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Neglected explorer finally acknowledged by hometown

Shipwrecked, Hendrick Hamel escaped captors to write history of unknown country

Tags: Dutch Exploration

GORINCHEM, the Netherlands - Far-away, contemporary South Korea for decades has been celebrating 17th century Dutch sailor Hendrick Hamel’s importance to the history of that country. Hamel’s hometown only recently acknowledged his role and as an explorer. In a major move to pay homage to its famous traveler, the old fortress town of Gorinchem now boasts a statue of Hamel. A second, similar casting will soon be added to the Hamel monument in the South Korean town of Kangjin.

In 1652, Hamel served as a crew member on the VOC ship ‘De Sperwer’ (Sparrowhawk). From the Dutch East Indies, the vessel sailed north to Japan, which just recently had made a tentative step in opening up its country to ‘gajin’ (non-Japanese) and allowed the Dutch to be its only, though severely restricted foreign trading partner. The ship never reached its destination of Decima (Nagasaki) as it met with bad weather in the Korea Strait and foundered on the rocky coast of the island of Cheju. Only seventeen men survived the shipwreck and were promptly taken into custody.

The Hermit Kingdom

In the early part of the 17th century, Korea, like its neighbor Japan, had made great strides in keeping foreign influences and foreigners at bay. That decision by the Korean rulers was born out of of necessity, as from 1592 onwards a number of bloody attempts had been made by Japan to conquer the peninsula and use it as a stepping stone to confront the Chinese empire. The first invasion by an army of 250,000 was successful until the Korean fleet was able to cut Japanese supply lines, forcing a retreat and an armistice.

Five years later, another Japanese incursion was halted by a joined Sino-Korean army. Again the Korean navy managed to deal its Japanese counterpart a devastating blow, but not before the Japanese - and the ensuing battles - had laid waste to virtually the entire country.

Because of their anti-Japanese feelings, the 17th century Koreans - ruled by kings of the Ji dynasty - effectively sealed off the country, only allowing for time-honored relations with China. That relationship was tenuous at best, as China had added to Korea’s post-war woes by raiding the country - for centuries a satellite state of China - in reprisals for political and especially tax infractions.

Not surprisingly, the sudden appearance of seventeen Europeans caused a major disturbance among the Koreans. Though the VOC-sailors unmistakably were victims rather than deliberate raiders, they also were foreign and even ‘alien’ to many Koreans. As castaways, Hamel and the others were treated well in the early months after the disaster. However, as soon as the novelty wore off, they again became the foreigners whom Korea had wanted to keep away from its shores. The fact that they could just have come from their arch enemy Japan perhaps added to the fate of the Dutchmen.

Gradually the fate of the survivors of the Sparrowhawk disaster changed for the better. It was obvious to them that the Koreans intended to restrict their movements. From Cheju they were taken to the mainland and appropriated by the local ruler. As was common in those days - not only in Asia - people were a commodity, truly subjects of a ruler, without a voice or vote and to be used at the ruler’s whim. The Dutchmen soon were no better than slaves.

Hendrick Hamel, perhaps the most educated of the seventeen prisoners, had been able to keep a journal of his stay in Korea. Of his first encounter with Koreans after they had crawled ashore from the wreck of the Sparrowhawk, Hamel wrote: ‘We panicked as we thought these people were ready to lynch us’. He described some of the later humiliations he and the others suffered as ‘a blatant disaster’. Spurned in their quest for freedom, the men were obliged to adhere to the customs of the land and became as repressed as the Koreans. In the summer, his captors, Hamel wrote, ‘daily let us stand for hours in the burning sun and in winter time in rain and hail.’

When the novelty of their capture was still fresh, the Dutchmen had been brought to the royal palace in Seoul, as a kind of novelty item for the king. Through interpreters and confidants, Hamel and the others were able to relay an urgent request to the king. They bade to grant them their release so they could go back home and rejoin their wives and children. Hamel’s entry in the journal conveyed the disappointment the men felt upon the negative decision. ‘The king answered that such was not the custom of the land. Foreigners never were granted permission to leave the realm.’

In 1666, after thirteen years of what then had become imprisonment, eight men including Hamel were able to escape. The managed to seize a boat and soon reached Japan where they were able to travel on to the VOC trading mission at Decima, the artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki. Although Japan also was closed of to foreigners, its local rulers and people at least were not unfamiliar with ‘gajin’, especially the Dutch traders. Hamel soon after returned to Gorinchem where he died in 1692.

Back in 17th century Holland, Hamel was just another of the many former VOC crewmen with stories to tell about his adventures. He had sailed the Seven Seas at a time when dozens of VOC ships plied their trade, fought sea battles, survived disasters, made discoveries and enjoyed adventures. Not surprisingly, the events described in his journal were regarded a mere curiosity and never were judged on their true merits: a detailed description of life in the Hermit Kingdom as no Westerner had ever lived to talk and write about at home. Without Hamel’s journal, Korea would have remained a truly ‘foreign’ country for centuries longer.


The first public recognition of Hamel occurred early in the 20th century, when locally a street was named after him (it still exists) but few people would have known the reason for that honour. Only recently, when Gorinchem’s city fathers traveled to Korea to cement twinning relations with Kangjin did they to their embarrassment discover how much their townsman Hamel was revered in that country. An imposing monument to the onetime VOC bookkeeper had become a cultural attraction on the island of Cheju and the Dutch visitors felt painfully amiss in their own failure of recognizing him whom they since are calling their ‘Columbus of Korea’.Replica As a first step in recognizing Hamel’s contribution to the body of knowledge of Korea was the unveiling of a small statue of the explorer. The rendition of regional sculptor Jaapo Hartman will serve as a model for a larger casting destined as an addition to the monument at Cheju.

The are also plans - if the project attracts enough sponsors - for a replica of the Sparrowhawk. Although at this the idea is still in the embryo stage the group which represents Gorinchem in the twinning committee, hopes that the ‘Sperwer’ will fly again, as a belated but nevertheless appropriate tribute to Gorinchem’s own explorer of far-away Korea.

Hendrick Hamel was born in Gorinchem (also known as ‘Gorkum’) in 1630. At that time, the town on the Waal River, across the river from famed Loevestein Castle, was one of the smaller, beit regionally influential towns in the Province of Holland. Hamel entered the employ of the powerful Dutch East Indies Company - the VOC - at an early age. By 1650, he was an on-board bookkeeper.