Authors: Young-ha Kim
Meanwhile, unaware that the world powers were engaged in a history-making struggle over the fate of East Asia, the 1,033 passengers of the
remained mesmerized by sweet dreams of a land called Mexico. Finally, one spring day in April, when a breeze blowing off the South China Sea caused the deck to roll, the
weighed anchor with a loud clamor. Passports had at last been issued for all passengers. When John Meyers couldn’t gain the cooperation of the British minister Gordon, he sought out the French minister Victor Collin de Plancy and asked him to use his influence with the government of Korea. Mexico and the Korean Empire did not have diplomatic relations, and the Emigration Office, which had been established by the imperial government for emigration to Hawaii, prohibited contract labor, so Meyers’s demand was seen as illegal. With the help of Collin de Plancy’s efforts, though, the passports were issued, and the
’s human cargo departed for Mexico, where there was not a single Korean resident, let alone a diplomat. It was April 4, 1905.
HE ANCHOR WENT UP
. The deck was crowded all the way to the stairs with those who wanted to see Jemulpo one last time. It was a departure for which they had waited too long. Because of children who had caught chickenpox, because of passport difficulties, and because of the British minister’s strict inspection, they had had to go back and forth between the ship and the harbor for some two months. But now, at least, there was no distinction between commoner and noble, man and woman, or young and old, and every face was bright. A ship slicing through the ocean wind and heading out into the vast ocean is a finer sight than a ship at anchor. Yi Jongdo’s family, Kim Ijeong, Choe Seongil, and the others were all on deck and flooded with emotion. It was a clear day. The wind was somewhat strong, but the weather was beautiful, with white clouds sailing through the blue sky. The small boats that had been idling about next to the
rowed in unison and backed away so they would not be swept up by the wake. Like a great dog shaking water off its body, the
pushed aside everything around it and began to sail into the Yellow Sea. Korean laborers with towels wrapped around their heads waved to the emigrants on deck. There were those among them who had tried to board the
up until the very last moment.
The British steamer’s whistle was resonant. The black smoke that puffed from its stacks mixed with the sea winds and left a long trail in the blue sky. The German sailors in their striped shirts went about their work with blank faces. There was a unique, cold vitality to these men who began and ended their lives at sea. They had absolutely no interest in the social meaning of the work they did, but they attributed an absolute significance to its practical value and always worked energetically. Raising the anchor, letting down their fishing poles to catch fish for food, swabbing the deck, and inspecting the ropes—all these things were in this purposeful domain.
A short while later, as Jemulpo harbor gradually receded into the distance, the passengers lost interest in the surrounding scenery and went down to the cabin by ones and twos. Yi Jongdo stayed on deck for a while, following with his eyes the ocean and the jagged western coastline of Gyeonggi province. Many of the kings of Joseon, Yi Jongdo’s ancestors, had never seen the ocean. A retainer who had been appointed an emissary and traveled to Japan gained an audience with the king upon his return, and the king asked him, “How did you travel to Japan?” “We went on Your Majesty’s vessels.” “How many people were on each ship?” “Each ship carried around thirty people, including soldiers and crew.” Only then did the king ask quietly, “I still wonder. How is it that such a heavy ship carrying so many people does not sink but floats on the water?” There were countless kings who had never even been to the Han River, only six miles from the palace. The retainer searched for a way to make the king understand without exposing his ignorance. “Your humble subject does not yet fully comprehend the principle behind it, but Your Majesty’s fishermen and navy discovered this principle early on and have made good use of it. I can only surmise that they are aided by light wood and tar.” These were civil officials. Being unable to understand the principles behind tools was by no means a reason for shame. The king and his retainer exchanged curious looks and then forgot about the ocean and the ships. Now their descendant Yi Jongdo found that being on a ship was similar to riding a palanquin over a rough road. His stomach was already beginning to churn. He took a deep breath. Korean air filled his lungs. In the midst of this turmoil, Yi Jongdo recalled a poem by Du Fu, a Chinese poet, that sang of the sadness of leaving one’s home: “The color of spring in the heavens hurries to fade, and my tears of parting are added to the distant silken waves.” As he recited the verse, it seemed to be talking about the fate of the dynasty, and his heart grew troubled. His stomach began to churn more and more.
He may have been seasick, but he did not want to go down to the cabin. The aristocrats and beggars and peasants and the lower class kept sharp eyes on each other in the midst of the tension. As John Meyers had said, this was not the Korean Empire, it was British territory afloat on the seas. It was now an everyday occurrence for the common rabble to defiantly hold their heads high and stare at him and his family. No one lowered their head when he passed, nor did anyone step aside when they met in a corridor. The Korean status system, which was now only implicit even in Korea, had disappeared without a trace aboard the
Yi Jongdo raised his head to the sky with an aggrieved heart. I have sinned much against my ancestors. I am paying the price for that. The aristocrats hid their horsehair hats while the peasants stuck out their chests. Their speech and writing were different, so one could guess another’s stock after only a few words. It didn’t take long for Yi Jongdo to realize just how reckless it was for him to insist on his privileged position. Yet he firmly believed that this would not be so in Mexico. Things might not go so well, but then he would entreat the emperor in Seoul. The emperor would grind the ink imported from Beijing and write a letter in splendid calligraphy to the ruler of Mexico. He would very politely request that he save his unfortunate cousin and his family. As soon as Yi Jongdo thought this, his heart grew lighter. And the commoners on this ship would also keenly feel the need for people such as himself. When the landowners and officials inevitably mistreated the common people, who would stand up for them and rebuke their oppressors with stern words and letters? Who else among them had both the noble lineage and the learning to represent them? He had looked over every passenger but found not a single familiar face among them. “Ah, no one knows the depth of the common people’s ignorance,” Yi Jongdo lamented, then went down to the cabin. On his way he bumped shoulders with people at least three times. Such a thing would never have happened in Seoul. The last person he came into such unpleasant contact with was Choe Seongil. Choe looked around casually. The first thing a thief had to do was examine his surroundings. Thieves had to be more sensitive and diligent than any other type of criminal. They had to scout out the area, decide on the items they would steal, check the escape route, make sure that there was no one to witness that escape, and inspect their own demeanor. This attitude was second nature to Choe Seongil. No one had taught him; he knew these things by instinct.
He walked around the cabin and examined people. There was probably no one who could guess the former occupation and status of the passengers as well as he could. He could even estimate the amount of cash and gold the passengers carried without a great margin of error. Only the man who had drawn him here, the man who had carried the cross, was a riddle. But Choe had already stolen all of his goods, so he was no longer interested in him. As he strolled about the cabin, which had already begun to reek of something like rotten horseflesh, he discovered a number of fellows not unlike himself. Like beasts that recognized their own kind by the smell of their urine, they quickly became aware of each other’s presence and exchanged glances, concluding a sort of nonaggression pact. Then they began to loosely divide up their domains. All without a single word.
Most of the passengers were plagued by seasickness. Lying on the floor with ashen faces, they had no idea how to deal with the rolling that they were experiencing for the first time in their lives. Strangely enough, Choe Seongil did not grow seasick. Had he been a sailor or a fish in a former life? Though he was rocked by the waves in the dark cabin beneath the waterline, Choe felt nothing. Rather, he whistled and enjoyed the rolling of the ship as he walked around and idly watched the others.
In his eyes, the passengers could be divided into a few general categories. First, the ruined aristocrats. These had lost their land or office in the violent changes that took place after the opening of harbors; their plight had grown so desperate that they couldn’t even offer sacrifices to their ancestors. They took out books here and there around the ship and read them to relieve the boredom. Their hands were white and soft, and they usually tied their hair in a topknot and wore horsehair headbands. They apparently had no intention of getting along with the other classes in the cabin, and so they simply endured the situation without a word. These aristocrats were most agonized when it came time for meals, which consisted of a kimchi that was actually just salt sprinkled on wilted cabbage, watery miso soup, and rice mixed with other grains. Thinking that others would naturally allow them to be served first, they waited quietly, but the only thing they received was mockery. Yet they could not very well rush forward like pigs to the trough. Unable to bear it any longer, an aristocrat from Cheongju suggested that it would be fairest if they decided on an order, then began from the front one time and from the rear the next time. This idea was met with silence. The proposal itself was rational, but the commoners knew that once you started to listen to aristocrats, they would ultimately seize control. It may have been somewhat inconvenient, but standing in line at every meal was a way to give those loathsome aristocrats a hard time. With no other choice, the aristocrats stood in line as well. Their slow step, their way of walking with their toes pointed outward, soon disappeared of its own accord, and they began to walk more quickly like everyone else.
By number, the peasants were the largest group. They were characterized by rough hands, sun-blackened faces, and strong muscles and frames like Chinese coolies. More than any other class, they had no complaints with life on shipboard. A life where they did not have to work and yet food was still served when the time came was like a dream to them. On land they labored all year, but when a drought or a flood struck, everything came to nothing and they would starve until the spring barley harvest. Even if the next year saw an abundant harvest, there was never anything left after they repaid their debts to the landowners. Mexico, a country with no winter, where there was much land and no people, thus making people as precious as gold, was the land of their dreams. After all, the fatigue of farming was the same anywhere.
After the peasants were the former soldiers of the Korean Empire, like Jo Jangyun. These two hundred or so young, robust men were the pride of the Continental Colonization Company. At first glance they looked similar to the peasants, but most of them were city dwellers who had no experience in farming. Unlike the peasants, who were accustomed to disorder, the soldiers had grown up in an organization that loved order and discipline. They were used to meaningless waiting, hunger, and harsh environments, and they were sensitive to the vagaries of politics. A few of them had been members of the old-style army that had assaulted the palace and engaged in a brutal battle, but they did not make themselves known. They supported the isolationist policy of the Daewongun and burned with wrath against Japan and the Western powers, and it was for this reason that they had lost their jobs and were forced to leave the country.
The rest were city vagrants like Choe Seongil and Kim Ijeong. There were no women who boarded by themselves. It hadn’t been permitted by the Continental Colonization Company, and in the social atmosphere of the time, for a woman to leave by herself for such a distant place was intolerable. The women boarded the ship as members of families. The company had not forgotten its experience with Hawaii, where only single men had been allowed, causing a massive imbalance in the ratio of men to women, which led to social problems. So this time they invited primarily families, and in response quite a few women put their fates in the hands of their husbands and fathers.
HE VOYAGE WAS LONG
was completely lacking in material comforts, and not only were the passengers stored like baggage but they exceeded the optimum capacity of the ship by at least three times, making their suffering that much worse. They had heard the name of the ocean they had to cross and were envisioning in their own way a sea like a vast and tranquil lake. The Chinese had long ago called this ocean Taipingyang, combining the characters for “great”
, and “ocean”
. But the ocean, contrary to the wishes of the one who had christened it, was rough and unpredictable. Every time an enormous wave crashed against the side of the ship, the passengers in the cargo hold beneath the waterline were tangled together with no regard for decorum, etiquette, or Confucian morality. Embarrassing scenes were continually played out where men and women, aristocrats and commoners were thrust into one corner with their bodies tossed against one another. Chamber pots were overturned or broken, and the vomit and excrement within spilled out on the floor. Curses and sighs, criticism and fistfights were everyday occurrences, and the vile stench did not fade. No one dreamed of such extravagant notions as laundering or bathing. The passengers’ only desire was that the boat would arrive quickly so they could stand on firm land.