European Exploration of East Asia

The memory of Marco Polo's observations of Yuan Dynasty China and her environs had left a lasting impression on the Europeans. Christopher Columbus set sail in order to find a sea route to India (of which, in his view, the Far East formed a part; many of the voyages of discovery - the quest for the North West and North East Passages - shared the same goal.

In 1513, Jorge Alvares was the first Portuguese to reach the Pearl River estuary (Canton). In 1542 another Portuguese, Fernao Mendes Pinto was the first European to reach Japan.
Ming Dynasty China permitted foreign trade only through the port of Canton, and treated the Portuguese with suspicion. China imposed the conditions of trade on the Portuguese. While, on the coasts of Africa, the respective European company required of their native trading partners to trade with no other European nation (monopoly), in Canton any western merchant company not guilty of acts of piracy was permitted to join the trade; in the 17th and 18th centuries, the French, Danes, Swedes, Prussians joined the crowd.
In 1521 Magellan died on the Philippines; the Spanish had arrived on the scene, Spaniards also appearing in Japan and Canton. By the end of the century they were joined by the Dutch and English. In Japan, the Portuguese and Spaniards interfered in domestic affairs by their efforts to convert Japanese to christianity; they were expelled, and by 1641 the Dutch were the only foreigners permitted to send one ship per year.
Both China and Japan channeled their foreign trade through one port only; they regarded European navigation beyond these ports hostile acts. A Dutchman who sailed along the Japanese coast to Hokkaido was Maerten Gerritsz. Vries (1643); he was an exception, the Northwest Pacific was one of the least explored coastal regions of the planet (that is, least explored by European navigators), until into the late 18th and 19th century (la Perouse, Broughton, Hall etc.). European maps of Asia, until the 19th century, show remarkable lack of knowledge; early maps show Korea as being an island (Ilha da Corea); 18th century maps often are relatively precise regarding the coast of China and, by contrast, imprecise regarding the coast of Korea. An episode from the Crimean War - two English naval vessels chased a Russian ship into the Tatar Sound, then waited for it to return, believing the Sound to be a Bay - illustrates the situation.
For several centuries, the Europeans were satisfied with being permitted to trade with China respectively Japan through Canton resp. Nagasaki. They used trading factories at Macau (Portuguese, 1557-1999), Taiwan (Dutch 1624-1662), Deshima (an artificial island in the port of Nagasaki, Dutch), Hong Kong (British, 1842-1997) as entrepots.
The first European on record to visit Korea was Gregorio de Cespedes, a Spanish Jesuit priest who accompanied the Japanese forces which invaded Korea in 1592 (there were numerous christians among the invading forces). Others reached this 'Hermit Nation' by accident; Dutchman Hendrk Hamel van Gorcum survived a shipwreck after his ship was driven off course by a typhoon (1653); fleeing the country after having spent there several years, he was the first European to write an account of the country.
The Russian exploration of the North Pacific will be discussed in a separate chapter; the Russians faced the difficulty of first not having any harbour facilities at their disposal, and when they had, that these were frozen over for a considerable part of the year.

Dutch Encounters with Sakhalin and with the Ainu People, by Tjeerd de Graaf
Hamel and the Discovery of Korea, posted by Henny Savenije
Gregorio de Cespedes, from Villanueva de Alcarcete, in Spanish
Sakhalin Island, from The School of Russian and Asian Studies
Taiwan As a Milking Cow of the Dutch VOC (1624-62), from Care Taiwan Association
Alphabetisches Suchverzeichnis der Reisenden in China und Tibet bis 1949 (Alphabetic Index of Travellers in China and Tibet until 1949), from Das Klassische China (Classical China), in German
REFERENCE Chapter Nine : The Pacific and around the Globe, pp.124-143, in : Angus Konstam, Historical Atlas of Exploration, 1492-1600, NY : Checkmark Books 2000 [G]

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on June 24th 2003, last revied on May 11th 2006

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