John McLeod, Narrative of a Voyage, in His Majesty's Late Ship Alceste, to the Yellow Sea, Along the Coast of Corea and Through its Numerous Hitherto Undiscovered Islands, to the Island of Lewchew; with an Account of Her Shipwreck in the Straits of Gaspar, London. 1817.

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On the 31st we saw the land bearing east; but, the wind being light, anchored in forty-three fathoms. Towards morning we weighed, and the next day anchored again among a cluster of islands, lat. 37° 45' N., long. 124° 40' 30" E. on the coast of Corea. The natives here exhibited, by signs and gestures, the greatest aversion to the landing of a party from the ships, making cut-throat motions by drawing their hands across their necks, and pushing the boats away from the beach; but they offered no serious violence. These islands were named Sir James Hall's Group; the main land, of considerable height, was in view, and not far distant. Weighed again, and, the wind being northerly, stood to the southward. On the 2d we were out of sight of any land; but, the wind changing to the eastward, made sail southerly, and, on the 3d, passed a number of islands, with which the sea was studded as far as the eye could reach from the mast-head; and, on the 4th, stood into a fine bay formed by the main land to the north ward and eastward, and sheltered in a great degree in other points by Helen's and other islands to the westward; and anchored in six fathoms in front of a village, a larger town being observed at some distance. In the evening six or seven large boats came off to the Lyra (being nearest the shore), having on board a chief (most probably of this district), attended by a numerous retinue. There he met the commodore; and, after partaking of some refreshment, proceeded, although it was now dark, on board the Alceste. He was saluted, on leaving the Lyra, with three guns, which was repeated by the frigate.
        As he shoved off from the brig, one of his attendants, having in some way or other misbehaved, was by his order extended on the deck of the boat, and received, in a summary way, about a dozen and a half of blows with a flat bamboo over the seat of honour; and, as the culprit squalled, a number of his companions standing round him joined in the howl, either in derision, or to drown his noise. This ceremony finished, a flourish of trumpets and other instruments announced his approach to the frigate. He was a man apparently about seventy years of age, of a very venerable and majestic mien; his hair and beard of a hoary whiteness. His dress was a light blue robe, with loose sleeves, and fastened round his middle by a buft-coloured leathern girjle. He had on his head an immense hat, not less than five or six feet round the brim, made of some substance resembling horse-hair varnished over. The cavity to receive the head being fixed under the brim, that which rose above it, as in European hats, was not larger than a common tumbler. He wore a kind of half-boots, very much peaked and turned up at the points; and in his hand he held a short black stick, twisted round with a silken cord, which seemed to be the badge of his office. Divested of his broad-brimmed hat, he would not upon the whole have made a bad representative of old king Lear. Of his attendants some were military, being distinguished by a short sword or rapier, the officers wearing peacocks' feathers in their hats (a distinction which also exists in China for men of merit) : and the rest were civilians. He was ushered into the cabin, where, in preference to chairs, he sat down upon one of the sofa cushions, placed upon deck. It appearing to be etiquette for the head to be covered, the whole party, consisting of captains Maxwell, Hall, and other officers, conformed to this rule, and, squatting on the cabin-floor, with gold-laced cocked hats on, amid the strange costume of the Coreans, looked like a party of masquers.
        Much edifying conversation was no doubt lost on this occasion; for much was said, but unfortunately not one word was understood, the Chinese interpreter we had on board not being able to write his own language; and some of the Coreans could write, although they could not speak, at least, that dialect which he comprehended. The old gentleman, however, displayed, by signs, his satisfaction at the mode of his reception; and, after partaking of some liqueurs and sweetmeats, took his departure late in the evening from the ship, when he was again saluted, his band striking up one of their martial airs.
        During the night several boats were anchored near the Lyra, apparently to watch her motions; and early in the morning the same chief, accompanied by a still greater retinue, was seen embarking at the nearest village, and soon after he visited the Lyra, where he breakfasted. He had in his train some secretaries (or men of letters), who employed themselves in noting down every thing relative to the ships which could be acquired by signs : the complement of men was described by pointing to them, and then, holding up ten fingers a certain number of times; they counted the guns, examined the muskets, measured the decks, &c. &c. A shot was fired, by express wish, from one of the carronades; and the distance it went, but particularly its recochetting along the surface of the water, seemed to strike them with astonishment. After breakfast, a small party of the officers (captains Maxwell, Hall, Messrs. Clifford, Law, and M'Leod) got into the boats with the view of landing at the village; and the old chief, thinking they were going to the frigate, accompanied them, his own boats attending. But no sooner did he perceive the course directed to the shore than his countenance fell, and he seemed altogether in a state of great perturbation, making signs that he wished to go to the Alceste, and shaking his head when they pointed to the town.
        Having reached the beach, the party landed, and were immediately surrounded by a concourse of people. The old chieftain hung his head, and clasped his hands in mournful silence; at last, bursting into a fit of crying, he was supported, sobbing all the way, to a little distance, where he sat down upon a stone, looking back at the officers with the most melancholy aspect. His feelings appeared to be those of a man who imagined some great calamity had befallen his country in the arrival of strange people; and that he was the unhappy being in whose government this misfortune had occurred.
        The natives, who had in the mean time been driven by their soldiers to a respectful distance, stood gazing in astonishment alternately at their afflicted chief and at our party.
        Captain Maxwell, seeing what distress it occasioned him, would permit no advance, and, beckoning to him to come back, he arose, and slowly returned.
        It was explained as well as could be done that no injury was intended, and that we were friends. He pointed to the sun; and, describing its revolving course four times, he drew his hand across his throat, and, dropping his chin upon his breast, shut his eyes, as if dead; intimating that in four days (probably the period in which an answer could arrive from Kin-ki-tao, the capital, for he also pointed to the interior) he would lose his head. One of his secretaries, or legal advisers (an amazing long-winded man), squatted on the top of a large stone, now made a harangue of considerable length, the purport of which was evidently against the advance of the strangers. Signs were made for something to eat and drink (thinking hospitality might induce them to invite us into their houses); but messengers were instantly despatched to the village, who brought down little tables, with mats to sit on, and some refreshments : this, however, not being the object, they were not accepted, making them understand that it was unbecoming to offer them in that unsheltered manner, on the open beach; and, by way of a hint that this was not our mode of treating strangers, invited them to return to the frigate, where they should dine handsomely, and meet with every respect. The old man, who had observed attentively, and seemed perfectly to comprehend the meaning of the signs, answered by going through the motions of eating and drinking with much appearance of liveliness and satisfaction, patting his stomach afterwards, to say all was very fine; then, looking grave, he drew his hand across his neck, and shut his eyes; as if to say, "What signifies your good dinners when I must lose my head ?''
        Perceiving it was impossible to penetrate farther into the interior without violence, which we had neither the right nor the inclination to use, the party re-embarked, affecting to be much hurt at the treatment they had received.
        The old gentleman followed on board the AIceste, seemingly much dejected, and looking as if ashamed that he could not pay more attention. Wandering about the decks, attempting to converse, by signs, with every one he met, he took a piece of paper from a gentleman who was sitting at his desk, and wrote some characters upon it, which he seemed to require an answer to, but of course none could be given. The paper was retained; and, being shewn some months afterwards to Mr. Bannerman, at Canton, turned out to be, " I don't know who ye are; what business have ye here?"
        It was pretty evident, however, that he was acting from orders which he dared not trifle with, rather than from any inhospitable feeling in his own nature.
        He received a Bible, which captain Maxwell (to whom he seemed very thankful for not insisting upon going into the town) presented him with, and carried it on shore with much care, most likely supposing it to be some official communication.   
        Basil's Bay (which this place was named) lies in lat. 36° 9' N., long. 126° 32' E., being, in seaphrase, about 120 miles high and dry up the country, according to the existing charts.
        This afternoon (5th) got under weigh, and stood to the southward, through innumerable islands, which were all high, rising like mountains out of the sea. None of them seemed of great extent, few appearing longer than three or four miles, and, as far as we could see, in some degree cultivated, the inhabitants generally crowding to the top of the highest eminence, where they remained huddled together, and gazing until the ships were passed.
        On the 8th, anchored in lat. 34° 26' N., and here we found that the land seen on coming up the Whang Hai or Yellow Sea, and which 'had been called Cape Amherst, was not the continent. It was now named Alceste Island; and another range, about twenty in number, running north and south, rather within it, but outside the Corean Archipelago, was called the Amherst Isles. This morning, after sounding our way in, came to an anchor in a most excellent harbour, named Murray's Sound; the two islands, which principally form it, Shamrock and Thistle.
        Here a number of observations were taken, and surveys made, to ascertain the exact geographical position of the land, and the qualities of the anchorage; and distinguishing names were of course given to remarkable spots, which might serve on future occasions as leading marks. From the top of Montreal, one of the highest, 135 other islands were distinctly counted; the main land, which seemed very lofty, was seen ranging from northeast to east-south-east, distant about forty miles. From Murray's Sound, Craig Harriet, a very peculiar rock, rising in sugar-loaf form from the sea, bears south 39°, west five miles. Another rock (Huntly Lodge), situate on an island, south 40° east, resembles a church with a square tower. Windsor Castle, north 40° 50' east. The direction of the sound itself north north-east half east, and south south-west half west; it is a very secure anchorage, with excellent holding ground. The intervening spaces between the multitude of isles, generally from one to two, or three, and even four miles across, are all (at least as far as the boats examined) close harbours, and capable of containing, in security, all the navies of the world. They form, in fact, an almost endless chain of harbours, communicating with each other. The rise and fall of tide is here considerable, but the setting of the currents among such a multitude of isles must, of course, be extremely various. They appear to be all inhabited, and therefore must possess fresh water. On first landing on Thistle Island, the women fled, with their infant children, over the hill, to a place which we named Eagle Point (from a large eagle being perched on the precipice as we came in), and hid themselves in recesses among the rocks; whilst the men, in a body, but unarmed, waved and hallooed to us not to advance, making the usual signal with their hands across the throat. When they found, however, by repeated visits, that no hostility was intended, and that we were rather inclined to give than to take from them, they became a little more tame, would crowd round the officers to see them fire at a mark, bring them water to drink, and offer them part of their humble fare to eat; but all this they seemed to do in a perfect spirit of independence, and not from fear. Then suddenly, as if recollecting they were acting contrary to orders in holding any correspondence whatever with strangers, they would lay hold of some of the gentlemen by the shoulders, and push them away, pointing to the ship; and this conduct was uniform wherever we touched. We observed no fire-arms among them, but some who came on board the Alceste discovered considerable acquaintance with the sword exercise. They cultivate as much grain as they want for their own consumption; they feed cattle (at least for domestic purposes); and, as may naturally be supposed, from their peculiar and insular situation, they subsist a good deal by fishing. Of their government, general manners, and customs, it would be impossible to speak with any accuracy from so limited an intercourse as we had with them.
        China has very little communication with the barbarians of the west, and that is chiefly confined to a particular spot, the port of Canton; Japan still less, and Corea none at all. A connexion, however, is kept up with China by two or three annual junks from the eastern coast.
        What little knowledge we possess of Corea is mostly derived from the Jesuits of China, who certainly were not infallible guides in all matters; but in the geography, general literature, and delineation of manners and customs, when unconnected with their own superstitions, their labours are entitled to a distinguished place in the republic of letters, especially when the difficulties they had to struggle with are taken into consideration; but here they were freed from every motive to deceive, and had only to tell the simple truth.
        Corea (or Kaoli) is tributary to the emperor of China, and sends him triennial embassadors expressive of its homage. We saw enough, however, to convince us that the sovereign of this country governs with most absolute sway; and that, occasionally, he makes very free with the heads of his subjects. The allusion to this danger could not have been so constant and uniform, in places so remote from each other, without some strong reason.
        The law against intercourse with foreigners appears to be enforced with the utmost rigour*. [* It is said that the crew of a Dutch vessel, a considerable time since, wrecked on the eastern coast, were detained in slavery for nineteen years, without being heard of, when some of them managed to get away.] At one of the islands, to the north, where we first landed, a Corean, in an unguarded moment, accepted a button, which had attracted his attention; but soon after, as the boats were shoving off, he ran down into the water, and insisted on restoring it, at the same time (by way of reparation) pushing the boat with all his might away from the beach. On almost all occasions they positively refused every thing offered to them. His Corean majesty may well be styled "king of ten thousand isles,” but his supposed continental dominions have been very much circumscribed by our visit to his shores. Except in the late and present embassy, no ships had ever penetrated into the Yellow Sea; the Lion had kept the coast of China abroad only, and had neither touched at the Tartar nor Corean side. Cook, Perouse, Bougainville, Broughton, and others, had well defined the bounds on the eastern coast of this country, but the western had hitherto been laid down on the charts from imagination only, the main land being from a hundred to a hundred and thirty miles farther to the eastward than these charts had led us to believe. The Jesuits, therefore, must have taken the coast of Corea from report, and not from observation, for their chart is most incorrect, and by no means corresponds with their usual accuracy. The Chinese written characters have found their way here, but they would appear to be confined to the literati, for the common language has no resemblance in sound to the colloquial language of China.
        On the tenth we got under weigh and proceeded on our voyage, standing through the south passage, and made sail to the southward, giving the name of Lyra to an island which bore about east of Aiceste's ten or twelve leagues, and distance nearly the same north-westerly from Quelpart. On the 11th, sounded in forty-nine fathoms muddy bottom, in lat. 31° 42' N., long. 126° 30' E. On the morning of the 13th we made Sulphur Island, a volcano, situated in lat. 27° 56' N., long. 128° 11' E. Whilst yet at a great distance, we could observe a volume of smoke at short intervals bursting from its crater. We hove-to for some time under its lee, in front of a horrid chasm, from whence the smoke issued, but found it impossible to land, as there was much wind and swell, and the surf broke with tremendous violence around its base. The island, which does not appear above four or five miles in circumference, rises precipitously from the sea, except in one or two spots ; its height must be considerable, judging from the distance we saw it, perhaps 1200 feet. The sulphurous smell emitted, even when two or three miles off, was very strong. One end of the island displayed strata of a brilliant red-coloured earth, which had been noticed before on some part of the Corean main. One would almost be induced to believe that the mercury and sulphur, so abundant in these regions, had combined to give this vermilion hue to the ground.