Miners and foreign workers pose together at the American-owned Oriental Consolidated Mining Company (OCMC) in Unsan in this undated photo. Korean gold miners believed in the mountain spirit. / Robert Neff collection
By Robert Neff
As early as the ninth century, the abundance of gold in Korea was well known in the Arab world. Much of the gold was obtained by panning the streams and rivers throughout the country but Koreans also mined gold by digging deep shafts — in some places nearly three hundred feet deep. Their methods were relatively primitive and it wasn’t until the late 1890s that modern mining was introduced when foreigners were granted huge mining concessions.
While most of the miners were Koreans, there was also an international mix of supervisors, technicians and laborers. Because gold mining is inherently a dangerous occupation, it is no surprise that many of the miners were somewhat, depending on your beliefs, superstitious or religious.
Cornish and German miners believed in Tommyknockers or small elf-like creatures that dwelt in the bowels of the earth. The Chinese miners were wary of corners in the mines because they believed evil spirits hid behind them waiting to pounce upon the unsuspecting. They were also hesitant to go deep into the mine for fear they would anger the mountain spirit.
Korean gold miners also believed in the mountain spirit. This spirit jealously guarded the gold and silver buried within the mountains and, unless appeased, would wreak havoc upon the miners and their operations.
In Korea, whenever a new mine or adit (shaft) was started, an elaborate ceremony, attended only by men, was conducted at the site. According to Norman Provost, a journalist who witnessed the ceremony in 1963, a priest, dressed in white, offered prayers to a seven-tiered altar (representing the minerals to be found within the mountain) “bedecked with fruit, rice cakes, and a pig.”
Prayers written on paper by the miners were then burned by the priest. Obviously, many of the prayers were for continued safety while others were for the economic success of the mine. If the ashes rose while being consumed by the flames, it was viewed as a sign that the mountain spirit had viewed the ceremony with favor and that the mine would be a success.
Another witness to these ceremonies was Fred Dustin. Dustin worked for the Korean Consolidated Mining Company (KCMC) in the early 1960s and helped construct and supervise Tongsan Mine in North Jeolla Province.
When asked about the ceremonies, Dustin said that he didn’t like the term superstitious but did admit that the miners “certainly covered all their bases.”
Despite the precautions, both physical and spiritual, there were, on occasion, fatal accidents at the mines. In northern Korea in the late 1890s, Korean gold miners at the American-owned Oriental Consolidated Mining Company (OCMC) at Unsan believed that whenever a miner died it was because he had somehow aggrieved the spirits. Work immediately ceased and the unfortunate miner’s wife or closest female relative was summoned to help appease the offended spirits through the sacrifice of a large number of chickens and pigs.
According to one eyewitness account in 1901:
“The miners provide themselves with rude drums or kettle-pans or anything else that will produce a loud sound, while some arm themselves with brooms. When these preparations are complete, the chickens are tied fast and thrown one by one down the empty shaft, and the pigs are treated the same way. At the same time, the woman kneels at the edge of the shaft and holds her hand as far down in it as she can reach, with the thumb and forefinger pinched tightly together. It is supposed that she has gotten hold of the evil spirit.
Meanwhile, they all listen to the sounds that come up from the shaft from the immolated animals and (when) they hear the right sound, they all give a loud shout and the woman draws out her hand as if she were drawing out the spirit. The thumb and forefinger are still tightly held together.
At this point the miners begin to beat the woman severely and the tom-toms and drums beat and the sweepers sweep the floor and the air as if sweeping out the evil influence. The woman is beaten till so exhausted that she can no longer hold thumb and finger together and her hand opens. This means that the spirit has been exorcised and soon the miners go back quietly to their work.”
While many of the Western gold miners may have viewed the Korean gold miners’ beliefs with curiosity and amusement, others viewed them as tools.
Theft is always a concern at any gold mining operation and the mines in Korea were no exception. While there were Korean thieves, as in any society, the Korean miners were unkindly stereotyped.
A highly respected mining journal exaggeratedly described them as “inveterate thieves” who could “only by constant watching and searching... be prevented from stealing anything that they (could) lay their hands on.” A Western mining supervisor described them as heathens “who have ways that are dark and tricks that are vain.”
The early thefts at the mines were not so much of the gold itself, but of the supplies used to mine the gold — particularly candles, fuses, detonators and dynamite. The thieves not only hid their pilfered supplies in their voluminous clothing and socks, but also in their hair. Starting in 1902, every miner was searched at the end of his shift by the Western overseers and if contraband was found, the miner was severely punished, even for the most trivial thefts. Within a year, the OCMC had cut the cost of supplies to a third of what it had been in 1901.
But even this wasn’t enough. One Western mining supervisor at OCMC, nicknamed Patch-eye Pete, used not only his vigilance, but also the miners’ superstitions and their ignorance of prosthetics to help reduce theft in the mill.
One evening, frustrated with the thefts, Pete gathered all of his Korean employees around a table in the center of the mill and then removed his glass eye from its socket and placed it upon the table. He then warned the assembled men that he was going to leave his eye on the table and that if they stole anything he would see them. Apparently it worked, at least in the beginning. Every night, prior to going home, Pete would remove his eye and then place it, with great ceremony, on a table in the center of the mill.
But one morning Pete returned to the mill and discovered that not only were supplies missing but so, too, was his eye! He soon found his eye under a cup that a Korean miner had used to block Pete’s view. “Freed from the metempirical gaze of the orb, the Koreans retrogressed to their thieving practices.”
The Korean miners’ suspicion of technology was also used to protect OCMC’s goods.
In order to recover some stolen supplies, a couple of the Western supervisors used an old gramophone with a recorded message in Korean warning that an evil spirit would haunt the graves of the ancestors of the men who had stolen from the mine.
The only way to avoid this haunting was to return the items. The Westerners then surreptitiously placed the gramophone in the mine shaft near the suspected thieves and left. The thieves, when they later heard the dire message, were so alarmed that within twenty-four hours returned all that had been stolen.
But it wasn’t only the OCMC that used these tactics. At the nearby British-owned Gwendoline Mines, many of the Korean miners were so convinced that evil spirits dwelt within the gramophone that they refused to get near it.
A lot has changed in Korea over the past century and many beliefs and superstitions have disappeared. But, considering the number of mining accidents around the world recently, there are probably more than a few miners still covering all of their bases physically as well as spiritually.
Robert Neff is an expert on Korean history who lives in Seoul, and also contributes to The Korea Times.