Part 2: In Seoul and Chemulpo
Part 3: Along the coast of Korea
On the same day that Robert Dunn and Frederick McKenzie were watching the naval battle off the shore of Chemulpo, Jack London, who had taken a steamer from Moji to Busan on February 6th and from there a ferry which was forced to stop in Mokpo, wrote the following letter to his future wife:
On board Junk, off Korean Coast,I have no idea what the vessel he sailed in looked like (though it's possible he photographed it, no comprehensive collection of his photos has yet been published), but here's a photo of a boat off the coast of Korea taken by Felice Beato in 1871:
Tuesday, Feb. 9, 1904.
The wildest and most gorgeous thing ever! If you could see me just now, captain of a junk with a crew of three Koreans who speak neither English nor Japanese and with five Japanese guests (strayed travelers) who speak neither English nor Korean—that is, all but one, which last knows a couple of dozen English words. And with this polyglot following I am bound on a voyage of several hundred miles along the Korean coast to Chemulpo. [...]
[F]ired ashore this morning, I chartered this junk, took five of the Japanese passengers along, and here I am, still bound for Chemulpo. Hardest job I ever undertook. Have had no news for several days, do not know if war has been declared and shall not know until I make Chemulpo - or maybe Kun San, at which place I drop my passengers. God, but I'd like to have a mouthful of white man s speech. It's not quite satisfying to do business with a 24-word vocabulary and gesticulations.
It would not exactly be my first choice of vessels to travel in during the winter. London continues in another letter:
Thursday, Feb. 11, 1904.Gunsan's port had only been opened to foreign trade 5 years earlier, so the above letter gives some indication of how prominent the Japanese were in the town.
On board another junk. Grows more gorgeous. Night and day traveled for Kun San. Caught on lee-shore yesterday, and wind howling over Yellow Sea. You should have seen us clawing off—one man at the tiller and a man at each sheet (Koreans), four scared Japanese, and the fifth too seasick to be scared. Of course, we cleared off, or you wouldn t be reading this.
Made Kun San at nightfall, after having carried away a mast and smashed the rudder. And we arrived in driving rain, wind cutting like a knife. And then, you should have seen me being made comfortable last night—five Japanese maidens helping me undress, take a bath, and get into bed, the while visitors, male and female, were being entertained (my visitors). And the maidens passing remarks upon my beautiful white skin, etc. And this morning, same thing repeated—the Mayor of Kun San, the captain of police, leading citizens, all in my bed-room, visiting while I was being shaved, dressed, washed, and fed. And all the leading citizens of the town came to see me off, and cheered me, and cried 'Sayonara' countless times.
New junk, manned by Japanese—five and not one knows one word of English; and here I am, adrift with them, off the Korean Coast. No white man's news for a long time. Hear native rumors of sea-fights, and of landing of troops, but nothing I may believe without doubting. But when I get to Chemulpo, I'll know 'where I'm at.'
And maybe you think it isn't cold, traveling as I am, by junk. . . . The snow is on the land, and in some places, on north slopes, comes down to the water's edge. And there are no stoves by which to keep warm—charcoal boxes, with half a dozen small embers, are not to be sneered—at I am beside one now, which I just bought for 12½ cents from a Korean at a village, where we have landed for water."
Saturday, Feb. 13, 1904.The tale told in the second paragraph above gets a lengthier treatment in an article Jack London wrote in 1911 titled "Small Boat Sailing."
Still wilder, but can hardly say so 'gorgeous,' unless landscapes and seascapes seen between driving snow squalls, be gorgeous. You know the tides on this Coast range from 40 to 60 feet (we're at anchor now, in the midst of ten thousand islands, reefs, and shoals, waiting four hours until the tide shall turn toward Chemulpo—30 li—which means 75 miles away).
Well, concerning tides. Yesterday morning found us on a lee shore, all rocks, with a gale pounding the whole Yellow Sea down upon us. Our only chance for refuge, dead to leeward, a small bay, and high and dry. Had to wait on the 40-ft. tide. And we waited, anchored under a small reef across which the breakers broke, until, tide rising, they submerged it. Never thought a sampan (an open crazy boat) could live through what ours did. A gale of wind, with driving snow—you can imagine how cold it was. But I'm glad I have Japanese sailors. They're braver and cooler and more daring than the Koreans. Well, we waited till eleven A.M. It was 'twixt the devil and the deep sea—stay and be swamped, run for the little bay and run the chance of striking in the surf. We couldn't possibly stay longer, so we showed a piece of sail and ran for it. Well, I was nearly blind with a headache which I had brought away with me from Kun San, and which had been increasing ever since; and I did not much care what happened; yet I remember, when we drove in across, that I took off my overcoat, and loosened my shoes—and I didn't bother a bit about trying to save the camera. But we made it half full of water but we made it.
And maybe it didn't howl all night, so cold that it froze the salt water. All of which I wouldn't mind, if it weren't for my ankles. I used to favor the right with the left, but with the left now smashed worse than the right, you can imagine how careful I have to be (where it is impossible to be careful) in a crazy junk going through such rough weather. And yet I have escaped any bad twists so far. Junks, crazy—I should say so. Rags, tatters, rotten—something always carrying away how they navigate is a miracle. I wonder if Hearst thinks I'm lost.
[A]bout the liveliest eight days of my life were spent in a small boat on the west coast of Korea. Never mind why I was thus voyaging up the Yellow Sea during the month of February in below-zero weather. The point is that I was in an open boat, a sampan, on a rocky coast where there were no light-houses and where the tides rip. We did not speak each other's language. Yet there was nothing monotonous about that trip. Never shall I forget one particular cold bitter dawn, when, in the thick of driving snow, we took in sail and dropped our small anchor. The wind was howling out of the northwest, and we were on a lee shore. Ahead and astern, all escape was cut off by rocky headlands, against whose bases burst the unbroken seas. To windward a short distance, seen only between the snow-squalls, was a low rocky reef. It was this that inadequately protected us from the whole Yellow Sea that thundered in upon us.He described the aftermath of this adventure in his next letter.
The Japanese crawled under a communal rice mat and went to sleep. I joined them, and for several hours we dozed fitfully. Then a sea deluged us out with icy water, and we found several inches of snow on top the mat. The reef to windward was disappearing under the rising tide, and moment by moment the seas broke more strongly over the rocks. The fishermen studied the shore anxiously. So did I, and with a sailor's eye, though I could see little chance for a swimmer to gain that surf-hammered line of rocks. I made signs toward the headlands on either flank. The Japanese shook their heads. I indicated that dreadful lee shore. Still they shook their heads and did nothing. My conclusion was that they were paralysed by the hopelessness of the situation. Yet our extremity increased with every minute, for the rising tide was robbing us of the reef that served as buffer. It soon became a case of swamping at our anchor. Seas were splashing on board in growing volume, and we baled constantly. And still my fishermen crew eyed the surf-battered shore and did nothing.
At last, after many narrow escapes from complete swamping, the fishermen got into action. All hands tailed on to the anchor and hove it up. For'ard, as the boat's head paid off, we set a patch of sail about the size of a flour-sack. And we headed straight for shore. I unlaced my shoes, unbottoned my great-coat and coat, and was ready to make a quick partial strip a minute or so before we struck. But we didn't strike, and, as we rushed in, I saw the beauty of the situation. Before us opened a narrow channel, frilled at its mouth with breaking seas. Yet, long before, when I had scanned the shore closely, there had been no such channel. I had forgotten the thirty-foot tide. And it was for this tide that the Japanese had so precariously waited. We ran the frill of breakers, curved into a tiny sheltered bay where the water was scarcely flawed by the gale, and landed on a beach where the salt sea of the last tide lay frozen in long curving lines. And this was one gale of three in the course of those eight days in the sampan.
Monday, Feb. 15, 1904.As he would later write,
Oh, yes, we waited four hours! When four hours had passed, wind came down out of the north, dead in our teeth. Lay all night in confounded tide-rip, junk standing on both ends, and driving me crazy what of my headache. At four in the morning turned out in the midst of driving snow to change anchorage on account of sea. It was a cruel day-break we witnessed; at 8 A.M. we showed a bit of sail and ran for shelter.
My sailors live roughly, and we put up at a fishing village (Korean) where they live still more roughly, and we spent Sunday and Sunday night there—my five sailors, myself—and about 20 men, women and children jammed into a room in a hut, the floor space of which room was about equivalent to that of a good double-bed. And my foreign food is giving out, and I was compelled to begin on native chow. I hope my stomach will forgive me some of the things I have thrust upon it: Filth, dirt, indescribable, and the worst of it is that I can't help thinking of the filth and dirt as I take each mouthful.
Their rice was brown as chocolate. Half the husks remained in it, along with bits of chaff, splinters, and unidentifiable dirt which made one pause often in the chewing in order to stick into his mouth thumb and forefinger and pluck out the offending stuff. Also, they ate a sort of millet, and pickles of astounding variety and ungodly hot.He did, however, discover a way to amuse himself that would help pass the time in the months that followed:
In some of these villages, I am the first white man, and a curiosity. I showed one old fellow my false teeth at midnight. He proceeded to rouse the house. Must have given him bad dreams, for he crept in to me at three in the morning and woke me in order to have another look.London arrived in Chemulpo on Tuesday, February 16, greeted by the wreck of the Variag, testament to the battle he had missed.
We are under way this morning - for Chemulpo. I hope I don't drop dead when I finally arrive there. The land is covered with snow. The wind has just hauled ahead again. Our sail has come in, and the men are at the oars. If it blows up it'll be another run for shelter. O, this is a wild and bitter coast.
His comment, "I hope I don't drop dead when I finally arrive there" was apparently not just talk. As this site quotes him, Robert Dunn, who had come over to Japan with London on the Siberia, wrote:
When London arrived in Chemulpo I did not recognize him. He was a physical wreck. His ears were frozen; his fingers were frozen; his feet were frozen. He said that he didn't mind his condition so long as he got to the front. He said his physical collapse counted for nothing. He had been sent to the front to do newspaper work, and he wanted to do it. [...]London wrote after he arrived, "War had been on for a week, though I learned it now for the first time. I had been badly poisoned with charcoal fumes, and my mind was in a daze." He would have little time to rest. Japanese troops were about to start marching north from Seoul towards Pyongyang and the Yalu, and London, Dunn and McKenzie were going to go with them.