The Battle of Lepanto, wherein the allied forces of Venice, Genoa, and Spain overcame the Turks by means of a superior number of cannons, was a turning point in naval history in the West.
Dominance of the sea enabled countries such as the Netherlands and England to play a dominant role in world affairs. The first use of naval firepower, however, occurred 200 years before in a battle off the coast of Korea.
The Battle of Jinpo (1380) was a resounding victory for the home team – 80 Koryo warships, equipped with firearms invented by Choi Mu-seon (최무선), defeated a Japanese pirate fleet of 500 vessels.
We tend to think of pirates as operating in single ships commanded by charismatic buccaneers. Piracy in the closing days of the Koryo dynasty (918~1392) was conducted on a more industrial scale, consisting of fleets of ships numbering from 200 to 500 at a time, making coastal attacks rather than making attacks at sea.
To avoid having to repel the pirates with traditional methods of ramming or attempting to grapple and board their ships, the Korean scientist Choi Mu-seon began investigating the use of gunpowder at sea, which was at the time a new concept.
Gunpowder itself was not a new concept in Korea, having been in use in the Silla period (57-935 AD) and refined during the Koryo period. With the close of the Department of Arms Manufacture in 1308, resulting from the growing dominance of civil officials, the knowledge was gradually lost, and when attempts to obtain sufficient quantities from China failed, Choi Mu-seon had to start from scratch.
From a study of historical documents, Choi inferred the procedure involved mixing sulphur with willow charcoal and saltpeter. Sulphur and charcoal were readily available, but the making of saltpeter was a mystery, and required countless trials to recreate. Even when he had established a method, it was too impractical for the purposes of mass-production.
In desperation, he paid a visit to Pyokran Island, ‘a place often frequented by foreigners’, and managed to meet a Chinese technician who revealed to him the details of an effective manufacturing process. This done, he was able to get to work.
The initial fruits of his invention and labour included the hwajeon (fire arrow; 화전; 火箭) and the hwatong (fire barrel; 화통; 火㷁). In 1377 the Office of Heavy Artillery was established with Choi at the head. Here he developed 18 different varieties of firearm.
The Battle of Jinpo (진포) was the first occasion on which the new technology was tested in action, and was over very quickly.
The follow-up battle three years later ended similarly for the pirates, and provoked a more proactive approach on the part of the Koryo government, who decided to take the fight to the pirates at their base on Tsushima Island.
In the 1380s, as Koryo’s campaign against the wako proved successful, Japan began to show greater interest in pursuing an amicable relationship, frequently sending emissaries to offer tribute and return captives. It is possible that the newly revealed power of Koryo’s naval artillery influenced this change of attitude.