▲ The movie, “The Uprising of Lee Jae Su” chronicles a dark chapter in Jeju’s often turbulent history. Photo from “Jeju History through Photos”
Jeju Island is well known for its beauty but it also has a dark past.
Up until the early twentieth century, Jeju was, in some ways, a penal colony. Korean nobles who had committed serious offenses against the Korean court were often banished to Jeju. They were still influential and often kept themselves apart from their Jeju hosts. Governors of Jeju were also appointed by Seoul and were seen as outsiders.
Revolts, caused by misadministration and government abuses, occurred on the island in 1813 and in 1862. These revolts were quickly and severely suppressed by the Korean government. Western influence was also a cause for revolts on the island.
During much of the Joseon period, Jeju Island was exempt from government taxes and was only required to send boxes of oranges and about two hundred ponies as annual tribute. However, in 1897, the Korean government, in an effort to raise money for modernization, began to levy taxes on the islanders. Naturally enough, the islanders resented the new taxes.
On March 4, 1898, Bang Sung-chul and nearly 6,000 islanders rose up in defiance and took the governor of Jeju and many of his subordinates as prisoners. The mob then proceeded to arm themselves with weapons confiscated from the government arsenal and burn the government buildings with their public records. The Korean government responded by sending troops and the rebellion was quelled. By an imperial decree the “loyal islanders” were relieved of some of their tax obligations and peace returned to the island.
Peace, however, was short-lived. Many of the exiles in Jeju were Christians and held positions of authority which they abused and angered many of the native islanders. In early 1901, Ye Yin-yon, a former interpreter for the French Legation in Seoul, was placed in charge of collecting taxes on the island. He imposed crushing taxes “on most everything in the island: fishnets, trees, stonewalls, pig sties, and everything upon which a tax could in any way be levied.”
Ye employed several of his fellow Christians to act as tax collectors which further angered the natives of Jeju. The governor of Jeju, possibly fearing for his own life and wanting to separate himself from the other mainlanders, claimed that the tax collectors beat the islanders, set fire to their fields and homes, and plundered the crops. There might be some truth to his claims. In addition, rumors began to circulate that the Christians were exempt from paying taxes.
Around the fifteenth of May, a large group of Jeju natives gathered together to voice their displeasure of the abuses they suffered at the hands of their officials, the Christians, and especially the tax collectors. Allegedly, 300 armed Korean Christians, led by two French missionaries, suddenly confronted the islanders and began shooting. In the confusion the Christians managed to kidnap the islanders’ leader, Ko Dai-gen, and five others, before fleeing to a nearby walled city.
Word of the unprovoked attack spread throughout the island and several scrimmages took place before the islanders were able to force their way in and rescue the hostages. The Christians realized that they were badly outnumbered (at the height of the rebellion it was said that there were over 10,000 rebels) and fled into the surrounding countryside seeking sanctuary wherever they could. The governor, again fearing for his own life, sheltered two French missionaries who sought refuge at the governor’s home.
What happened next is unclear, but over the next couple of weeks several hundreds of Christians were murdered. According to one account, 40 or 50 Korean Christians were found and executed daily, but this seems somewhat exaggerated. However, several of the accounts agree that there was a massacre in Jeju City on May 27, where 250 Christians were killed in just one day.
The rebel army had surrounded Jeju City and the Christian women, fearing that they would starve to death, opened the gates in the middle of the night perhaps hoping for mercy or to gather supplies. They were ruthlessly cut down. The governor and the two French priests were spared only because of the efforts of one of the rebel leaders who probably realized that their murders would have had dire results for the rebels.
Not all of the Christians were murdered. Ch’oe Sun-hyang and several others managed to escape in a small boat to Mokpo where they telegraphed the French Legation in Seoul. They informed the French government that a large army of Jeju islanders, Japanese, and malcontents from the mainland had taken over the island and it was feared that the French missionaries and the governor had been murdered.
The French Minister, Collin de Plancy, demanded that the Korean government send troops and put down the insurrection. He also, to the Korean court’s dismay, immediately sent two French gunboats, L’Aloutte and La Surpise, to investigate the incident.
The Korean court, worried that France might use the unrest as a pretext to seize the island, immediately dispatched troops and an American advisor.
In the next installment we will examine the suppression of the Jeju rebellion.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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