First Western family’s life in Busan
By Robert Neff
The origin of this book is what every historian dreams of ― a chance encounter with someone in possession of a cache of documents and correspondences that they don’t know what to do with. Prof. Wayne Patterson is one of the few lucky ones.
While accompanying some students on a field trip to China in the early 1980s, Patterson met Lina Sharp, a tourist, who asked him if he would be interested in the personal correspondences of a man who had lived and died in the Far East in the late 19th century ― William Nelson Lovatt. As any historian would ― he promptly accepted and committed himself to nearly three decades of research in which he traced down surviving members of the Lovatt family ― going so far as to travel to Andorra ― and sifted through “nearly indecipherable diaries.” The result of his efforts is “In the Service of His Korean Majesty” ― a book that is bound to change some of our perceptions of Western involvement in Joseon Korea’s early modernization attempts.
Born in England in 1838, Lovatt enlisted in the British army at the age of 15 and served in various places before ending his military career in China in 1862. He then joined the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service and rose through the ranks before he was tempted to join the newly-established Korean Customs Service.
Through Lovatt’s accounts and Patterson’s research, we are provided with an in-depth account of life in Fusan (present-day Busan) as seen by Westerners during the early part of the 1880s.
The Lovatts lived in a Japanese building in the settlement that was only suitable for warm weather and subject to mold during the rainy season. Other than hunting, there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment for a Westerner and his family. There were some Japanese restaurants but only two served Western food. There were also “places of amusement of various grades of morality” but nothing suitable for Lovatt’s wife and three-year-old daughter. With only a handful of Western employees the Lovatts were, for the most part, limited to socializing only with their Japanese neighbors.
In Patterson’s own words: “The Lovatt papers paint a picture of loneliness, boredom, and isolation, with the family depending upon the infrequent passenger steamers or warships for mail, newspapers, gossip and the occasional visitor from the outside.” Some of these visitors’ names were previously nothing more than footnotes in contemporary history books but Lovatt’s accounts give us not only insight as to why they traveled to Korea but also personal descriptions of the individuals.
Major foreign personalities in Korea at this time are also examined ― including Paul Georg von Mollendorff ― the first Western advisor to the Joseon Court. Most of our information on Mollendorff has been based on Lee Yur-book’s book, “West Goes East” and the somewhat biased accounts of Mollendorff’s wife, “P.G. von Mollendorff: Ein Lebensbild” but Patterson provides us with a most intimate and previously unknown view of Mollendorff through the Lovatt’s personal letters. Lovatt and Mollendorff’s relationship went back to 1871 when they were posted in the same Chinese port. Lovatt was well acquainted with Mollendorff’s weakness in character and even ventured ― correctly ― that it would lead to his downfall. A poignant entry describes just how shocked Mollendorff and his wife were with his dismissal:
“Neither of them believed the King would allow them to leave (Seoul) up to the very last moment. In fact, when at (Jemulpo), they expected to be recalled, but never a recall. Their servants robbed them right and left.”
The Korean Customs Service is also examined in detail ― especially the branch at Fusan. Most of the early documents pertaining to the establishment of the Customs Service have been lost ― apparently destroyed in the fire at the Jemulpo Customs’ office on July 16, 1885 ― and so this book adds a great deal of previously unknown information. It also demonstrates the amount of Chinese intrigue in Korea’s internal affairs and the secret, and somewhat successful, efforts to incorporate the Korean Customs Service with the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service.
Unlike many books published by academic presses, this book is an easy and enjoyable read. Patterson writes with a natural story-telling flow reminiscent of family tales we all hear when we visit our relatives. Even readers with only a passing interest in Korean history will find the gossip, scandal and intrigue enjoyable.
The only real complaint I have with the book is the size of the photographs. They seem more distracting than complimentary. Managing editor, Katherine Chouta, explained that the quality of scans was so low that if they had printed the pictures larger they would have appeared blurry. Considering how rare some of these photographs are and how unlikely they will be printed again, it is a great shame.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.