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Past & Present: 11
The Catholic Martyrs of Korea
By Alan Timblick
President of The Seoul Times
Jeoldusan Catholic Martyrs Shrine in Seoul

The Papal visit to South Korea and the ceremony of the beatitude by His Holiness Pope Francis provide a context for us to publish the following historical background.

Originally broadcast on TBS efm radio by this writer, it represents the eleventh episode in our own "Past and Present" series, intended to give readers an historical and cultural perspective to the current events which we report on daily.

Catholic Martyrs and the French Expedition on Gangwha

Christianity in Korea only really began to make its presence felt during the 19th Century. The Paris Foreign Missions Society, a French Catholic organization, sent missionaries to Korea in the 1840’s and by 1859 they reported some 17,000 converts.

Although Korea was a closed and Confucian society, there was at first some tolerance shown to the activities of the missions. However in 1866 the arrival of Russian ships demanding trading and resident rights in Korea alarmed the government, which was effectively being run by the young King Gojong’s father,Heungseon Daewongun.

Determined to maintain Korea’s isolation and rid the country of foreign influences, he ordered all of the French missionaries, including their Bishop, Simeon-Francois Berneux, to be summoned to Seoul, interrogated and put to death. At the same time, a number of Korean converts to Catholicism were also executed.

The French diplomatic representative in Beijing and the Commander of the Far East Naval Squadron, Rear AdmiralPierre-Gustave Roze, got to hear of the executions and decided to mount a punitive expedition.

Not much was known about the waterways around the approach to Seoul and so a preliminary reconnaissance took place in September 1866. A month later Roze returned in force aboard the frigate Guerriere with five supporting warships and a combined naval and marine force of some 800 men.

The French proceeded to seize the fortress on Gangwha above the Han River approach and occupied the principal town. Among the booty which they seized and eventually took back to France were books from the royal library.

Attempts were made to advance onto the mainland but these met with resistance from the Korean forces, so Roze settled his position on Gangwha from which he sent letters to the Korean authorities demanding reparations for the affront to French pride and the release of any surviving French missionaries.

Eventually it was learned that two missionaries had in fact been able to leave Korea, and as the cold weather approached Roze’s position became less tenable and he withdrew, taking his wounded and the captured trophies with him. The French had suffered three fatalities but Roze considered his mission to have been accomplished in ‘shocking’ the Koreans, warning them that France would protect its citizens, and avenging the murder of the missionaries.

The royal library books were eventually placed in the National Library in Paris and formed the core of the Korea Collection. The executed missionaries and faithful followers are commemorated today among other Catholic martyrs at the Jeoldusan Catholic Martyrs Shrine on the bank of the Han River.




Alan Timblick serves as President of The Seoul Times. He grew up in England, graduated from Oxford University, and has lived in Seoul for over three decades. A former banker, he also worked for the Korean government as head of Invest Korea and for Seoul City as head of the Seoul Global Center.

 

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