Admiral Yi: The Other Lord Nelson

Many people have heard of Lord Nelson(1) and his famous naval victory in the Battle of Trafalgar(2). Far fewer people have ever heard of Admiral Yi(3) who was every bit as brilliant a naval commander as Lord Nelson, if not more so.

For example, in the Battle of Myeongnyang(4):

on October 26, 1597, the Korean admiral Yi Sunsin fought the Japanese navy at sea in Myeongnyang Strait, near Jindo Island. With only the 13 ships remaining from Won Gyun’s disastrous defeat at the Battle of Chilchonryang, Admiral Yi Sunsin held the strait from a fleet of 133 Japanese warships and at least 200 Japanese logistical support ships. Many Japanese warships were sunk or disabled during the battle and the Japanese were forced to retreat.

Admiral Yi delivered this remarkable victory after his own king had stripped him of his rank and nearly tortured him to death on false charges of treason. The fleet Admiral Yi had carefully built up from 63 ships to 166 was given into the command of a rival admiral–who promptly went off and lost the entire fleet (except for 13 ships) to the Japanese. Admiral Yi was then restored to his command. But King Seonjo, who judged that the Joseon navy had lost their power and would never be restored again, sent a letter to abolish the navy and join the ground forces under General Gwon Yul. To which Admiral Yi responded in his own letter, “…I still own thirteen ships. As I am alive, the enemies will never gain the Western Sea.”

The rest, they say, is history.

Because of his military brilliance and success, Admiral Yi inspired much envy. As a result of this, in the course of his career he was twice falsely accused, stripped of his rank, and tortured. Nonetheless, he continued to faithfully serve his country until his death.He is reputed to be one of the few admirals to have been victorious in every naval battle (at least 23) in which he commanded.

He lived a life one could write a novel about.


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