In the 19th century, very little was known about Korea other than it was a “Hermit Kingdom” and had a reputation (undeserved) for abusing shipwrecked survivors. In an effort to attract readers, Western newspapers often printed accounts of alleged travelers to Korea with little regard to their accuracy. One of these accounts concerns a Frenchman named Piry.
After his death in 1899, an American newspaper described how he came to be the “‘father’ of the Chinese Customs Service.” As a young boy, Piry went to sea and his ship was eventually wrecked off the coast of Korea sometime in the 1850s. Captured by Korean villagers, he was taken to Seoul where he was presented to King Cheoljong (1849-1863), as a “great curiosity.”The article then went on to say:“The king, possibly desiring to send a rare and strange present to his suzerain in Peking, put poor Piry in a cage and sent him overland to the Chinese capital to the emperor. The latter, after detaining him some time, sent him down to Shanghai to the foreign consuls, who gave him a post suited to his age in the newly established customs and there he remained until his death.”While the story sounds plausible it probably never happened.An examination of the Chinese Customs Service records indicates there was a P. Piry who began working in November 1857 as a clerk and resigned in May 1898 as deputy commissioner. But there is no record, other than the newspaper account, of him ever setting foot in Korea. Presumably his son, Theodore, also served in the Chinese Customs Service and later in the Korean Customs Department as vice-commissioner in Fusan (modern Busan) from 1886-1888.There were few French ships wrecked off the coast of Korea during this period. The French whaler Narwal wrecked off the west coast in April 1851 but they were subsequently rescued by the French consul in Shanghai. None of the sailors were ill-treated. The local officials ensured that not only were they treated well but their goods were secured against theft.Another example of the type of treatment Westerners received at the hands of their Korean hosts took place in 1855 when four members of the American whaling ship Two Brothers jumped ship off the east coast of Korea near Wonsan. The four sailors, expecting the worst, were well treated but prevented from leaving until word could be received from the king as to their fates.After a month of captivity, they were placed on Korean ponies and transported to the Chinese border where they were handed over to a Chinese magistrate. They were then transported to Peking (Beijing) – each night of their journey they were locked in cells and well-guarded. In Peking they were kept waiting in cells – their meager rations supplemented by food brought by sympathetic Russian missionaries – until the Chinese government decided what to do with them.After three weeks they were again sent on their way – this time to Shanghai. They were very poorly equipped for the journey, given only a small allowance on which to live. This allowance was reduced daily as their Chinese escort increased their own profits at the expense of their wards. They arrived in Shanghai in late December 1855 – alive and excellent witnesses as to the difference in treatment Westerners received at the hands of the Chinese and Koreans.
Source: The Korea Times