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The H.M.S. Edgar Tragedy
Off the coast of Korea in 1895, 48 English sailors drown in freezing seas
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2008-11-14 17:17 (KST)   

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On Nov. 13, 1895, Korea's autumn, as well as the lives of 48 young English sailors and marines, suddenly ended with an icy cold wind from the north. That morning, in a letter to her friend, an English missionary in Seoul wrote:

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"Our lovely autumn ended...and now we are suddenly launched into winter, for a northwest wind is blowing like a blizzard with occasional dashes of snow."

Seoul was not the only region of Korea to find itself under winter's sudden onslaught. Isabella Bird Bishop, an elderly explorer traveling to Kaesong from Seoul, was shocked when she awoke in the morning to find that the "glorious" autumn weather of the previous day had transformed into the freezing grip of winter. The temperature had dropped to 20 degrees Fahrenheit and a wind, blowing from the northwest, continued to increase in strength throughout the day.

Of her travel that morning she wrote: "My pony and I would have been blown over a wretched bridge had not four men linked themselves together to support us; and later, on the top of a precipice above a river, a gust came with such force that the animals refused to face it."

Chemulpo in 1904 - a popular print of the port often reproduced in books dealing with the Russo-Japanese War
©2008 Robert Neff Collection
In Chemulpo [Incheon], Captain Ferdinand H. Morsel, a ship's pilot, described the morning conditions as "a strong N.W. wind was blowing and the weather generally had an ugly appearance." No one knew just how ugly and destructive Mother Nature was going to get.

The HMS Edgar in Japan (part of an 1896 photo album in the author's collection)
©2008 Robert Neff collection
The port that day was not very busy. There was a single Japanese steamship in the inner-harbor, and five warships in the outer-harbor: the Yorktown (American), Alger (French), Edgar (British), Gremiastchy, and Koreatz (both Russian) -- the latter is best known for its destruction in Chemulpo's harbor at the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War in February 1904. Like the other warships, the Edgar was there to provide a marine guard for the foreign community. It was a precaution taken in response to Queen Min's murder in October by Japanese assassins and their Korean accomplices, and the possible unrest that might follow. The English missionary was very cynical and wrote that a Korean revolt was very unlikely "as the poor Koreans seem to have neither the spirit [nor] the power to rise." She was convinced the guards were there "more for the dignity of Her British Majesty's government than for protection. As the Russians and Americans have a guard, it is supposed that England should have one too."

The wide-spread unrest and threat to the foreign community never materialized, but the warships had to remain until given authorization to leave. Instead of giving their crews free rein in the bars and taverns of Chemulpo, many commanders utilized the time to train their crews. Despite the day's poor weather, the commanders of the Edgar and the Gremiastchy elected to separately conduct small arms training on the firing range located on the southwestern side of "Kuen Walmi" -- an island in the outer harbor of Chemulpo.

Seventy-one British sailors and marines, heavily laden with their weapons, ammunition and other gear, boarded the Edgar's sailing pinnace (equipped with 18 oars) and slowly sailed or rowed their way to the island without any mishaps. The Russians, who were fewer in number and less laden down, used a steam launch and quickly made their way to the island where they conducted their training and then promptly left.

While the Edgar's crew trained with their small arms, the ferocity of the wind greatly increased, but because they were sheltered from the full blast of the wind by the island, the officer in charge was apparently unaware of how dangerous their situation had become. The training ended at just after 11 a.m., and the men packed up their gear and began to row back to their ship. Still sheltered by the island, they were able to slowly make their way against the surging tide, but once they rounded the island's point they found themselves in a wild tempest and unable to make any progress.

Bishop, who at this time was slowly making her way to Kaesong, described the wind as so powerful that "[by] noon it was impossible to sit on our horses, and we fought the storm on foot." The men in the pinnace found it much more difficult.

The Edgar had a crew of about 500 men (1896 album)
©2008 Robert Neff Collection
The officer in charge of the detail, possibly Chief Petty Officer W. Bailey, commanded the sail to be raised but, allegedly, a coxswain beseeched him not to for fear that "it might [be] the cause of the drowning of the hands." Apparently the officer weighed the risks but deemed them acceptable under the situation, and ordered the sail raised. He did, however, as a precaution, order all the men to remove their ammunition belts and boots just prior to the sail being set. As soon as the sail went up the ship was battered by the wind and waves and immediately sank. Shore was clearly visible, only 400-500 yards away, but the violence of the sea and its temperature prevented anyone from swimming to it.

The plight of the crew was witnessed by sailors on the nearby warships who sent help as soon as possible, but for more than half of the men help arrived too late. The Gremiastchy's steam launch was the first to arrive, nearly ten minutes after the pinnace sank. It managed to rescue 14 survivors and a steam launch from the Alger plucked nine more from the churning water. On the Yorktown there was some initial confusion and its rescue boats were slow getting into the water. In fact, the Yorktown's steam launch broke down while en route and never made it to the scene. Two "pulling boats" (row boats?) from the Yorktown eventually rescued the final two survivors.

The Gremiatstchy had a crew of 160-180 men
©2008 Robert Neff Collection
The rescue boats with their survivors managed to return to their respective ships, except for the Gremiastchy's steam launch. Overloaded with the large number of survivors, it was sluggish and quickly filling with water. The commander of the launch made for the relative shelter of Chemulpo's inner-harbor, nearly a mile away. Upon reaching it, he was dismayed to discover that the sea was still too violent for him to safely land at the jetty and unload his freezing passengers. Spotting the Japanese steamer nearby, he made for it and was able to safely unload the 14 British sailors who were hustled by the steamer's captain into the warmth of the engine room. The Russian steam launch and its crew were forced to anchor in the bay and wait out the storm before they could safely be hauled aboard the Gremiastchy.

The Aftermath

In the days that followed two services were held. The first, on Nov. 14, was for a young British sailor who had been rescued but died shortly afterwards. He was buried in Chemulpo's Foreigners' Cemetery with "full military honours" and "all the foreign residents of the ported attended the funeral." The second was "a funeral service held on board the Edgar at Chemulpo on Sunday, Nov. 17, when the bodies of those drowned were solemnly committed to the deep with full naval honours. The French, Russian, and American men-of-war all sent representatives to this service to show their sympathy."

As in most tragedies there was a hero. Morsel in his account of the incident published in the Rising Sun & Nagasaki Express, commended the Russian officer in charge of the steam launch for his "prompt and decisive action." Despite the tensions between Great Britain and Russia, nationality had been forgotten and only humanity and the desire to help a fellow sailor were present in his actions. He "was only one out of the whole Russian Navy who would have acted similarly in such a case," declared Morsel. It is unknown if the officer was ever officially honored for his acts.

As for the villain, Mother Nature has the lion's share of the blame but, according to the The Independent (an English language newspaper in Korea): "The Admiralty's Court of Inquiry into the sinking of Edgar pinnace at Chemulpo found that the launch was overladen and badly managed." Fault had been found with the commanding officer of the pinnace. And like the unknown hero, the Russian officer, the British officer found at fault is unnamed, at least in the public press.

Chemulpo in 1904
©2008 La Vie Illustree 1904
In the weeks following the accident, money was raised on behalf of the widows and orphans of the unfortunate men by sailors and civilians alike. In Chemulpo, amongst the sailors, 占304 was donated with nearly 600 yen collected from the crew of the Yorktown alone. In Nagasaki, $736.69 was raised through donations and social events. The British naval authorities took prompt action to fill the vacancies of the Edgar's crew. "A draft of 50 able seamen, ordinary seamen, and boys have been told off at the Royal Naval Barracks, Devonport, for service in the cruiser Edgar...the draft left Devenport, on Nov. 28, for Scheerness, and there embarked in the cruiser Immortalite for the China station."

Despite the sorrow for their lost shipmates, the crew of the Edgar, and her commander, Captain Henderson, continued to admirably perform their duties. In January 1896 they succeeded in maintaining a record speed of 20.2 knots an hour despite being short-handed. They also found solace in community events such as a concert and athletic meet in Nagasaki on Dec. 16, 1895, and defeated the Yokohama soccer team by three goals on Jan. 11, 1896. The disaster may have taken the lives of many young sailors aboard the ship, but the ship maintained its pride and spirit and continued to play an active part in the British Navy's role in the Far East.

Confusion and Fiction

The tragedy was widely reported around the world (often front page), but unfortunately facts were often misreported and confusing (such as the number of men aboard the pinnace) or even fabricated. Just two days after the incident newspapers in the United States, New Zealand and Britain published accounts that were short and inaccurate. The New York Times declared that the incident had taken place near Nagasaki and 48 men had drowned, but the launch was recovered. The Evening Post in Wellington, New Zealand, citing British papers, published two short articles; one stating that the men had drowned while cruising in Japanese waters and the second added that the launch had "sank while returning with a party of seamen who had been taking part in shore exercises. The officers were saved." An article in the Frederick, Maryland newspaper, The News, claimed that the launch with 71 men was capsized by heavy seas and "all were drowned except three officers and eighteen men."

While many accounts can be excused as errors in the initial reports, at least one appears to have been fabricated with the imagination of a "romancer." The China Gazette, citing a source in Nagasaki, published an account that bore little resemblance to the actual incident. The article claimed that the marines and sailors had "been enjoying themselves all day" and that evening (Nov. 14) the wind "was blowing hard... but not sufficiently so to cause any misgivings to the hardy Jacks" who "were returning to their ship in a large wooden barge" when disaster struck and the boat capsized. "The scene in the harbour that night and next day was terrible, the dead bodies being washed ashore at many places. The overturned boat continued to float and most of the survivors clung to her until picked up."

Morsel, who was at Chemulpo and wrote his account on Nov. 22, stated that "not one of the bodies has been found, nor has the boat, although search parties have been out daily." Several years later, in a letter to his sons, Horace Allen, the American Minister to Korea, confirms Morsel's account when he wrote: "Some years ago a pinnace of the British man-of-war Edgar sank in the harbor of Chemulpo and all were lost. In spite of persistent search only one body was recovered and the pinnace was never found."

Who was the body? Of the surviving British sailors, we know at least one died shortly after his rescue. Morsel described him as a "drummer boy, 18 years of age, [who] was to be promoted that day, his birthday. He was picked up by the Alger's cutter, and everything was done to save him, but [he] still died. His father was a marine on board the Edgar who had 32 years of service." However, our missionary in Seoul describes him this way: "One drummer boy, the only marine who was lost, died afterwards from the shock...He had a 'mother dependent on him.'" Both accounts agree that he was buried in Chemulpo the following afternoon [Nov. 14] "with full military honours" and attended by all the foreign residents of Chemulpo. Unfortunately, neither account gives the victim's name.

A visit to the Chemulpo Foreigners' Cemetery, where he was buried, only adds to the confusion. According to Prof. Donald N. Clark's book on foreigners buried in Korea, there are two sailors from the Edgar accident buried in Chemulpo. One is Able Seaman James Martyn and the other is George F. Warren, a ship's bugler. Perhaps the truth is waiting to be discovered in the Edgar's ship's logs and the Royal Navy's rosters at Kew in England.

In closing, I read an old newspaper article several years ago of a very large memorial erected near the waterfront of Chemulpo in honor of the Edgar's crew. According to the article, sometime in the early 1910s the memorial had fallen into ruin and was discarded into the harbor with the intent to have a new one built. Ironically, the Edgar memorial was forgotten and no one ever got around to rebuilding it.

Some of the sources were:
The Rising Sun & Nagasaki Express (Japanese Newspaper)
The Independent (Korean Newspaper)
The New York Times (American Newspaper)
The News (American Newspaper)
The Evening Post (New Zealand Newspaper)

Donald N. Clark, Yanghwajin Seoul Foreigners' Cemetery, Korea, An Informal History, 1890-1984,
Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbours

Manuscripts and Repositories:
The Horace Allen Archives

Website - The Anglican church in Seoul has published some extracts from their members here during the 1890s and can be found here.

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

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