as the Japanese themselves. It was a comforting thought that the Hollanders came purely as merchants and not as preachers of religion to the Japanese waters.

But in fact the choice of the Japanese meant that they chose an ideology which was already losing in Europe, and they came in contact with a liberal-capitalistic system, that eventually would determine the face in both the New as the Old World. Though the Japanese were in no way planning to study the European culture after Hollands design, with the aim to take over this cultural pattern, but the fact that they were capable in the second half of the 19th century of making themselves familiar with the western ideas, was partly due to the fact that they kept their door ajar for centuries. And that crack was Deshima .

When Perry arrived in 1853 in Japan, he encountered Japanese who could read Hollands. Some had made a study of sciences like they had developed in Europe. Others possessed knowledge about the civics and the economic organization of the most important European countries. There were even minor groups who aimed at importing certain scientific methods and political policy making in Japan. However small these groups were, their influence was unproportional big. Thanks to this influence the culture shock for the Japanese was less big, in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the West started to become engaged in the Far East than for most of the other countries in that part of the world, especially Korea. Here in 1870 the first European visitors since Hendrick Hamel and his mates encountered a backward country, with a degenerated dynasty, a corrupt administration and a society which was decomposing.

Matthew Galbraith Perry (1794-1858). American admiral, who forced the Japanese to open their ports for foreign merchant navy and lift the business embargo.

In a South Korean TV-documentary about the jaght the Sperwer and his crew (broadcasted by the TROS on May 31, 1988) some Korean historians regretted the fact that their ancestors, in 1653, didn't use the opportunity to make cultural and economical relations with the Hollanders through Hamel and co.
According to these historians it would have been much better for the development of their country, if it had given the opportunity to the remaining members of the crew of the Sperwer to return to their countrymen with an invitation to the governor general to send as quick as possible a convoy of VOC ships with trade goods to the Korean waters.
One can only guess how the governor-general and the Japanese would have reacted, or the Tartarians. But according to the Korean historians it wouldn't have been an impossible alternative, provided it would have been done carefully.
There could have been another script possible as well, according to which the initiative was to the VOC. It is tempting to wonder what would have happened if the Heeren XVII had laid down the advice of the chief of Deshima and accepted the risk of breaking economical ties with Japan, in order to make higher profits in Korea.

In order to save both ' de kool en de geit' (the cabbage and the goat, meaning to be safe at both ends), there would have been a lot of diplomacy involved, beside some roaring of cannons and showing of flags. That wouldn't have been troublesome since there was a lot of diplomatic talent present in the Republic. The assignment to play Tartary against Japan would have been right up the street of the in 1649 born Hans Willem baron Bentinck. He succeeded in a similar assignment in Europe shortly thereafter.

Baron Bentinck played an important role in the marriage of William III and Mary Stuart, which led to the Glorious Revolution

But, maybe unfortunately for Korea and maybe unfortunately for the Republic, nothing of this all happened. In 1653 the Koreans didn't send the Hollanders back to Taiwan with an invitation for the governor-general, and in 1670 or hereabout, the governor-general didn't send a powerful fleet to Quelpaert to occupy this island.

In reality the thirteen-year stay of the Hollanders was just a short incident of the long history of this country. With the departure of the last survivors of the Sperwer in 1668 Korea slept in again, to be wakened two centuries later, much ruder then the Sleeping Beauty.

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