|Jemulpo Harbor in the late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection|
By Robert Neff
At dawn, on July 4, 1886, the first American teachers in Korea started their journey to Seoul. Of course, it started out in confusion.
"Amid calling and shouting and with much bickering we secured sampans and were on our way to shore," Annie Ellers recalled. "As we came nearer, we could see miles of what seemed mud flats. Arriving at the landing, we found some large stones laid here and there.
"Before we were allowed to use these stones, our various pieces of hand luggage were seized by men who had waded out to be the first to get at our bags. Such a tugging and pulling! The only wonder is that the bags remained whole. My hand bag, I held on to like grim death, nearly losing it a time or two when my attention was attracted elsewhere."
Once ashore, they made their way to Steward's Hotel in the Chinese settlement. They were relieved to find their ponies and rickshaws waiting. Quickly mounting up, they started on their 42-kilometer journey to Seoul.
|A rest stop in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Robert Neff Collection|
In the beginning, despite the scorching heat, the journey was quite enjoyable for the women. Ellers was excited about traveling in a rickshaw but once they left the port and the condition of the road deteriorated, her enthusiasm rapidly ebbed.
"First the rickshaw runners were new to their job," she said. "They would release the handle bar suddenly and we as suddenly were feet up! They would not notice a ditch and slow up, but plump into it went the wheels with a resultant bump for the rider!
"After a sufficient number of these unpleasantnesses, an exchange was made, the baggage was put into the rickshaws and the ladies on the ponies. Now the pack-saddles on the ponies were made for carrying loads of unfeeling wood and not for sensitive humans! So after our arrival, one lady was in bed a week, the other three days! I leave to your imagination the reason why."
Rickshaws first arrived in Korea in 1883 when 50 of them were imported from Japan. They were fairly popular until most of them were destroyed following the Gapsin Coup in December 1884. I think it is kind of amazing the American party was even able to procure operable rickshaws in 1886.
|A Korean ferry, circa early 20th century. Robert Neff Collection|
Once the women were safely on the ponies, they were able to take in the scenery about them.
"All along the way the scenery was glorious, the low lying hills, the valleys, the small villages on the foot hills, the fine trees, pine, willow and oak, giving one's eyes a rest from the bright sunshine; the long coats of the pedestrian with huge sleeves, in reality pockets, holding any kind of a bundle," Ellers wrote. "I saw a chick, a live chicken in one! The queer hats, the shallow pipe bowls, the strange foot-wear, all these and more; the strange ways and manners all, all were so new, so strange that one felt as though one were in a vastly different world."
They stopped for lunch at "the half-way house." This was basically a small inn located ― as its name indicates ― about halfway between Jemulpo and Seoul. Travelers often stopped here for lunch going to or from Seoul. Westerners generally brought their own lunches and ate it in the courtyard while their pony-handlers ate Korean lunches in the inn.
In the mid-1880s, Westerners were still viewed as a curiosity and it wasn't uncommon for small groups of Korean villagers and travelers to gather "in on one pretense or another, to see the strange foreigner eat his stranger food."
Just a few years earlier, an American merchant named Charles H. Cooper had stopped at this very place to eat and had terrified the crowd when, after he had finished eating, "removed his false teeth for cleansing purposes." Pandemonium followed as the crowd rushed for the gate, afraid that the Westerner who was able to "dismember himself" might call down upon them a similar fate.
But it wasn't a curious crowd of onlookers terrified by false teeth that the English teachers had to contend with ― their problem was they had no water.
|The West Gate, circa 1900. Robert Neff Collection|
Two of the men began searching the area for water and were relieved to discover a small pool near a large rock shaded by a large overhanging willow tree. They drank their fill and were getting ready to continue on with their journey when one of the men noticed that the pool was nothing more than the overflow from a very large earthenware pot set under the tree.
Throughout the day they continued their trek until and finally arrived at the ferry crossing on the Han River. It was not an easy task to get "the kicking, squealing ponies" and the rickshaws into the ferry, but somehow they managed.
But there was no time to congratulate themselves. The sun was rapidly setting and all remembered the warning ― once the gates closed, they did not open again until the following morning. They spurred their ponies on and arrived just in time.
"We rode through the gates and halted; it was just dusk," Ellers recalled. "As my pony stopped I looked back at the huge gates. Two men were shutting one half; this done they went to the other side, undid the chain holding it and pulled it shut. Then the great iron hasp was pushed through into the lock and the gates were fastened, locked. Shut in! shut in! no way to get out, imprisoned inside with a people to whom we could not speak. Tired, dirty, sweaty ― there was not a spark of enthusiasm left in me."
As Ellers looked around in the failing light she noticed "huddled forms … weaving back and forth as they wailed." Her initial impressions of the city were not positive.
"Houses low, thatched and tiled all around, open evil-smelling gutters in front and all down the sides of the streets; the streets narrow and covered with piles of dirt here and there."
|A street scene, circa 1890s-1900s. Robert Neff Collection|
As the Americans made their way through the streets, they encountered a couple of fellow travelers. Ellers asked them who the huddled forms were and why were they moaning and crying. The answer she received was chilling. They were victims of cholera.
Nearly a half-century later, when Ellers recalled her entry into Seoul, she claimed that "the people [of Seoul] were dying at the rate of three and four hundred daily." This wasn't quite true; when she arrived in Seoul, the cholera epidemic was just beginning (first case was reported July 2) and the large numbers of deaths (hundreds daily) wouldn't occur for another two or three weeks.
The Americans were soon able to find their way to Dr. Horace N. Allen's residence ― where they would be staying ― and it was here they demonstrated their mastery of the Korean language. According to Ellers:
"Our first Korean word ― mul (water); our second ― aurum (ice); our third ― kajaonara (bring) ― Aurum mul kajaonara."
It was the hottest Fourth of July she had ever celebrated and, in the words of William Franklin Sands (an American adviser to Korea in the late 1890s-early 1900s), "an unattractive entrance to a great adventure."
Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books including, Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.