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America's First Encounter With Korea: Shipwrecked Whalers
A harsh captain pushed disgruntled young sailors to make landfall in 1855
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2007-06-01 15:46 (KST)   
This article is part of the Korea firsts series written by historian and long-time resident of Seoul Robert Neff.  <Editor's Note>
A view of the New Bedford area in 1839
©2007 NOAA

On June 14, 1854, the schooner Two Brothers, a whaling ship, under the command of Captain John D. Childs, left its homeport of New Bedford, Massachusetts bound for the rich whaling grounds of the northern Pacific Ocean, and its brief footnote in Korean history.

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New Bedford, Massachusetts was one the centers of American whaling operations for both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Every year great fleets of fishing and whaling ships left this port crewed by seasoned salts and young inexperienced men seeking their fortunes and adventures upon the world's high seas, and, unfortunately, many of these young men never returned -- lost at sea. The Two Brothers was no exception.

The Two Brothers was built in 1816 and probably served as a small merchant ship before it was bought in 1831 and refitted as a whaler in New Bedford. The early years of this whaling ship are unclear but it probably hunted whales on three-year expeditions in the Pacific Ocean and the Southern Seas. It is known that the Two Brothers went on an expedition in the Pacific in 1847 under the command of Captain Isaac H. Jenny, and again in 1851 returning to New Bedford on March 16, 1854, and spent only three months to repair, supply, and to hire a new crew before setting out again on June 14.

The crew of this last expedition was almost entirely new; many of them, judging from the records, were inexperienced and this voyage was to be their first. There were two notable exceptions: 3rd mate John Smith who had served as 2nd mate on the previous expedition, and B.P Dunphy who had served aboard the ship since at least 1847, primarily as the ship keeper. Even Captain Childs was new; this was his first command, but he was far from inexperienced. This does not appear to be out of the ordinary as the captain and ship's crew were for the most part replaced at the end of each three-year expedition.


New Bedford in 1901
©2007 NOAA

Captain Childs' career at New Bedford appears to have begun in 1846 when he signed up as a "boat-steerer" on the whaling bark Janet for its whaling expedition in the Atlantic Ocean. He was back in New Bedford for less than a month before he signed on as the 4th mate on the whaler Henry Kneeland and spent his next three years hunting whales in the Indian Ocean. He returned to New Bedford in May 1851, but by the end of June had found a position as 2nd mate on the whaler Scotland and spent almost three years hunting whales in the northern Pacific Ocean. He returned to New Bedford on April 25, 1854, and in just a little over a month had secured his first command -- the Two Brothers.

Unfortunately there are no known portraits of him and the surviving records do not give his physical description, but he was undoubtedly a tough man, weathered and hardened by the elements, and had survived events that the newer and younger men could only anticipate with excitement and apprehension. He was a man that they could depend upon, but he was also allegedly brutal and abusive, and he probably not only commanded respect from his men, but also their fear. He was more than likely unmarried, his brief returns to New Bedford would not have been conducive to a relationship, even if he had wanted one, and it seems more than likely that if he had married, it was many years after his first command of the Two Brothers.

The Two Brothers made its way around South America and possibly went on to San Francisco or sailed straight to the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] -- the major American whaling supply port in the Pacific Ocean. When they arrived they found the harbor filled with whaling ships -- mainly American, but also a few Prussian and British ships as well. Hawaii was a rough port during this period, its harbor and port filled with sailors seeking feminine companionship and other baser entertainments.

Prior to the opening of Japan it was one of the few places in the Pacific where American whaling vessels could be easily re-supplied. Here they took on supplies and gathered the latest information on the weather, the recent opening of Japan to the West and the subsequent Russian-Japanese negotiations.

Life aboard a whaling ship was not easy. It was extremely dangerous and every year a large number of whaling ships failed to return to their home ports -- lost forever in the seas. Whaling in the northern Pacific was no exception if not more dangerous. The waters were relatively uncharted, and weather conditions severe, especially storms which had the tendency to suddenly appear and sink unsuspecting ships -- their fates forever unknown.

However, the biggest concerns were probably supplies and safe anchorages. Alaska at this time was Russian territory and the Eskimos had become less willing to welcome "the hellships" a name they gave to the Western whaling ships, most of them American, due to their syphilis infected crews and the poor quality of alcohol that they brought and either gave or sold to the natives.

Japan, even after Perry opened it to the West, was still relatively hostile to shipwrecked sailors, and occasional accounts of survivors being imprisoned or executed can be found here and there in the newspapers and books of this period, and as for Korea, it was completely closed to all nations other than Japan and China.

The Russians were increasing concerned about the invasion of American whaling ships into what they perceived were their waters and monopolizing resources they considered theirs. A Russian-Finnish whaling enterprise was established in an attempt to challenge the Americans for control of the rich northern Pacific but was unable to compete financially and, even though it had the logistical superior position with its nearby ports, failed after only a couple of years of operation.

The Russian government threatened to use its navy to prohibit the American whalers from hunting in Russian waters in the northern Pacific, but it was an idle threat for there were too many American whaling vessels, and too few Russian warships. Soon it became apparent to all that the Russians, who were still recovering from the Crimea War, were unable to patrol and enforce their own waters in the Far East and up until the late 1870s or early 1880s, except for in a few isolated incidents; the idea was pretty much abandoned. Finally it was decided that they would close the Russian ports to the foreign whalers and try to drive them out logistically.

It was in the late summer of 1855 that the Two Brothers sailed along the coast of Japan and then into the East Sea/Sea of Japan and up along the Korean east coast in search of whales. The east coast of Korea is buttressed by a mountain range of steep crags and peaks that come right up to the beach in some places thus giving only a limited number of harbors as compared to the west coast. The water off this coast is much deeper that the Yellow Sea and was abundant with sea life, including fish, whales and seals, but it was extremely isolated and far from the traditional shipping lanes and with no friendly ports for hundreds of miles. In addition, much of it was still uncharted on Western maps, and thus little was known of the region except by the Russians, Koreans and Japanese who plied these waters.

The ship had already been at sea for some time and Captain Childs' constant abuse began to wear upon the crew causing them to become surly. Supplies appear to have run low and Captain Childs cut the men's rations causing even more discontent amongst the crew. The supply issue gives an indication of Captain Childs' command. According to an inspection of the whaling fleet submitted to the Secretary of the Navy in 1823: "The whaling ships are provisioned with beef, pork, and bread for three years; but they never exceed three months on their whaling ground without recruiting themselves with fresh provisions from some neighboring island." Captain Childs did not have that luxury -- the only cattle and supplies to be found were in hostile Korea and Japan.

It seems almost ironic that the same report noted that it was a "general remark among whalers that they live better at sea than on shore," and were well supplied with "many delicacies" such as tea, coffee and chocolate.

Captain Childs and the crew were probably aware that the Japanese often imprisoned Westerners they found upon their shores, sometimes even killing them, and Korea was reportedly just as infamous for its hostile treatment to Westerners. Far from any friendly ports, Captain Childs was probably confident that he held all the cards, and despite the crews grumbling, the men would not be able to desert him, but he was wrong.


Whaling vessels in a storm
©2007 US Navy Historical Center

Four of his crew, Melville Kelsey (23), Thomas McGuire (21), David Barnes (20), and Edward A. Brailey (18), unable to endure the conditions aboard the ship any longer, decided to take their chances with the sea. It isn't clear how they managed to take one of the small whalers, perhaps they did it in the middle of the night while on watch or while giving chase to a whale, and set out for Japan. At this time of year, storms often terrorized the region, but they were fortunate and met only with powerful winds that forced them west, towards the hostile Korean peninsula. They eventually crashed on the east coast of Korea, about 30 miles south of Wonsan City near Toncheon in Kangwon province, their boat, stoved in, was rendered useless and they found themselves marooned on the hostile shores of Korea. They were the first known Americans to set foot in Korea.

Almost immediately they were discovered by the Koreans who tried to convince them to leave with gestures and signs, but once it was discovered that the Americans had no way to leave, they were fed and well treated by the Koreans. The Americans were probably surprised at their initial treatment, and, like other shipwrecked survivors, were quickly confined to an area and guarded so as to prevent them from leaving or being molested by the native population, while waiting instructions from the Korean central government. Finally, after a month of captive care, orders were received and the four Americans were taken by horseback to the Manchurian border, and handed over to the Chinese magistrate there.

The men were escorted by a Manchurian magistrate and his men to the Chinese capital, Peking. On the journey to Peking they were forced to stop and rest for the night, and each time they stopped, they were treated well, but placed in jail cells and guarded. China in the 1850s was still a dangerous place for Westerners, especially away from the Western enclaves on the coast, and the men probably wondered what would become of them.

Once they reached Peking they were again placed in cells but they were greatly relieved to discover there were Russian missionaries in the city. The Russian missionaries were not able to speak much English but they occasionally visited the Americans and provided them with food and clothing. For nearly three weeks they were confined before the missionaries relayed to them through writing that they were to be taken to Shanghai and released.

The subsequent trip from Peking to Shanghai and the treatment they received at the hands of the Chinese was far different from the earlier treatment they had received from the Koreans and Manchurians. They were poorly supplied at the beginning of the journey to Shanghai and given only a small allowance on which to live. This allowance was reduced daily as their Chinese escort increased their own profits at the expense of the Americans. The Americans would not be the last to complain of the difference of treatment given to them by the allegedly hostile Koreans and the friendly Chinese.

They arrived in Shanghai in late December 1855 and reported their circumstances to the American consul there. They were questioned about their adventures in Korea, but because they were "very unsophisticated young men" they were unable to provide much information other than they had seen no women while in Korea. Deemed as "not [having] profit[ed] much by their opportunities of travel;" they were eventually sent back to their ship, where they made amends with Captain Childs and were allowed to finish the cruise.

When the ship returned to New Bedford a couple of years later there was no mention in the local press (that I could find) of the desertion incident. Most of the crew appear to have given up whaling, at least in New Bedford, and, like the desertion incident and the subsequent landing in Korea, disappear from the pages of history.


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The H.M.S. Edgar Tragedy


©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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