▲ A Korean Islander. Photo courtesy Terry Bennett, “Korea Caught in Time”
With a “friendly crowd at [their] heels,” Wilkinson and his translator made their way through the city to the prefect’s residence. Wilkinson was rather surprised by the reception he received by the common islanders. The Japanese newspapers he had read prior to coming to Jeju had declared the islanders to be violent and abusive but he found them to be very friendly and orderly, if not a little bit curious. He attributed this animosity towards the Japanese as the result of the abuses the islanders had received from Japanese fishermen.
The Japanese fishermen had aggressively driven the islanders from their own fishing grounds and had, on occasion, even infringed upon the Korean women pearl-divers. These Japanese intrusions sometimes led to violent confrontations resulting in deaths on both sides. These Japanese incursions also resulted in a shortage of food for the islanders, who depended upon the sea to supplement their diet. According to the Shin Chosen (a Japanese-language newspaper in Korea), Jeju had once been self-sufficient but by the early 1890s, even during periods of bountiful harvests, 2,000 bags of rice had to be imported and during periods of famine more than 5,000.
Although Wilkinson’s visit to the island was very brief, he was extremely observant and well-read. “Quelpart [Jeju],” he declared, in addition to ponies, oxen, hides, sea products and medicines, also “produces oranges, and these and its diminutive ponies form its ‘local tribute’ to the King. It is said that the arrival of the first consignment of the golden fruit at Seoul, five centuries ago, created such a stir, that the magnates decided to celebrate the occasion in an eminently characteristic way, and hold a quagga [Koa-ke], or examination. Ever since that day a quagga has taken place at Seoul on the day of the 11th moon, upon which the tribute oranges reach the city.”
He also wrote that “T’alla was the old name of Quelpart when some 600 years ago, it was an independent Kingdom, and governed by a Queen. To this day, indeed, the islanders are regarded by the Coreans as foreigners.” He further explained that it was only in 1895 that Jeju became an official province of Korea - prior to that it had fallen under the authority of the Jeolla governor. During Wilkinson’s visit the island was still under the authority of the prefect - pending the arrival of the governor.
Wilkinson described the prefect as having an “appearance studiously simple, self-possessed, and amiable, with the air of a gentleman,” who, while talking, smoked from “his long pipe, which, with its polished brass ashtray and the inseparable brass commode, lay handy at his side.” The prefect was extremely friendly to his foreign guest and insisted that Wilkinson have breakfast with him. Unlike Charles Chaille-Long, who visited the island in 1888, Wilkinson was more than willing to partake of the local cuisine of noodles, seaweed and pickled vegetables or kimchi which he described as being “inscrutably acrid.” Naturally alcohol was also served and three cups were emptied in Wilkinson’s honor.
Unfortunately we know very little of what they discussed while eating. We do know that they talked about Mount Halla which, naturally enough, was a subject of interest for Wilkinson. The prefect explained some of the “abundant traditions cluster[ed] round” the mountain and claimed the mountain was so sacred that “not more than one or two in 10,000 would have the courage to ascend to [its] top. In the past there had been Koreans brave enough to do so but “the few who returned came down in a tempest of thunder and rain.” When Wilkinson suggested that Westerners were not afraid of these superstitions and would be willing to ascend the mountain, the prefect acknowledged that they might escape the wrath of the gods but his demeanor made it perfectly clear that he did not relish Wilkinson’s proposal to come back later and try.
Wilkinson was somewhat taken back by the sparseness of the prefect’s residence. The room in which the prefect entertained him was bare except for the small stool Wilkinson sat upon, the prefect’s pipe, ashtray and chamber pot and an old halberd in one corner. The bedroom, which he could glimpse through the open doorway, was furnished with “the usual bed-mat and small oblong pillow, pile of books, and crossed paper slips at the bed-head for memoranda.”
After breakfast Wilkinson bade farewell to the prefect and decided to take a quick look around the city. He was not alone. Not only was he accompanied by his translator and servant but by a “dozen or so of volunteer guides, youth of 15 or 16 for the most part whose hats proclaimed them already married.”
These young guides led him to a small building that housed a wooden slab with four words, “snowy north, fragrant south”, written upon its surface. They proudly informed him that Kim Jeong Hui (1786-1856), “better known by his nom de plume of Ch'u-sa [the Autumn Author], a calligraphist of the first half of this century, whose renown penetrated even to China” had written this with his own hands while exiled on the island many years ago.
As the Hyenik was due to depart Jeju at noon, Wilkinson quickly completed his tour and returned to his ship. Although Korean steamships often visited the island, Jeju remained a mystery to Koreans and Westerners alike until the early 20th century.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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