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The Shipwreck of the Bianca Pertica
[Part 1] An early Korean-Italian encounter on Jeju Island
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2008-05-25 14:53 (KST)   
Genoa, during the 19th century, was one of the leading merchant centers in Europe. It was a vibrant city known for its trade and its sailors and their exploits throughout history, perhaps the most famous of whom was Christopher Columbus. This incident is about one of Genoa's citizens and the small and unintentional role that he played in early Korean-Italian relations.

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Giuseppe Santori was not a famous man; in fact, we know almost nothing about him. We know that he was an Italian from Genoa, in his late teens or early 20s, who, like many young Italian men, chose the sea as his source of livelihood and adventure. He was a sailor aboard the large Italian two-masted barque, Bianca Pertica, which was commanded by Captain Tancredis, who, again, almost nothing is known of. Considering the size of the ship, 666 tons, the 13 man Italian crew Captain Tancredis hired seems too small to sail a ship of this size very far into the open sea, but that is just what they did -- they traveled to the distant and exotic Far East.

Exhaustive searches have failed to reveal where and when the Bianca Pertica departed Europe, or conclusively what its cargo might have been, but circumstantial evidence suggests that it might have carried 'Cardiff coal' from Wales. A similar Italian barque, Emilio V, commanded by Captain Merella, arrived in Nagasaki on June 28, 1878, from Cardiff, England, with a load of coal and, in the months that followed, transported lower quality coal between Nagasaki and Hong Kong on at least two occasions. Considering that there were very few Italian ships operating in the Japanese waters, it seems more than a mere coincidence that these two ships would arrive at Nagasaki when they did. Perhaps these ships were chartered by the same company.

Entrance to Nagasaki
©2008 Robert Neff Collection

According to the 'Arrival and Departure' page of Nagasaki's English newspaper, on Sept. 8, 1878, the Bianca Pertica arrived in Nagasaki from Hong Kong. I assume that this was her first trip to Nagasaki because there are no other records of her visiting the port. Besides, the lack of Asians amongst her crew and the crew's inability to communicate in Chinese seems to indicate that the ship was new to the Far East.

Nagasaki was the first Japanese port opened to the West and on several occasions served as a forward port for Western navies operating in the Far East. Nagasaki was a rough port with a large transient population of sailors and merchants who supported an infamous thriving entertainment industry composed of drinking establishments and brothels, and thus is it not surprising that the local newspaper noted "naval officers regard Nagasaki as their favorite resort on the Eastern Station." The Italian community in Nagasaki was very small, probably only six or seven people, but there were at least two hotels operated by Italians, the Hotel de Garibaldi, and its chief competitor, the Belle Vue Hotel, owned by C.N. Mancini and his wife. It is unknown if any of the Bianca Pertica's crew stayed in either of these hotels, but as we'll later see, the owner of the Belle Vue Hotel played a role in the ship's story.

Because Italy had relatively few commercial interests in Japan, and very few Italian ships visited Nagasaki, there was no Italian consulate in the city; all consular activities were handled by Mr. A.E. Olarovski, the Russian Consul, who also held the position of Italian Acting Consul. I was unable to find any records that indicate Captain Tancredis, or for that matter, Captain Merella of the Emilio V, ever visited the consul, and considering the consul later seemed unaware of the Bianca Pertica's fate, it is my opinion that neither ship's captain did. More than likely, they weren't even aware that there was an Acting Italian Consul and, having no need of assistance, did not bother to enquire. The Duke of Genoa complained of Italy's lack of interest in the Far East when he visited Japan two years later and gathered and brought back to Italy a great amount of information and specimens from the Far East in an effort to awaken Italians to the opportunities in the Orient. His efforts appear to have been unsuccessful for even as Korea opened up its land and markets to the West in 1882, a British Government document noted there were no visits by Italian merchant ships to Japan in 1882.

The port of Nagasaki
©2008 Robert Neff Collection

The crew probably spent most of the ten days finding a customer, reloading the ship, drinking, visiting the infamous brothels, and purchasing mementos to take home. On Sept. 18, 1878, after taking on supplies, the Bianca Pertica departed Nagasaki, Japan, bound for Hong Kong with a shipment of Nagasaki coal consigned by a local merchant, Tankosha. Nagasaki was important not only to the West as a naval base in the northern Far East, but also as a supply of dependable and high quality coal which came from the nearby Takashima mines.

As more and more navies and shipping companies switched from sailing vessels to steamships, the importance of coal quickly became apparent and Nagasaki was "the only place in the East where coal was mined in any quantity." This coal was often exported to Hong Kong and other major seaports to be used by commercial and naval ships, and it commanded a good profit. I believe that the Bianca Pertica was brought to the Far East to serve in the same manner as the Emilio V, a transport to carry coal from the coal mines of Nagasaki to Hong Kong, and then return either empty (with ballast) or carrying a cargo of general goods -- probably the captain's personal venture.

The day of Bianca Pertica's departure was a beautiful summer day and showed promise of an easy voyage. A light breeze from the east filled its sails and conveyed the ship through the calm waters at a lively pace. However, to the east the sky grew darker as the day progressed and the wind increased in ferocity and, though they might have noted it, none could have imagined the danger that they were in.

August and September are prime months for typhoons in the region, and although typhoons are fairly common in these waters, this particular one was unusually strong. Bianca Pertica's captain, unaware of the strength of storms in these waters, did not heed the warnings and continued on his course, confident that his ship could endure a summer storm. He was not the only one. There were other captains far more familiar with these waters, who were caught unprepared and suffered similar results as we shall see later on in this chapter.

As the day progressed, so too did the wind's strength, and by evening the light breeze that had filled the sails of the ship quickly developed into a violent typhoon force wind that threatened to overwhelm it. Captain Tancredis, realizing his ship was in danger, ordered the crew to take in part of the sails, but as the storm continued to strengthen, part of the main-sail was blown away from its riggings and flapped wildly in the howling wind. Realizing that the sail could be blown away or cause additional damage to the ship, Tancredis ordered the crew to quickly secure it. The men sprang to the task, but as they were complying with his orders, a sudden burst of wind blew away the fore top-sail and snapped its yards.

In an effort to protect his ship, Captain Tancredis, with his remaining sails, turned the ship with the eastern wind at his stern and sailed west in an attempt to run from the worst of the storm. The maneuver was not without its dangers. As he turned the ship, huge waves began to crash over the sides, and water poured into the lower deck, further endangering the ship by slowing its response to the helm. The captain ordered the crew to man the pumps; throughout the night, and exposed to the elements, the men pumped in a desperate effort to remain afloat.

Morning brought a little relief: the storm still raged, but the water in the holds had been pumped out sufficiently that Captain Tancredis felt safe to leave only four men to continue bailing and pumping while the rest of the crew tried to bring in the remaining sails. With the ship rising and falling in the surging waves, the men cautiously made their way to the riggings, and began to pull in the sails, but suddenly the wind shifted from the east to the south, and blew away the remaining sails. The ship was without sails and thus at the mercy of the wind; it began to drift to the north.

A battered ship in rough seas - Illustrated London News 1894
©2008 Robert Neff Collection

Again the ship was awash in the sea and water began to fill the cargo holds, causing pieces of coal to be swept about the ship, further endangering it. The pumps were again manned by the entire crew, but at around 10 o'clock that night, it was discovered that the pumps were clogged with small chunks of coal and rendered inoperable. Unable to do anything while the seas were raging and the pumps clogged, the captain ordered the men to return below decks, where they were greeted with six feet of water, which had flooded the holds, making the already dire situation more desperate and miserable.

Perhaps the men reassured one another that they had seen the worst of the storm, and that it would soon die down, but instead of the storm weakening, it only grew stronger. Sometime in the early morning of the 20th, the waves washed over the decks so violently that every timber in the ship shook and groaned and the railings were smashed and washed away. It was now impossible for them to work with any safety on the decks. The ship was still filling with water, and the pumps were still clogging with the floating coal.

Captain Tancredis ordered the pumps moved to the forward part of the ship, in an effort to avoid the floating debris. The effort failed. They continued to reassure one another that the captain would get them through the ordeal, and probably joked that in the future they would all tell their children and grandchildren about this great voyage to the Far East, but deep in their hearts and left unspoken, all feared that the ship was doomed. However, it wasn't until the boatswain, Pascuale Chelini, announced that they "all were lost" that the facade of hope and confidence collapsed and each was forced to face the reality of their situation. Unable to steer the ship because the ship was bereft of sails, the holds were filled with water, and the pumps were inoperable, the ship was completely at the mercy of the merciless sea.

With this realization each man made ready to meet his fate in his own way. Santori later recounted that "part of the crew were crying, some praying, and some, seeing no hope, got drunk in despair." Captain Tancredis, a true leader, tried to reassure the men that they would all be saved and that the ship would reach shore before nightfall, but amongst the men, all hope was gone and his reassurances fell upon deaf ears. Even though many of the men were demoralized, the captain continued to maintain his confident composure and tried to set an example for the rest of his crew to emulate.

Throughout the day the waves relentlessly battered the ship and the holds continued to fill -- the ship was slowly sinking. The men continued to battle the sea, but at the same time began gathering food and water in the event that their worst fears should become reality. At 4:30, the doomed ship's bow began to sink beneath the water and the men moved to the aft of the ship where they unlashed the lifeboats in anticipation -- they did not have long to wait. The ship suddenly sank violently when a large wave slammed into it, and even though the men had anticipated the ship's demise, none had expected it to occur so quickly. Some of the men were able to get into the boats, others, clutching pieces of splintered wood, were swept away by the waves, their screams for help smothered by the howling of the wind. Captain Tancredis, true to the romantic notion of heroic duty, refused to abandon the ship, and instead opted to go down with it.

Santori, and two of his mates, Pilade Taddei and Leone Bacchione, were able to get into a lifeboat, and desperately sought to rescue the remaining members of the crew before they were swept away by the waves. In the howling wind they were unable to hear the calls for help, and the driving rain and towering waves made it difficult to see, but they were able, only with a great deal of difficulty, to rescue Cesare Paoli, the chief mate, and Pascuale Chelini, the boatswain.

For several hours the men battled the storm, as the gloominess of day gave way to the darkness of night. As senior man aboard the boat, Chief mate Paoli assumed command and directed their bailing efforts while he continued to assure the men that with the winds they would soon reach the coast of Korea and safety, but at present they had to ensure that their small life boat remained afloat. They struggled to bail water out of the boat, but almost as quickly as they bailed the sea rushed in and refilled it. They bailed for as long as they could, but the men had not slept in more than two days, and one by one, they fell into an exhausted sleep.

They were awakened when a large wave overturned their boat and cast them all into the foaming sea. Although suddenly thrown into the sea, they recovered their senses enough to swim back to their overturned boat, clutch the sides and hold on as the seas tossed them about. However, after a short time, chief mate Paoli, exhausted and perhaps older, was unable to maintain his grip any longer, and, although the men risked their own lives trying to prevent it, he was washed away. Eventually, the survivors were able to right the boat and haul themselves aboard where they huddled together in an attempt to keep warm while they assessed their situation. The effort and strain upon them was fantastic, especially for the boatswain, Chelini, who was described as being "more dead than alive." Except for the will to survive, they were left with nothing: no food, no water, not even oars to paddle the boat.

There was no time to dwell upon their losses. Although the storm had weakened, the lifeboat threatened to sink under the endless pounding of the waves. They tried to protect the violently shivering Chelini from the wind and rain to the best of their ability, but they could spare little time to administer to his needs as they worked throughout the night bailing water from their precarious sanctuary with their bare hands. It was in the dim light of the morning, during the lull of storm, that they discovered the boatswain had slipped into unconsciousness and had died quietly in the darkness of the night. They now only numbered three.

On the morning of the 21st, the storm abated and they found themselves drifting in the ocean current towards Quelpart Island. Prior to the chief mate dying, he had told them that he believed the island was some 50 miles away to the north and that they should try and reach the island if no other options were available.

That day and the following the life boat continued to drift towards the island. Gone were the dark rain clouds and the cool winds, only to be replaced with a clear sky and a furious summer sun beating down upon them mercilessly, blistering their skin with its heat and compounding the misery of their thirst. On the 22nd, Piladi, unable to endure the heat and thirst any longer, became "very ill and delirious," and raved with visions that only he could see, further tormenting his fellow survivors. Perhaps it was merciful to all that he died the following day.

Quelpaert 1787 "they enslave those unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked on their coast."
©2008 Henny Savenije Collection

Finally, on the 23rd, the rocky coast of Quelpart was sighted some 25 miles off in the distance, but almost mockingly the wind changed direction. The life boat was no longer drifting towards the island but, in fact, was drifting away from the island. Santori noted later in an interview: "As we had no oars, no sails, and no provisions of any sort, we did not know what to do." The Italians could only stare at the island as they drifted further away, but they did not abandon hope, confident that God would watch over them.

The following morning the wind once again changed direction -- this time it blew from the east and pushed them back along the island's coast. In desperation, the two surviving sailors, Santori and Bacchione, pried a long piece of wood from their boat and made a makeshift mast and a crude sail from their clothing and that of their fallen comrades. It was probably at this point that they buried at sea the bodies of their fallen comrades in an effort to lighten the boat.

Their efforts were successful and slowly the craft inched closer and closer to what were deemed inhospitable shores by most sailors, but to the desperate castaways a sanctuary. Half naked, they were cruelly abused by the beating sun, blistered skin burned by the irritating sea spray. They sought shelter in the shadow of their sail, and although it did provide some relief it did nothing for the burning thirst that tormented them and threatened to drive them mad. On the morning of the 25th, after nearly 24 hours of sailing with a makeshift sail, they found themselves just about 10 miles from the rocky shores of Quelpart, but their progress was slow, and doubt and fear again replaced jubilation and hope.

On the morning of the 26th, the burning sun greeted them with Quelpart's southwestern shores just six miles in the distance. For six days they had been without fresh water -- the only water they had was probably in the form of rain (but with no containers it is doubtful that they gathered much) or the morning moisture; their lips were cracked, their tongues swollen, and the desire for water outweighed reason. It seems almost ironic to suffer from thirst while upon a vast body of water, the very water itself tempting you to drink from it, its coolness beckoning you. Only a strong man could possibly resist the temptation for long, but eventually all fail. Against Santori's hoarse protests, Bacchione, "unable to stand the thirst any longer, drank a quantity of salt water, which did him much harm."

As Bacchione lay sick upon the floor, retching and writhing in pain as his kidneys failed, the wind died, and the sail of their boat became useless upon the calm sea. Santori pulled down the mast and converted it into a paddle in an attempt to paddle the boat to shore. At first, Bacchione assisted as much as he was able, but as his condition worsened, he soon told Santori that he had no more strength to assist in rowing and then went and lay down at the bow of the boat. Delusional, retching, and burning with fever, he died later that night, leaving Santori alone.

Fortunately, fate is fickle and on the 27th a warm wind began to blow. A grateful Santori once again reassembled and raised his makeshift sail. It is interesting to note that although he was concerned about lightening his craft, he did not bury Bacchione's body at sea. Perhaps, as morbid as it might sound, he found some comfort in it -- a mute companion to share his ordeal.

Throughout that day and the following day the wind held and he steadily drifted closer to the tantalizing coast. On the morning of the 29th he awoke to find himself only 40 yards from the shore, but unbelievably the current shifted and started to carry him away from the shore. Weak and probably delirious, he jumped overboard without a moment's hesitation, leaving his last comrade, dead, to drift on the sea alone.

Santori was extremely fortunate: a large percentage of sailors during this era could not swim, and considering that Santori's ordeal began on the 18th, and he had been without any measurable amount of water for nearly nine days, the mere fact that he was able to keep his head above water clearly demonstrates his strong will to live. Jumping into the water was clearly an act of desperation, but one that spared his life.

Santori was too exhausted to actually swim, and was only able to maintain his position, as the current threatened to pull him back out into the rough sea, due to his frantic desire to live. For nearly two hours he weakly treaded water, convinced that he was going to die, but unwilling to surrender his life. Fortunately for him, a large swell swept him upon one of the huge jagged volcanic rocks that lined the shore like teeth -- ready to rend ship or man to pieces. Lying upon the rock he was safe for the moment from the sea, but he was "more dead than alive," and was unable to move from his position, thus still being at risk of being swept back into the sea by another swell.

His struggle to safety was not without witnesses. A group of Koreans watching from shore ventured out on to the rock and carried the water-logged and exhausted Italian to safety. His rescuers wore white clothing and spoke a language that he could not understand. In his exhausted and thirst-induced delirium he probably thought they were going to kill him, for he had undoubtedly heard tales of the Koreans unfriendliness and brutality to strangers. The Koreans questioned him, but considering his condition, he lapsed into unconsciousness soon after his rescue. The Koreans took good care of him: they built a fire to warm and dry him, and then gave him food and water. Santori does not state how long he remained with these Koreans, but he undoubtedly spent at least a couple of days with them in recuperation.

He was probably treated in a similar manner to the shipwreck victims before and after him -- given shelter and food, but carefully watched to make sure that he did not wander from his sanctuary. Word was sent to the capital of Jeju Island and at least one minor official and several soldiers were sent to take charge of him. It is highly doubtful that he spoke Chinese, so when he was healthy enough it was conveyed to him through body language and pantomiming that he was to be moved, but where he was to be moved to and for what purposes, he was unable to discern.

A pony was brought for him to ride, and like many of the foreigners before and after, the local population gathered along his route to catch a glimpse of him. As he was being escorted along the coast we can only speculate as to what he was thinking, but there must have been some fear. After all, Korea had the reputation of being hostile to shipwrecked victims, and all who were aware of Hamel's saga knew that he and his mates had been kept in Korea against their will.

According to Santori's reckoning, he was escorted for nearly fifty miles along the coast before he finally reached his eventual salvation. What was his salvation? Another shipwreck -- the Barbara Taylor.

This article is part of a much larger article to appear in the Royal Asiatic Transactions later this year.

Robert Neff is an historian and long-time resident of Seoul.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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