Those of you who have read these posts will know that I am fairly well versed in naval history. Being British, I of course know about the history of the Royal Navy, and in particular about our most famous admiral, Horatio Nelson. However, I have also read up about the naval histories of other countries, so I am reasonably well informed about the achievements of admirals in the Dutch, French, German, American and Japanese navies.
Recently, however, I came across a quote by one of the most famous admirals in world history, Japan’s admiral Togo: “It may be proper to compare me with Nelson, but not with Korea’s Yi Sun-sin, for he has no equal.”
Praise indeed! On this basis alone, Yi Sun-sin must surely have been one of the greatest, possibly THE greatest, naval commander in history – and I had never heard of him. It made me feel that my credentials as a world historian were rather flimsy!
The problem with world history is that there’s an awful lot of it. Given my interest in naval history, however, I feel I should have known about one of the greatest practitioners of sea power. Since reading the article, I have read up about him in various websites, and indeed he seems to have been a truly great commander. Whereas Nelson led major fleets in three large-scale battles, Yi Sun-sin seems to have fought twenty-three of them. In a war in which Korea was fighting desperately for its very existence as a nation, Yi Sun-sin’s achievements were of crucial significance.
To be honest, brought up as I have been on Western historiography, with its emphasis on a critical reading of sources, a lot of what I have read about Yi seems to be a bit too fulsome. However, there seems no doubting his achievements; nor that he appears as a man of great humanity and integrity.
How did I missed him! I certainly know about the massive Japanese invasions of Korea at the end of the 16th century, but Yi’s role in repelling them seems to have passed me by. I wonder whether it is because these terrible wars were so awful that I rather skimped reading about the details! I do tend to do that – it is only recently that I have properly come to grips with World War I (as my regular readers will know). However, it makes me wonder – what else of major importance have I missed in my studies of world history?
But a deeper issues is – however much we in the West try to survey world history as a whole, we still have our blinkers on – and try as I might, I am no different. Are Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Arab or African historians any better?
By Peter Britton