(KoreaTimes) Portugal, legacy of maritime power


I am fascinated by Portugal in many ways. As far as we know, Portugal’s first encounter with Korea was in 1604 when Portuguese trader Joao Mendes was washed ashore at the port city of Tongyeong in South Gyeongsang Province. Mendes was a survivor of a trade mission whose vessel was destroyed by a typhoon. To commemorate Portugal’s first contact with Korea, a historical monument was erected at Tongyeong’s Samdeok Port in 2006.

After Mendes’ arrival in Korea, the most important single incident in science history in terms of a Korean connection with the Portuguese was contact with the Portuguese Jesuit priest Joao Rodrigues (1561-1634) in 1631.

According to the Gukjo Bogam (Precious Mirror for Succeeding Reigns), an official history compiled by the 1392-1910 Joseon Kingdom, Joseon envoy Jeong Du-won met Rodrigues in Dengzhou, a prefecture off the coast of modern-day Shandong province during his journey to Ming China in 1631.

The encounter was conducted in a cordial atmosphere, as evidenced by a number of precious gifts the Jesuit gave to the Koreans. In his subsequent report to the Joseon king, Jeong described Rodrigues as a benign gift-giver, while portraying himself as a passive recipient of Western gifts such as books on Western astronomy, geography and scientific instruments, including a world map, telescope and a piece of a small firearm. King Injo (r. 1623―1649) greatly appreciated these gifts, particularly the Western firearm. Jung depicted Rodrigues’ generosity and the Korean envoy as the transmitter of European culture via China to Korea.

Portugal boasts that it was the world’s first maritime power and birthplace of the world’s first explorers. It was at the forefront of European exploration between the 15th and 16th centuries. During the Age of Discovery, Portugal extended its reach toward the Far East as crusaders and traders and opened sea trade between the East and West as well as being the first Europeans to yield power in the region.

Portugal’s achievements are immortalized by her legendary writer Luis Vaz de Camoes (1524-1580) who is widely regarded as the greatest poet in Portuguese history. He is world-renowned as the author of the Renaissance epic “The Lusiads” (Soul of Portugal). Camoes is frequently compared to Homeros or Shakespeare. He is an iconic symbol for the Portuguese nation.

“The Lusiads” is a national epic meant to portray the genius of the Portuguese people. It is often compared to another European epic, Virgil’s “Aeneid,” that sings of Roman virtues.

At the center of the epic is the journey of Vasco da Gama, Camoes’ kinsman and the first person to voyage from Europe to the Southern Hemisphere including India, China, Japan and Macao, a feat that many people considered impossible at the time. Navigators did not believe the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean were connected.

Due to da Gama’s epochal journey, Portugal emerged as the first major European colonial power in Asia. Camoes’ sublime poetry recorded this momentous historic development, the discovery of a sea route to India and the “opening” of Asia to Western influence.

In a twist of fate, Camoes was banished from Portugal for wounding an officer of the royal court. He was exiled from his country and lived in Macau for several years. Like many artists, he was not appreciated in his native land during his lifetime.

While in Macao on my last trip, I visited the Camoes Grotto, a garden where Camoes composed “The Lusiads.” A monumental bust of the one-eyed Camoes commemorates his great accomplishments. As I stood there, I felt as if I shared the proud and glorious days of Portugal’s maritime power in the Age of Discovery.

Choe Chong-dae (choecd@naver.com) is a guest columnist of The Korea Times. He is president of Dae-kwang International Co., and Director of the Korean-Swedish Association.