One of the greatest scrounges in Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) was cholera. Horace N. Allen, the first Western doctor to reside in Korea, declared that Seoul was “always ripe for cholera, and the only wonder (was) that the disease (was) not endemic.” But what made Seoul so susceptible to the disease?
Lillas Underwood, who served as Queen Min’s physician in the late 1880s, described the city’s sewers as running “into filthy, narrow ditches, frequently stopped up with refuse” and would often overflow and subsequently contaminate nearby wells. Washed soiled clothing in nearby steams ― the same streams that were used for cooking ― further contributed to the general unhealthy condition of the city.
Diet also played a role in spreading cholera. According to her, young children were fed “raw and green cucumbers, unpeeled, acrid berries, and heavy soggy white bread.” Their parents devoured vast amounts of “hot or cold rice, with a tough, indigestible cabbage washed in ditch water, prepared with turnips and flavored with salt and red pepper.”
Underwood was fortunate in that she had missed the epidemic of 1886 ― probably one of the most severe encountered by Westerners in Korea during the Joseon era. It started in Fusan (modern Busan) and worked its way up the peninsula claiming nearly 7,000 people in Seoul alone (Seoul’s population at the time was about 150,000). The hills and mountains around Seoul, normally covered with the greenery of summer, were marred by the countless graves ― many of them disinterred by the depredations of wild dogs and vultures.
But it had been foreseen. In the summer of 1886, Allen advised the small foreign community in Seoul to avoid eating pork, boil their water before drinking it, to wash all vegetables and fruits with salt water and to avoid eating watermelons. Koreans employed by Westerners were also expected to follow these suggestions but many would not.
According to one Englishman, Koreans ate immense quantities of watermelon ― even going so far as to eat the rinds. Korean employees caught eating watermelons during the cholera season were given a warning and, if caught again, then fired. Many paid for their passion of watermelons with not only their employment but with their lives.
In 1901, drastic measures were taken at the Gwendoline Mine (an English gold mine in present North Korea) to prevent an outbreak of cholera. Watermelons were banned from the concession. The Korean miners regarded this as a cruel and unnecessary step and the situation at the mine grew tense. The mine manager wrote:
“As soon as the Corean miners heard of the new orders prohibiting water-melon eating we nearly had a strike, but though they showed great resentment nothing further happened. Several attempts were made to smuggle the melons into the camp, but our police not only entrapped the culprits, but were given orders to thrash them ― which I have no doubt they did. At all events we succeeded in keeping the camp clear of them, and, in consequence, I believe, of cholera; we had only one case in our camp.”
But it wasn’t only watermelons that were feared. Many Westerners were afraid of Korean vegetables because human manure was used to fertilize the fields. This led to most foreign households planting their own gardens with seeds and bulbs shipped from the United States and elsewhere. Later, many of these Western gardeners gave away seeds and cuttings to their Korean neighbors and contributed to a greater diversity of vegetables and fruits in Korea.