Black mercenaries in the Imjin War

Fascinating little piece in the Kyunghyang Shinmun about black Portuguese mercenaries who served as frogmen for the Ming expeditionary force sent to support Joseon against Japanese invaders in the Imjin War.

Reference is made to them in the Annals of King Seonjo, which talks of “Sea Ghosts” with yellow pupils, black skin, goatees, and curly hair like black wool. These frogmen were apparently introduced to King Seonjo by a Ming general as frogmen from Portugal who could attack enemy ships from underwater.

And better still, a Korean painting from 1599 marking the withdrawal of Ming forces from Korea (see image in the link) shows troops who clearly look black.

Sadly, another Korean historical text complains the Ming didn’t actually use them during the war.

See also the writer’s blog here.

  • robert neff

    A very interesting blog – love the history stuff.

    For those who do not want to wade through all the Korean – here is a piece I did in 2009 concerning the early Portuguese in Korea – including the Sea Ghost

  • Robert Koehler

    Damn, and I thought I was getting the English-language scoop…

    BTW, just out of curiosity, I’m curious about the name given for Portugal, rendered Parangguk. Is that the name the Chinese gave Portugal exclusively, or was that a Chinese rendering of the Arabic word for the West in general, Faranj (a.k.a. the Franks).

  • wangkon936

    “… a Korean painting from 1599 marking the withdrawal of Ming forces from Korea shows troops who clearly look black.”

    Uh, they look more like extras from that Hobbit movie.

  • silver surfer

    Yellow pupils??

  • wangkon936

    I will continue to maintain that the Imjin War was the closest thing to a World War in Asia. The Ming Dynasty’s troops were mostly southern Chinese, but had contingents from all over their kingdom and tributary states. Ming troops amounted to 100k at their height because the Ming had to keep contingents of armies stationed to guard against the Mongols and Manchus. The Ming navy kept their best ships in harbor on their southern shores as an insurance policy just in case the Japanese overran Korea and used that nation as a naval, as well as land, base.

    Furthermore, Ming’s tributary states (i.e. Siam, Champa, Indonesia, etc.) all offered troops as a tangible way to show their allegiance to the tributary order. I believe there were even a few Siam elephants that made their way to Korea.

  • Kuiwon

    Ah. I wish I had time to write posts like this blogger.

  • Alex

    This is also the premise of Swope’s recent revisionist history on the matter.

    I generally agree with the idea that it was the First Great Asian War. The names Imjin War or “Japanese Invasions of Korea” really downplay that this was a thing that easily could have involved the entire continent.

    Fun (maybe interesting is a better word because war is not fun) fact, the Japanese 2nd Division was comprised of fundamentalist Buddhists and marched under a banner that said “Glory to the Holy Lotus”. Their particular brand of Buddhism was inspired by a monk who resisted the Mongols in the 13th century. For the men of the 2nd Division, pillaging Korea was sweet revenge for Korea collaborating with the Mongols hundreds of years earlier. It’s really all connected in the most fascinating of ways.

    Anyway, thanks to RJ and robert neff for posting some fascinating reading on the subject.

  • wangkon936

    Well, Korea didn’t have much choice in the matter. They actually tried dragging their feet in building the ships and supplying the troops. Also, they did resist the Mongols continuously for 30 years, absorbing and repulsing five separate invasions.

  • Alex

    Ah yes absolutely. Sorry, I should have been more clear. I meant that from the perspective of the Japanese, the Koreans had collaborated with the Mongols.

  • Bob Bobbs

    Actually, it suggests that it means the Iberian penninsula and is spelt:

    Bulangkuk (Portugal or Spain)

  • Robert Koehler

    That’s interesting stuff about the 2nd division. Thanks for posting it. Makes for an interesting contrast with another Japanese commander, Konishi Yukinaga, who was Catholic.

  • SomeguyinKorea

    And yet, upon observation of some Mongol shipwrecks found off the coast of Japan in recent years, archeologists suggest that the Korean shipbuilders maybe have sabotaged the masts, building defects which would have caused these ship to be dangerous to sail in strong winds. Yes, the ‘divine wind’ apparently started in Korea.

  • Alex

    I’m interested in reading more about that. Where did you see it? It contradicts some other things I’ve read on the matter.

    I just finished reading Stephen Turnbull’s “Fighting Ships of the Far East Vol. 2″ and “Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281″ and he specifically talks about how the of the Korean built ships survived the typhoon whereas most of the Chinese built ships sank. He credited this to their rugged, simple construction as well as the use of wooden bolts (as opposed to iron) which created airtight seals in the frame.

    I could certainly see some individual shipbuilders being less than diligent in the workmanship.

  • SomeguyinKorea

    I read that somewhere or saw something about it on TV. It had something to do with the way the mast steps were designed, how they would make the boats uncontrollable in strong winds…if the masts didn’t just snap off. Whether it was deliberate or not, it’s anyone’s guess. One archeologist suggested it might be why the Korean ships didn’t make it to shore. In any case, I read elsewhere that many of the Chinese ships that sank were riverboats, and so they lacked the keel that Korean ships had. That’s probably why, in the end, more Chinese ships than Korean ones sank.