|A view of Fusan's harbor, circa 1900s. Diane Nars Collection|
By Robert Neff
Many early Westerners living in Korea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries published accounts of their lives. Naturally, they often portrayed themselves in heroic roles and exaggerations were fairly common.
One of the strangest accounts came from Paolo dall' Aquila, a dashing Italian working with the Korean Customs Service in the late 1890s and early 1900s.
Aquila described himself as "a Venetian in [his] thirties, with an inherited passion for travel and a life of adventure." As soon as he had taken his degree he had mounted his bicycle ― then the queen of the road ― and ridden through Europe.
He eventually ended up in London where he soon became a candidate for the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs ― under British administration ― and was sent to Beijing and then to Fusan (Busan) where he served as the port's vice-commissioner.
|Honcho Street in Fusan, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection|
Aquila was not very impressed with the Western community of the port. Most of them were members of the Korean Customs while the remainder was mainly made up of American Protestant missionaries.
He complained that "they were all married, and as the more children the better the pay, they put into practice the Biblical injunction to 'be fruitful and multiply.'"
He was especially critical of a missionary doctor he nicknamed "Gold dollars" because of the doctor's penchant to refer to the price of his treatment in gold dollars. When he built his hospital (with donations from the United States), he used some of the "remaining bricks" to build his house which, somewhat suspiciously, ended up being far larger than the hospital.
The Italian's disdain for the missionaries wasn't confined only to the males ― he also had some disturbing things to say about the women.
The women were vane and, at least in one case, bored with their husbands and families. According to Aquila, he played footsies under the table with one of the missionaries' wives and then later stole a kiss from her when they were alone. She turned and declared, "No one has any right to kiss me like that … except my husband."
|An early postcard of Fusan's main streets, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection|
Sensing he had gone too far ― and, being "a true Italian [who] showed moderation in his vices" ― he turned to leave. Her facade faded and she begged him to stay but he refused.
His efforts to get by her caused a racket that led to her husband's sudden appearance to discover the source of the noise. Fortunately for all involved, the missionary's wife was able to weave an explanation that her husband believed.
The swarthy Italian was also popular with a German merchant's wife (an Englishwoman) who insinuated she was available for a little dalliance. Making her case even stronger, the merchant's wife knew about his relationship with the missionary's wife.
The Catholic missionaries, however, had a special place in Aquila's heart ― especially one priest who built a tiny church and lived in a native house. He was, declared Aquila, the "impersonation of apostolic poverty" and had to provide for himself ― the bishop in Seoul providing him only small quantities of sacramental wine. He went on to add:
"The Catholic missionaries were real apostles by comparison with the Protestants. Instead of trying to make the Koreans conform to European ideas, they themselves lived like the Koreans, learning their language, studying their customs, giving up all hope of ever returning to their own country. But the Protestants had a year's leave every five years."
|Nagatedori Street in Fusan, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection|
Despite his obvious prejudices, Aquila got along with most of his fellow Westerners and was often invited to the social events ― probably due to his many interests. "I love to do many things," he said, "but nothing enough." These loves included books, sports and ― especially ― hunting.
He often went hunting with a Russian working for the steamship company ― a man he described as having a good sense of humor but with an odd character and strange theories.
For several years Aquila prospered in the port. He grew increasingly closer to his Russian friends ― including the Russian representative to Korea ― and, probably to their dismay, fell in love with a Japanese girl.
These two relationships would cause him much pain and uncertainty during the Russo-Japanese War. As we shall see next weekend, Aquila was not what he appeared to be.