History: Risks and Rewards on the Han River

Words by Robert Neff, Photos courtesy of the Robert Neff collection

As the primary way of accessing Seoul during the early modern period, the Han River offered equal shares of opportunities and hazards.

Boatmen on the Han River have disembarked from their junk and are relaxing on the shore.

During the late Joseon period, the Han River did not divide Seoul—in fact it wasn’t even part of Seoul. Seoul in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was confined to the area within the city walls, basically the present downtown area centered on city hall and the palaces.

The Han River did, however, serve as the primary transportation route for goods and passengers passing through Seoul. Junks (and later small steamboats) plied the river, transporting passengers to and from Seoul to Chemulpo (modern-day Incheon). Up until the mid 1880s, Chinese junks sailed from Shanghai to the river port facilities at Yongsan where large crowds of coolies congregated in hopes of obtaining temporary employment. As with any port, crime was a constant problem. Not only were there theft and extortion rackets but there were also many murders. Gangs of bandits often preyed upon the weak or incapacitated (and often the drunk). Mainly these were fellow Koreans but there were many Chinese and Japanese who lost their lives in the hours of darkness.

Bandits were not the only threat to river travelers. The Han River was notorious for its shifting sandbars and treacherous currents. Rather than trying to travel at night and risk grounding on one of the sandbars or worse, junks often anchored near the shore, which left them vulnerable to the bandits.

Compounding nature’s threats was the propensity of the Korean riverboat captain to overload his boat. As Horace Underwood  tells us, “An immense amount of brushwood is consumed as fuel in the city of Seoul and boats bringing this on the river in the fall have on either side a built out framework approximately equal to the beam of the boat, thus enabling them to carry three times the normal deckload of this light but bulky freight.”

The Han River had several ferry crossings, with some of the most important landings at Hangang, Mapo, Yanghwa and Mapo. These ferries were of crude construction but able to carry vast loads and were, at least in the beginning, free for Koreans. Westerners, however, were charged a minimal fee of two cents for themselves and their ponies.

One early Western visitor described his first encounter at the ferry landing thus:

“Arrived at the river, we found a large ferryboat all ready to receive us. It already contained some two dozen Coreans, mostly with heavy packs on their backs, and a fine large bull; but we managed to find space for our three ponies, our mafoos [horse handlers] and ourselves, and the whole miscellaneous cargo was yulched [sic] across a somewhat novel sight.”

Although these ferries were built for large loads, sometimes their operators exceeded the limits with disastrous results. In 1897, The Independent, an English-language newspaper published in Seoul, reported on one such incident:

“One of the ferryboats at King’s Ferry capsized two days ago with thirty passengers and two oxen, including two boatmen and they were all drowned. The police dep’t ordered the ferrymen not to carry such a large number of passengers in their boats during the rainy season.”

Riverside suburb of Seoul, possibly Mapo, in 1884

With the frequent dangers and deaths associated with the Han River, it comes as no surprise that those who plied the river tended to be a superstitious lot. Mulgwisin (僭敝褐), the ghosts of those who drowned, were believed to haunt parts of the river while in other places dragons were rumored to have their lairs. The superstitious—and those wanting to cover all their bases—offered sacrifices of alcohol and food to placate the spirits and guardians.

Junks and river travel on the Han all but disappeared during the modernization of the mid 1950s and early 60s, the only exceptions being small tourist cruise ships. But history has a way of repeating itself. President Lee Myung-bak has set in motion efforts to make the Han River once again open to large ferry boats and small ships traveling to and from Incheon. In the near future, the Han River may once again become a gateway to Seoul.

Mapo Port in 1900