Port Hamilton: the story of a Korean port

When thinking about the Great Game between Russia and Britain major events such as the Durand Line, the Anglo-Afghan War, or the Russo-Turkish War may come to mind. However, away from the limelight of central Asia there was a small incident that occurred in the Far East that might have had more consequences than were immediately clear. These events took place in Joseon, modern-day Korea. 

거문도 (Geomundo) is a small island south of Korea situated between the mainland and Jeju island. Before delving into the history of the occupation, in order to understand why it occurred, a brief description of the background of the events is needed.

Britain, before the occupation, was more focused on India and Qing China, such that Korea was only an afterthought. The only real interaction between the two nations was in 1883 when an official treaty was signed. This apathetic attitude changed when Joseon started showing signs of aligning itself with Russia. Korea had signed a treaty with the US and Britain, with only Qing China as the mediator, because the Qing saw Joseon as a protectorate of its own.

The Gapsin Coup (1884) was a coup d’etat within Joseon stopped by Qing Chinese troops. With a foreign army within the border, Joseon felt threatened of its domestic independence hence its willingness to ally itself with Russia. Joseon wanted to distance itself from the Qing due to China’s significant influence in Joseon at the time. Among other requests, Joseon had asked Russia to patrol the territorial waters. This information had fallen into Japanese hands, and it is speculated that Britain received the news of possible Russian expansion into the Pacific through Japan. So, on 1885 April 27th Britain landed on the island and declared it Port Hamilton to prevent this expansion. 

Ironically, the records suggest that local citizens remembered the occupation in a positive light. Foreign sailors visiting the island were nothing new to the locals, and the occupation was not met with much fear or confusion. Russian sailors are remembered poorly as they are recorded to be constantly drunk and caused problems with the locals. French sailors are recorded as constantly going atop houses to survey the island thus being a nuisance, while the Dutch sailors are remembered for having impressive hats and always waving flags all around the place.  British soldiers, when commandeering locals for work to build the fort or houses, were met with locals who were amazed by a government that actually paid the citizenry when they were hired. Joseon had plenty of corrupt officials, especially in the countryside, who did not pay the locals when they were commandeered for work and, since the British knew pound sterling was worthless to the locals, they paid in practical items like  canned food, alcohol, and salted meat. The British occupation force also had strict rules in place to not disturb the locals, which is why a rather amicable relationship was formed. 

There is a story of a British sailor who is said to have drowned while swimming to a widow’s house, but there are no records of a sailor who died of drowning. Some historians assume this story originated from a sailor who was indeed caught visiting a widow’s house and was punished publicly in front of the locals by constantly being thrown overboard, and then made to swim back to the ship only to be thrown overboard again. There was also a story from the locals that said after the British left one of the widows bore a child with blue eyes and yellow hair and the child and the mother was sent to the capital. However, there are no official records of anyone with such a trait making this story probably another of the fanciful tales from the time.  

Another story is of how the British, who brought in cows as a food source, found the cows to be missing as time passed. They later found out an old local man was the culprit but, when confronted, he denied stealing the cows. The British then showed a photo of the man taking the cows and only then did the local confess and return the cow. This makes the locals one of the first Koreans ever to witness photographic technology. 

On the birthday of Queen Victoria, the locals were told by the British not to be alarmed when they hear cannon fire. The locals apparently decided to view this foreign behaviour and gathered at the port where the event was said to have taken place. When the shots were fired, the dogs on the island were startled and ran into the mountains, and the British sailors helped the locals find the dogs. When the British finally decided to leave the island, the locals were disappointed at the departure which is understandable considering that apparently the first thing the governor of the province did when the island was back in control was demand 2 years’ worth of taxes that went missive during the occupation. 

From the government side of things, Joseon was the last to find out about this occupation because there was no direct line between Britain and Joseon. While a telegram was sent the day after the occupation on April 28th, it was only received on May 16th

However, the entire withdrawal had nothing to do with the wishes of Joseon, as it only became a proxy war for the major powers. The Qing did not want Russian influence over the Korean Peninsula, and instead wanted to cement its lordship over Korea.

With these two conflicting interests the Qing decided to help the Joseon cause and protested. Japan, due to its future ambitions over the local area, also joined in the protest, while making sure they would have the role of stopping Russian ambitions in the far East. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was signed not long after the incident, in 1902. Although the USA showed sympathy, it sided with Britain against this Russian expansion. Russia, on the other hand, briefly conquered part of Jeju island to stop the British having its hands on the territorial waters around the Korean peninsula. This Mexican standoff situation was resolved in 1866, when Russia agreed not to put Joseon under its protectorate status while the Qing and Britain also agreed not to intervene in Korean affairs. In 1887, after 2 years of occupation, the British left Fort Hamilton. Just as Joseon was last to hear of the occupation, the news of the withdrawal also came last for the actual party of interest. 

This left one power to take advantage of the situation: Japan, a country which later defeated Qing China and Russia, and colonised Korea with British and American support. Considering that the rise of Japan was signified by its alliance with Britain, it can be said that the rise of Japan as a major power on the world stage had begun with this minor sideshow during the Great Game. All because Britain wanted to stop Russian expansion.

Justin Kim

Image Credit: Gupdaal

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