South Korea // Jeolla //

Admiral Yi, conqueror of the seas

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“…it seems, in truth, no exaggeration to assert that from first to last he never made a mistake, for his work was so complete under each variety of circumstances as to defy criticism.”

Admiral George Alexander Ballard, The Influence of the Sea on the Political History of Japan

Were he not born during the Joseon dynasty, a period in which a nervous Korea largely shielded itself from the outside world, it is likely that Admiral Yi Sun-shin (이순신; 1545–98) would today be ranked alongside Napoleon and Horatio Nelson as one of the greatest generals of all time. A Korean national hero, you’ll see his face on the W100 coin, and statues of the great man dot the country’s shores. The two most pertinent are at Yeosu, where he was headquartered, and Tongyeong (then known as Chungmu), the site of his most famous victory.

Yi Sun-shin was both a beneficiary and a victim of circumstance. A year after his first major posting as Naval Commander of Jeolla in 1591, there began a six-year wave of Japanese invasions. Although the Nipponese were setting their sights on an eventual assault on China, Korea had the misfortune to be in the way and loyal to the Chinese emperor, and 150,000 troops laid siege to the country. Admiral Yi achieved a string of well-orchestrated victories, spearheaded by his famed turtle ships, vessels topped with iron spikes that were adept at navigating the island-dotted waters with ease.

Despite his triumphs, the admiral fell victim to a Japanese spy and the workings of the Korean political system. A double agent persuaded a high-ranking Korean General that the Japanese would attack in a suspiciously treacherous area; seeing through the plan, Admiral Yi refused the General’s orders, and as a result was stripped of his duties and sent to Seoul for torture. His successor, Won Gyeun, was far less successful, and within months had been killed by the Japanese after managing to lose the whole Korean fleet, bar twelve warships. Yi was hastily reinstated, and after hunting down the remaining ships managed to repel a Japanese armada ten times more numerous. Peppering the enemy’s vessels with cannonballs and flaming arrows, Yi waited for the tide to change and rammed the tightly packed enemy ships into one another. Heroic to the last, Yi was killed by a stray bullet as the Japanese retreated from what was to be the final battle of the war, apparently using his final gasps to insist that his death be kept secret until victory had been assured.

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