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The timber king of Ulleung IslandMeet James F. Mitchell, a Western businessman in Korea in 1882
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승인 2011.09.24  17:57:26
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▲ Koreans cutting timber circa 1910. Photo courtesy Robert Neff collection

Following the opening of Korea to the West in 1882, several Western adventurers and businessmen made their way to the former “Hermit Kingdom” hoping to make their fortunes. One of these men was James F. Mitchell.

Mitchell was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1829. Unfortunately, little is known of his past until 1861 when he arrived in Nagasaki, Japan, and established a shipyard. For nearly two decades he and his family lived in that city operating a very profitable business, but in 1880 they suddenly moved to Shanghai, China, where they established another shipyard – the Pootung Building Yard.

Apparently, in early 1884, Mitchell “closed his shipbuilding yards at Pootung, for the purpose of prospecting in an entirely new and original enterprise.” In mid-September 1884, he traveled to Korea aboard a British-owned steamship, Nanzing, and stayed at Seoul’s only hotel – a rustic place that had little in the way of comforts or bare necessities. Horace Allen, a missionary, who was also staying at the hotel, provides us with our first hint as to Mitchell’s “new and original enterprise.”

“As we had nothing to eat, I gladly accepted a bottle of beer and some hard biscuits from Mitchell who has provisions for a long trip interior, where he was going to look for timber with a view of opening up trade.”

It isn’t clear how long and where Mitchell was in Korea’s interior but we know he was back in Seoul by the first week of November. It was probably while he was in Seoul that he met and negotiated a contract with Paul Georg von Mollendorff – a German advisor to the Korean government – for the right to harvest timber from Ulleung Island (known in the West as Dagelet Island).

Undoubtedly, Mitchell had first heard of the island and its “splendid timber” while living in Japan. A newspaper article in June 1880 described the island:

“Dagelet is a beautiful island, wooded to the summit of its highest peak, which rises 4,000 feet above the sea. It is uninhabited except in the summer time, when a few Coreans go there to build junks, leaving when the weather breaks up in the fall. There are some curious rock formations on the island, the most prominent of which is a spike of about 800 feet high stuck on the hillside on the northern slope of the island something like a miniature Matterhorn.”

After signing his agreement with Mollendorff, Mitchell returned to Shanghai – probably to visit his family and make initial preparations. Several newspapers in Japan and China excitedly and somewhat exaggeratedly reported the news of Mitchell’s new enterprise. The Japan Daily Mail reported that the Korean government had agreed “to sell a large quality of timber” to Mitchell, while the Shanghai Mercury added that he was responsible for all the expenses of cutting and transporting the timber to Shanghai and had to share any profit with the Korean government.

When Mitchell traveled to Nagasaki – his operation’s base – The Rising Sun & Nagasaki Express gleefully announced that Mitchell was to be king of the island but then insinuated that the island may not be Korea’s to give. According to the article:

“The island will be solely under the direction of Mr. Mitchell; in fact he will be King pro tem of Dagelet. We hear he proposes to take about 100 sawyers, carpenters, builders, &c., &c., with the wives and families to people the island and to cut and work the timber ... Mr. Mitchell, has made a special agreement with the Corean government to fell and cut timber on the island and ship it to foreign ports; the principal condition of the agreement being, we believe, that half the proceeds shall be paid to the Corean government. If we [are] not mistaken, however, the Japanese Government have a right to, and claim, Dagelet Island as Japanese territory; and if our surmise is correct we fear there is a strong probability of the Japanese authorities repudiating and disputing any agreements made without their knowledge and consent.”

The newspaper was wrong. As mentioned earlier, the island was occupied by Koreans for only a couple of months each year until 1883 when the Korean government took a firm step to develop the island. Small numbers of permanent settlers were equipped with seed, livestock, provisions, and weapons for protection. The Korean government demanded that the Japanese government remove its citizens who had dwelt illegally on the island and made a living by poaching timber. The Japanese government complied and removed them that same year. Many of the Japanese were apparently unaware that the island was part of Korea.

In early April, Mitchell was supposed to take a Japanese steamship to Fusan (modern Busan) where he would hire a Japanese junk to take him and his men to Ulleung Island, but for some reason he was delayed. Perhaps he was rying to clarify the provisions of his contract and who actually owned the island. We do know, however, that he did end up arriving in Fusan in May and stayed with the Lovatt family – William Nelson Lovatt was the Commissioner of Korean Customs at that port.

According to Mrs. Lovatt:

“Mr. Mitchell came in here on a [Japanese] junk on his way to Daghalet Island where he is going to get samples of the timber that grows there and, if he finds it as good as represented to him, he intends to buy large quantities of it from the Corean Government.”

Apparently Mitchell poured his heart out to her.

“I hope his expectation will be realized, for he has been quite unfortunate in business matters and is getting [to be] quite an old man. He told me he had a son thirty years old that he had not seen since he was a year old. So you see how broken up their family life has been. And so it is with most of the people we meet here.”

Despite her best wishes, Mitchell’s expectations were not realized – as we will see in the next issue.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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