Sea Devils (revisited)

Professor Gari Ledyard of Columbia University has left a couple of extremely good posts on the Korean Studies Mailing List that deserve to be shared here. They also put a somewhat different perspective on the article I noted here about African mercenaries fighting alongside Ming troops during the Imjin Wars (1592-1598). His posts are in response to a question about whether Portuguese soldiers were fighting with the Chinese in late sixteenth century Korea. The first one looks at the source of the notion that Portuguese were in Chosŏn and includes an excellent translation of the relevant passage from the Sŏnjo Sillok (Veritable Records of King Sŏnjo). The second posting on the same subject deals with another passage from the Sillok regarding the ‘Sea Devils’ and also the claims about early visits to Korea by Spanish Jesuits in the late sixteenth century.

The upshot of all this is that the Sillok passage on which the article about ‘African mercenaries’ seems to have been based is rather ambiguous. While it appears unlikely that it refers to Portuguese soldiers, there is also nothing to show positively that it is talking about Africans – Gari Ledyard points out that the soldiers could be from a number of areas in south and southeast Asia as well as Africa.

Below is the translation of the passage from the Sŏnjo Sillok, reproduced with Professor Ledyard’s kind permission.

His Highness graced the quarters of Brigadier Peng Xin’gu, who offered him wine. His Highness said, “Is your Excellency going to stay here in Seoul, or will you be continuing south?”

“I will be leaving for the south after spending a month here,” the Brigadier said. Later, he also
said, “I’ve brought along with me some strange looking but amazing soldiers, and I will have them introduced to you (at court).”

His Highness asked, “Where are they from, and what skills and capabilities do they have?” The Brigadier responded, “They are people from a country called Polang (K. P’arang), which is extremely far to the south of the Hu-Guang area (southern and southeastern China). They must cross three seas before they reach Hu-Guang. They are 150,000 li from Korea. They are good at musketry and various other military arts.”

His Highness observed, “We are but an isolated country beyond the (East) Sea; how would we ever have seen such amazing soldiers! That your Excellency should present them is only through the grace of the emperor, for which we are especially grateful. We can point to the day when the murderous outlaws (the Japanese) will be crushed and destroyed.”

After another glass of wine they each bowed to the other and the king withdrew.

For your additional reading pleasure, here is Professor Ledyard’s revised translation of the extra note added by the compiler of the Sillok on the appearance of the ‘Sea Devils’:

[The P’arang] are also called Sea Devils (Haegwi). The pupils of their eyes are yellow, their faces lacquer black. All four limbs, hands and feet, are black. Their beards and hair are of short, round curls, like the hair of a black sheep. However, the head hair is all shaved off,
and a bolt of yellow silk, bound and formed in a coil shaped like that of the coiled peach tree
(pando), is worn on the top of the head. They are able to submerge themselves under water and poke holes in enemy ships.* They can also remain on the sea floor for several days eating sea creatures. Even in China these people are only rarely seen.

*OhmyNews translates “attack enemy ships,” but the character–still hard to discern–seems to mean a spear-type weapon. I prefer a more specific verb, in the sense of sink by poking a hole in the hull.


  1. Professor Gari Ledyard of Columbia University has left a couple of extremely good posts on the Korean Studies Mailing List

    When does professor Ledyard not leave extremely good posts on The List? 😉 Seeing his mail address with [KS] in the subject line in the mailbox always guarantees some enlightening reading, especially for someone like me who’s not a history specialist.

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