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The first European woman on Ganghwa (part 3)

Jemulpo harbor, circa 1900, courtesy of Diane Nars.

By Robert Neff

A Korean mother and her children, circa 1900, courtesy of Diane Nars.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the history of Westerners in Korea focused on men. Women were rarely mentioned and, if they were, almost never by name.

James Curtis, however, did write about his wife's experiences on Ganghwa Island and seemed quite proud of her ― unfortunately, he only addressed her as "Mrs. Curtis."

Just past 8 p.m. on June 19, 1894, Curtis and his wife left Jemulpo aboard a Korean steamship bound for Ganghwa Island. They were excited. According to Curtis, his wife would be the first European woman to live on the island. But the excitement soon vanished due to the discomfort of the steamship.

The lower deck was filled with Chinese and Korean passengers ― all squatting and smoking their pipes. The thick rancid smoke rendered it unfit for the English woman, so she was forced to spend the night on the upper deck beneath an awning.

What should have been a quick and easy passage was thwarted by thick fog and then followed by a machinery breakdown. They did not arrive at the island until five in the morning.

From the landing, they had to travel about five kilometers to their Korean home ― "a sort of compound enclosing it" ― which "was situated in a delicious spot, encompassed by trees bearing Corean fruit."

Arriving so early in the morning, they "were able to escape the escort of 300 or 400 Corean spectators" who had waited until quite late at night in an effort to see the English woman. When she did not show, they returned home disappointed.

A Korean woman and a sewing machine, circa 1912, Robert Neff Collection.
On reaching their home, the English couple "refreshed" themselves and then strolled through Ganghwa city so that the Korean occupants could satisfy their curiosity. It didn't ― it only awakened even more curiosity and soon great numbers of Korean women began visiting Mrs. Curtis at her residence.

According to her husband: "They were admitted and, perfectly indifferent as to myself being there, they uncovered their faces and began inspecting the house, its fittings, the pictures, ornaments, etc. The shouting and clapping of hands and joyful expressions in general, were worth witnessing. The sewing machine caused the greatest wonder of the whole."

Mrs. Curtis soon became a valued member of the Korean community. Before her arrival, she had often suffered various illnesses but the island's climate ― which her husband declared to be "the healthiest and most delicious" he had ever known ― alleviated her aches and pains to the point where "her health was never better."

Perhaps her new-found healthiness inspired her to act as the island's physician. Islanders with various ailments would go to her for treatment. Usually the first act was to bathe them and then she would rub ointments on their wounds or provide them with quinine for their other complaints ― their supply of medicine was quite limited.

A Korean middle-class family, circa 1900, courtesy of Diane Nars.
Eggs, chickens and charcoal were readily available on the island ― as was beef (which they rarely purchased as it was "not enjoyable on account of the rude way of killing" the cows) ― but Western supplies were difficult and expensive to obtain. There were very few Korean junks traveling from the island to Jemulpo because of the Sino-Japanese War.

When Japanese soldiers landed on Ganghwa, much of the population (especially the women) fled their homes. Many besieged Mrs. Curtis with "heart-rending petitions" for sanctuary, afraid that the Japanese soldiers would chop off their heads. Mrs. Curtis managed to reassure most of them.

The English couple remained on Ganghwa Island until at least the first week of November but, due to the war, the naval academy shut down and they probably returned to Jemulpo to await the return of peace.

Eventually peace did return to the peninsula but Mr. and Mrs. Curtis did not return to Ganghwa ― his contract having expired - and they returned to England.

My appreciation to Diane Nars for her invaluable assistance and for providing me with some images from her collection.


Jemulpo harbor, circa 1900, courtesy of Diane Nars.

By Robert Neff

A Korean mother and her children, circa 1900, courtesy of Diane Nars.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the history of Westerners in Korea focused on men. Women were rarely mentioned and, if they were, almost never by name.

James Curtis, however, did write about his wife's experiences on Ganghwa Island and seemed quite proud of her ― unfortunately, he only addressed her as "Mrs. Curtis."

Just past 8 p.m. on June 19, 1894, Curtis and his wife left Jemulpo aboard a Korean steamship bound for Ganghwa Island. They were excited. According to Curtis, his wife would be the first European woman to live on the island. But the excitement soon vanished due to the discomfort of the steamship.

The lower deck was filled with Chinese and Korean passengers ― all squatting and smoking their pipes. The thick rancid smoke rendered it unfit for the English woman, so she was forced to spend the night on the upper deck beneath an awning.

What should have been a quick and easy passage was thwarted by thick fog and then followed by a machinery breakdown. They did not arrive at the island until five in the morning.

From the landing, they had to travel about five kilometers to their Korean home ― "a sort of compound enclosing it" ― which "was situated in a delicious spot, encompassed by trees bearing Corean fruit."

Arriving so early in the morning, they "were able to escape the escort of 300 or 400 Corean spectators" who had waited until quite late at night in an effort to see the English woman. When she did not show, they returned home disappointed.

A Korean woman and a sewing machine, circa 1912, Robert Neff Collection.
On reaching their home, the English couple "refreshed" themselves and then strolled through Ganghwa city so that the Korean occupants could satisfy their curiosity. It didn't ― it only awakened even more curiosity and soon great numbers of Korean women began visiting Mrs. Curtis at her residence.

According to her husband: "They were admitted and, perfectly indifferent as to myself being there, they uncovered their faces and began inspecting the house, its fittings, the pictures, ornaments, etc. The shouting and clapping of hands and joyful expressions in general, were worth witnessing. The sewing machine caused the greatest wonder of the whole."

Mrs. Curtis soon became a valued member of the Korean community. Before her arrival, she had often suffered various illnesses but the island's climate ― which her husband declared to be "the healthiest and most delicious" he had ever known ― alleviated her aches and pains to the point where "her health was never better."

Perhaps her new-found healthiness inspired her to act as the island's physician. Islanders with various ailments would go to her for treatment. Usually the first act was to bathe them and then she would rub ointments on their wounds or provide them with quinine for their other complaints ― their supply of medicine was quite limited.

A Korean middle-class family, circa 1900, courtesy of Diane Nars.
Eggs, chickens and charcoal were readily available on the island ― as was beef (which they rarely purchased as it was "not enjoyable on account of the rude way of killing" the cows) ― but Western supplies were difficult and expensive to obtain. There were very few Korean junks traveling from the island to Jemulpo because of the Sino-Japanese War.

When Japanese soldiers landed on Ganghwa, much of the population (especially the women) fled their homes. Many besieged Mrs. Curtis with "heart-rending petitions" for sanctuary, afraid that the Japanese soldiers would chop off their heads. Mrs. Curtis managed to reassure most of them.

The English couple remained on Ganghwa Island until at least the first week of November but, due to the war, the naval academy shut down and they probably returned to Jemulpo to await the return of peace.

Eventually peace did return to the peninsula but Mr. and Mrs. Curtis did not return to Ganghwa ― his contract having expired - and they returned to England.

My appreciation to Diane Nars for her invaluable assistance and for providing me with some images from her collection.




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