Intrigued by Asia at an early age, Dutch native, Seoul professor and history enthusiast, Henny Savenije has poured his time and energy into understanding the culture and history of the countries he’s inhabited throughout the years. Since coming to Korea in the mid 1990s, Savenije, a professor at Hyupsung University who formerly taught at Kookmin University, has extensively researched the history of Hendrick Hamel. From creating a website containing over 2,000 pages of information about the “discoverer of Korea” and taking trips to Jeju to analyze the specific site where the Sperwer shipwrecked to acting in a documentary about Hamel, Savenije’s involvement has escalated over the years.
His motivation stems from his love of history and for Korea. “Why am I doing this?” Savenije writes in a blurb on his Web site. “Well I love history, I love facts, I love this way of research and the way I can publish things, but above all I love Korea; the country, the people and their history.”
More information about Savenije and Hamel can be found at: http://www.henny-savenije.pe.kr/
When did you first become interested in Asia?
I’ve been interested in Asia since I was a little kid. My auntie lived in Indonesia for a long time. When she came back she brought a lot of stuff.
One of the things she brought back was a Chinese puzzle. I was fascinated by it. She also brought back a miniature gamelan orchestra made of wood. I was fascinated by it as well. Unfortunately my mother gave it to us as kids to play with and of course it was too fragile. [Laughs.] It was destroyed in no time.
What did you do to feed into that interest?
Starting from childhood, I started to read about Asia: history books, novels, whatever I could lay my hands on. I think I’ve read all the Pearl S. Buck novels. So I always had the plan and the desire to go to Asia.
When did you finally come to Asia?
There was a moment, I think it was in 1993 or 1994, where I decided if I don’t go now, I will never go. So I went to Japan.
How did you end up in Korea?
I had to leave the country for my Japanese visa so I went to the Philippines where I met lots and lots of Koreans. And we got along! At the same time in Japan, an earthquake hit the island where I was and suddenly I was out of a job again. The Koreans kept on convincing me, “You have to come to Korea. You have to come to Korea.” So at a certain moment I thought, “OK. What the heck?”
I left Korea for two years, but basically I’ve been here ever since.
You even have a Korean name. How did that come about?
In the Philippines I met a Korean guy who was disabled from polio. His father became wealthy, not rich, but wealthy, when they built Olympic Park because he was a farmer there.
We met almost daily in Seoul and had lunch together. We would often go to a coffee shop in Gangnam Station. One day he told me, “You need a Korean name.” So he told the girl who was working there, “You have to make a Korean name for him.” She thought about it for three or four weeks.
What Korean name did she give you?
She came up with Lee Hae Kang. The way she explained it, in my opinion was terrific.
She chose Lee, because I grow bonsai and the Chinese character for Lee stands for plum tree.
Hae, means the sea, because the Netherlands is lower than the sea.
And the last one is the most beautiful one. Her last name is Kang. But she chose different Chinese characters: “zhen zhu,” which means pearl. She said Shell Oil is the biggest oil company in the world, and a Dutch company, and inside the shell you will find a pearl.
That’s how I got the name and why I used it. Names are another hobby of mine. Do you know what Hamel means? His name has meaning as well. Hendrick is the same like an English “Henry.” But Hamel means “the leader of the flock of sheep with the bell.”
How did you become interested in research about Hamel?
I knew very little about Korea. The only thing I had read was one book about Hamel. I thought it was a fascinating history.
I have a habit of reading about the history of a country once I’m there. Actually I did the same in the Philippines. In Japan it wasn’t necessary. I had already read so much. But anyhow, I started to read about history here and that’s how I came to research Hamel.
What about Hamel’s story drew you in?
There was an English book at the Dutch embassy that was supposed to be the best translation of Hamel’s journal. Of course I wanted to read it because I had read the Dutch translation. To my big surprise, the two books differed. I thought, “Wait a moment. That’s not possible. History is history. There could be no way the books should differ so much.” So when I went back to Holland I thought, “I have to look into this.”
What was the first step you took in conducting your research?
I actually started with making the Web site with a very brief history, but later, it became more extensive.
There are about 2,000 pages of information, right?
Over 2,000. I lost count, actually. When I was back in Holland there was a Korea Day in Gorinchem where Hamel comes from. I thought I would print all the pages on my site for it. I was working at IBM at the time so I just hit Ctrl-P, next page, Ctrl-P, next page… I wasn’t paying attention and when I went over to the printer there was about 20 centimeters of paper. I thought, “Oh God, did I do all of this?” [Laughs.]
How did you end up translating Hamel’s manuscript?
Other people who were also interested in the subject started contacting me. Another guy called Willem (Wim) Hamel, not a relative, but anyhow he had a copy of the manuscript. Actually he made one, especially for me. It was pretty expensive, but we paid for it together. That’s when I thought, “OK, let me transcribe all of this.”
What about Hamel’s story drew you in?
I’ve always loved history. Well, not in high school. [Laughs.] But history was more or less my hobby.
I also wanted to go back to Korea, and I just thought, “I want to figure this out, so I’ll be well prepared when I go back to know what’s going on.”
What was your experience like researching in Jeju?
The first time I came to Jeju was because I got an e-mail from the curator of the national museum. They wanted to make an exhibition about Hamel and they found my Web site and wanted to meet me.
I had a Dutch friend living in Busan who had been to Jeju many times as well. We did a lot of research together. I would provide him with the information and he would look for places on his bicycle. He was a bicycle fanatic and cycled all around Jeju visiting every beach to find out where Hamel stranded.
I also went to look for the place where they stranded several times. Even with the guys from the national museum we tried to trace exactly where they would have traveled. There was a specialist in old roads, because the Japanese made a lot of new roads. So we followed the old roads almost exactly.
What can you tell me about where Hamel was stranded?
The real place where they stranded is incredibly hard to find. That’s where I disagree with some Koreans. They say the place was a bigger beach. It’s possible, but they have no hard proof. The last time I went to Jeju, they pointed out the two places to me. According to the Koreans they stranded on the other side of the river. According to me, that’s not possible because basically in the Korean documents they speak about Gosan-ri, and Gosan-ri was on the other side of the river.
Have you only come to Jeju on research?
I’ve even been a few times in Jeju for acting.
For the Hamel documentary?
Not only that. The trip to Jeju for the documentary was in 1995, I think, or 1996. After that, the agency somehow got to know my name and I acted in a lot of Korean dramas and movies. Quite a few of them were shot in Jeju.
How did you get involved with acting in the documentary?
The filmmakers thought, “OK, we need Dutch people to be part of the sailors in the documentary.” They came to the embassy and asked everyone if they’d be willing to do it. I said, “Yes.” The funny thing is Hamel was the agricultural counselor and Weltevree was the Dutch ambassador. They said by doing the film we could promote Holland better than in any other way. [Laughs.] So we got the royal treatment.
What’s been the thing you’ve enjoyed the most doing all this research?
I think what I enjoyed the most was transcribing Hamel’s journal. Basically at that time I felt more or less what kind of man he was. For instance, what most people don’t realize is that Hamel wrote it in Japan. He didn’t write it in Korea. The VOC, the Dutch East India Company, they had a kind of guideline for what people should write about a country that was not yet explored. And Hamel pretty much followed that guideline. Also, I think it’s hard to prove, but I’m pretty sure, he wrote it alone because he was the only one who could write. Although I think he wrote it as a common memory since he never wrote “I” and always speaks about people in the third person.
What would you want people to know about Hamel?
Maybe the fact that he was boring. [Laughs.] I think the other people in the crew were much more interesting. Maybe the most interesting guy that we unfortunately know too little about was Weltevree.
What have you taken from all of your historical research?
The most disappointing thing I’ve learned is history isn’t what it seems.
For instance, I met a guy who set up his own museum in Pyongyang. There was a Gingko tree nearby and next to the tree was a sign that said, “It is believed that Hamel and his crew sat here.” Every time I would go visit the guy would add something new, like, “Oh the house of Hamel used to be over there.” When I asked him how he knew he’d be like, “Well, they were always sitting under this tree, so…”
People want to remember what they want to remember.