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Part One A diplomat visits, 1895
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승인 2010.02.16  13:10:40
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▲ Japanese steamships at anchor at Fusan (Busan) harbor. Photo courtesy Professor Wayne Patterson

In the past, Jeju Island was used as a penal colony for those who had displeased the court - usually nobles or other men of high position. Prisoners were often banished to the island for a number of years, and in some cases for life, where they lived rather quiet lives until their sentences were completed or the court’s opinion turned in their favor. The prisoners were often transported by Korean junks but as Korea modernized, the mode of transportation was changed to government steamships. One such vessel was the Hyenik.

The Hyenik was a small Korean steamship commanded by Capt. C. G. Benzenius, a Swede, and routinely traveled along the Korean coast visiting ports that foreign vessels were prohibited from entering. In mid-August of 1895, the Hyenik sailed for Jeju Island carrying, in addition to its normal supplies, the British vice-consul, Henry William Wilkinson, and six Korean prisoners.

Wilkinson was merely along for the ride - inspecting the various harbors for his report to the British Government of potential ports to be opened to the West. Two of the prisoners had been banished to Jeju for 10 years each while the remainder had received life sentences for their role in the assassination of Kim Hak Ku, the vice minister of justice. According to Wilkinson, the prisoners, “made no secret their expectation that another turn of the political wheel would shortly release them.”

Prior to his assassination, Kim was described as one of the youngest and brightest members of the Korean government. Born in 1862, he had lived in Tokyo for nearly seven years and had visited St. Petersburg, Peking and Vladivostok, giving him more progressive views than many of his peers. Not only was he well-traveled but he was an accomplished linguist and was able to speak Japanese “perfectly,” as well as Chinese, Russian and English. His experience and language skill had landed him a position aboard the Hyenik where he had worked for Capt.

Benzenius as a purser for nearly eight months. He was then given a minor position in the Korean government and after the Japanese reformed the Korean government during the summer of 1894, he was promoted to vice minister of justice. According to the British Acting Consul, Kim “became an apostle of reform and consequently incurred the popular odium.”

On Oct. 31, 1894, a group of assassins led by Chon Tong Sok broke into Kim’s home and hacked him into pieces with their swords. The British were convinced that the Taewon’gun was ultimately responsible for the assassination. Unfortunately there are no known accounts written by Capt. Benzenius of this trip to Jeju; all we have are Wilkinson’s diplomatic reports, which are the main source for this two-part article.

It was in the early morning, just about dawn, that Wilkinson got his first glimpse of Jeju Island. He had read the accounts of earlier visitors who, despite the fierce receptions they received, described the island as “inviting” and majestic. Wilkinson’s first impression, however, was somewhat unflattering. In the early morning light he found the island’s appearance to be “weird and gloomy in the extreme, a repellant contrast” to the beautiful Korean islands along the peninsula’s southern coast. Jeju, he somewhat verbosely wrote, “rose smoothly from the sea like the back of a monstrous cachalot studded with huge bosses, grey cones that seemed like a ghost of, what in truth they are, dead craters.

Over Mount Auckland [Mount Halla], whose mass might have broken the spell of this gruesome procession, hung a thick pall of clouds. The island, in its silence and awesomeness, appeared indeed such as we imagine to be, at closer quarters, the scenery of the moon.”

It was only after sailing into the harbor that his “irrational horror “ abated and he began to see the beauty and uniqueness of the island that was regarded, even by the mainland Koreans, as foreign.

“Chei-ju claims to be 1,900 years old, but was restored and reorganized only two or three centuries back,” he wrote. “The wall looks worthy of the earlier date, so grey is it, and overgrown in parts with creepers that have thickened into wood. The gates are remarkable. The arch is not more than 12-feet [3.65-meters] high or broad, and the two leaves of the gate do not fill the whole space, squared off as they are at top. The wall, the houses, the streets, are built of lava, and this, though it makes Chei-ju a gloomy city to the eye, at least keeps it comparatively clean for the feet. The shops, such as I saw, and I think I was traversing the main street, were equally novel to me.

They appear as so many cupboards, as it were, 4 feet, or little more, in depth and breadth, and 6 to 7 feet high, opening on to the street through the usual Corean window space. There can be room for only two persons in the shop, and the purchaser, I presume, negotiates from the street.”

Like many Westerners before and after him, Wilkinson was determined to see more of the island and the only way he could do that was to visit and secure the permission of the island’s prefect.

ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (
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