Main Home Page / Komundo Contents

The British Occupation of Komundo




A Dissertation by Julian Coy







1: The Decision to Occupy



2: Reactions to the Occupation

Map: Port Hamilton 1885


3: The Royal Navy at Komundo

Photos: 21 April 1998


4: Diplomatic Moves



5: Withdrawal






This dissertation examines the temporary occupation by Great Britain of the Korean islands of Komundo between 1885 and 1887, using records from the Admiralty and the Foreign Office. It examines the reasons behind the decision, stating that the islands were occupied to prevent their annexation by Russia and to act as a depot for campaigns against the Siberian coast.

The relationship between the servicemen and the islanders is explored, and is judged to have generally been favourable. The naval officers' concerns over the islands' suitability is also described.

The local reaction to the occupation is examined, particularly in Japan. Although many were shocked by the British action, and feared other European nations might follow its example, the Chinese and Japanese governments accepted it privately but did not show official approval due to fear of Russian reprisals.

The attempts to secure an agreement are described. The Korean government objected to all financial offers, despite Chinese support for them, due to strong pressure from Russia and fear that further territory might be lost. The final arrangement that led to the British departure, is considered, questioning whether this was used by China authorities as an opportunity to take greater control of Korean affairs.




I would like to thank my course tutor, Dr Richard Sims, for his help and advice during my year at SOAS and particularly while I was preparing this dissertation. I am also very grateful for the support and encouragement from my colleagues at SOAS, and from my friends and family. I would particularly like to thank my father, who kindly allowed me to accompany him on his first trip to Komundo in 1997, and has provided much of the inspiration for this project since then.




On Monday 21 April 1998, a service of rededication took place on a small group of islands known as Komundo, which lie to the south of the Korean peninsular, 66 miles from the port of Yosu. The ceremony marked the restoration by the Korean islanders of a cemetery that had fallen into disrepair, and was carried out by my father, who was the Naval and Air Attaché at the British Embassy at that time. The reason for his involvement, and also the presence of the Ambassador, his staff, a bugler and piper from the Black Watch regiment and members of the Korean media, was that the graves in the cemetery belonged to ten British servicemen who had died whilst on the island. One headstone was a memorial to two sailors from HMS Albatross, who were killed in March 1886 when their gun exploded, and a wooden cross marked the resting place of a sailor from HMS Albion who had died in 1903.1 A third memorial was dedicated that day to mark the graves of seven other British sailors and marines buried there, whose headstones had been vandalised during the Japanese occupation of the island.

I was fortunate to be present at this service, and also accompanied my father on an earlier visit where we were guests of Mr Yoon, the president of the local fishing co-operative, who oversaw the restoration work. I was struck by the beauty and remoteness of the islands, but was also very curious about how the British servicemen had ended up so far from home. Five years later, my interest was sparked off once again when I discovered in the SOAS library an archive of documents relating to Komundo (named Port Hamilton by the British) that had been presented to Parliament.2 This contained records of a brief British occupation of the islands from 1885 to 1887, including diplomatic despatches and telegrams, and letters from the naval officers stationed there. I was curious to discover why Great Britain would take an interest in something that appeared to be so insignificant, the impact the occupation made upon the local islanders, and the reasons for the low-key withdrawal in February 1887, less than two years after the Royal Navy had arrived. I was also interested to find out how those countries nearest to the islands reacted to the prospect of an outpost of the British Empire being established so close by, and how this affected their relationship with the British. I paid particular attention to the correspondence of the British Minister in Tokyo at the time, Sir Francis Plunkett, to examine the reaction of the Japanese government and people to the occupation. As the British arrival at Komundo in April 1885 took place four months after the 4 December coup in Seoul that had led to the destruction of the Japanese legation, it was likely that the Japanese would still be very sensitive to events taking place in Korea.



1. James Hoare, "The British in Korea: Graves and Monuments", Korea Journal 23:3 (March 1983), p.32

2. This is contained within: Park Il-Keun (ed), Anglo-American Diplomatic Materials Relating to Korea, 1866-1886 (AADMs) (Seoul, Sin Mun Dang Publishing Co., 1982)


Main Home Page / Komundo Contents

Chapter One: The Decision to Occupy

Crisis in Afghanistan

In the spring of 1885 the foreign policy of Great Britain was under severe stress. "Matters are gloomy - I never saw them gloomier," wrote Lord Salisbury on 3 March.1 News of the death of General Gordon in Khartoum arrived in London on 9 February, shocking the government and the British public. The greatest threat, however, appeared to come from Russia. William Gladstone's government had attempted to bring a "strong moral tone" to Britain's foreign policy and the management of its empire which included, where possible, working in concert with their neighbours and rivals. In central Asia, an uneasy peace had held since the Afghan war of 1878-9, but this collapsed in early 1885 when the Amir of Afghanistan crossed the provisional border at the Oxus river. The Russians quickly responded to this by announcing the annexation of Merv on 13 February. Britain, responsible for Afghanistan's borders, was shocked by this move and feared that the Russians would now march on Herat. If this were captured, the weakening of local respect for the British Empire and the dwindling of its resources could threaten the defence of India itself.

A clash between Russian and Afghan troops at Pendjeh on 30 March 1885 added to the sense of crisis. Despite attempts to prevent conflict, it appeared that the local Russian commanders had broken their promises. To prove the point, the India Office drew up a list of Russian promises made over the period that went on for 150 pages, and concluded that they were not worth listening to.2 The popular reaction appeared to be that something must be done. On 6 April, The Times thundered against any attempts to come to terms with the Russians, saying that, "It is generally felt throughout India that war is preferable to such concessions, and that to yield any material point now will only postpone the crisis for a few years, a time when Russia will be fully prepared, and England will have lapsed into a chronic state of unreadiness." 3


The Asian Threat

Rumours also reached London in March of an insurrection in Kashgar that was being assisted by the Russians. As China was still enmeshed in a dispute with France in South East Asia it appeared as if "the fear of Russia attacking in the north while China's strength was in the south was about to be realised".4 Russian designs on the Far East were well known. They had benefited greatly from the Treaty of Peking at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, acquiring the Maritime and Amur provinces from China and extending their territory to the Pacific coast. It now appeared that Russia wished to increase her influence in the region once again, taking advantage of China's distraction with France and the current instability in Korea, where Chinese and Japanese troops were still lined up against each other in Seoul following the abortive coup of 4 December 1884.

Russia's greatest desire was access to an ice-free harbour, as Vladivostok was blocked for at least four months each year. In Japan Francis Plunkett reported the suspicious behaviour of Admiral Crown, the Commander of the Russian Far East squadron, who had been in talks with representatives of the Governor General of Eastern Siberia. "The general impression grows stronger every day," he wrote, "that somehow the present will be the opportunity for which Russia has so long been waiting of securing a good open harbour in the Pacific." 5 He had even heard rumours of Russian proposals of an alliance with Japan to stand up to China over the Korea crisis, but had yet to find anything "sufficiently trustworthy" for transmission to London. 6

There was a strong belief in Britain that if war with Russia did take place, the Far East would be a key area of conflict, and it was essential that Britain's assets there were protected, particularly its trading interests in China. Hicks Beech, who would soon become Chancellor of the Exchequer, thought that the protection of these was "quite sufficient motive to go to war".7 In the Far East, Vice-Admiral Sir William Dowell, Commander of the China Squadron, told his captains to take on coal and be ready when needed, adding the next day that he believed war was now imminent.8 Several days later, on 30 March, Plunkett wrote that the Korean foreign office adviser, Paul Georg von Möllendorf, had had frequent talks with the Russian minister Aleksandr Davydov and believed that he had proposed to the minister, "an arrangement by which, in return for a guarantee of protection, Korea will cede to Russia whichever outlying group of islands the latter might prefer."9

The Russian seizure of a Korean island certainly appeared feasible. In 1861 they had briefly occupied the Japanese island of Tsushima before being forced to leave after pressure from Japan and Britain. The Russians subsequently refused to sign a proposal agreeing to make acquisitions in Japanese waters, as they considered it to be unnecessary.10 Meanwhile the Korean government was weak, and sought political and financial support where it could be found. Its adviser von Möllendorf was convinced that an arrangement with Russia was essential for Korean security, but his schemes often appeared to be carried out without the knowledge of the Korean government. He was greatly distrusted by much of the diplomatic community in Korea, particularly the British. 11 The most likely candidates for a Russian base were two islands off Korea's south coast, Cheju (Quelpart) and Komundo (Port Hamilton). "Quelpart and Port Hamilton together would form a valuable acquisition," wrote Plunkett, "and give Russia a position in the Japan and Chinese seas which would be dangerous to both of those countries and very disadvantageous to our interests." 12


Port Hamilton

The islands of Komundo were surveyed in 1845 by Sir Edmund Belcher, who named them "Port Hamilton" after the then secretary of the Admiralty, Captain W.A.B.Hamilton. There are three main islands in the group, Sodo to the west, Sunhodo to the east, and "Observatory Island" in between them (see map). Together they form an attractive, spacious harbour. "These islands," wrote the China Pilot in 1864, "may be distinguished from the numerous clumps of islets and rocks in the neighbourhood by their greater size and massive, bold appearance, as well as their peculiar position." 13 Captain H. St John, conducting a survey in 1878, was also greatly impressed. He considered the harbour to be "of the very best description, easy of access, perfectly protected and of regular depth" and praised its "capacity to hold the largest fleet of any nation, and its position most commanding."14

Britain was not the only nation to see the advantages of the islands. The Russian Vice-Admiral E. Putiatin visited them on several occasions whilst surveying Korean waters, and in 1857 obtained permission from the islanders to establish a coal depot there. However, when he returned later in the year the coal had not had been delivered from Sakhalin and he abandoned the scheme.15 Sir Harry Parkes, the British minister in Japan, feared that the Russians would eventually return and in 1875 sent two members of his staff (including Plunkett) to the islands to investigate. Having read their report, he recommended that "Port Hamilton should be occupied by ourselves before a position of such great importance passes into the hands of another power...its importance as a military position and as a depot for coal and stores, in any contest that we might have with Russia, with China, with Japan, or with any other maritime power is too obvious to need remark." 16 However, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Derby, dismissed his argument, believing "it was not desirable to set to other nations the example of occupying places to which Great Britain had no title." 17


The Decision is Made

The Afghan crisis of 1885 renewed British interest in Komundo. Late in 1884 the Chinese Minister in London, Marquis Tseng Chih-Tse, had heard rumours of a Russian plan to occupy the islands, and had passed these on to Parkes, now the Minister in Peking.18 This time the government was prepared to take action, considering it important to scotch any Russian plans, and also use the islands as part of an offensive campaign against Russia's weakest points - its Far Eastern possessions. Lord Northbrook, the First Sea Lord, wrote, "I am of opinion that an arrangement should be made with China that we should occupy Port Hamilton in the event of war with Russia. It will be necessary as a base for any operations against Vladivostok."19 Sir Julian Pauncefote, meanwhile, emphasised the need for urgency. "Now that attention has been called to the place," he wrote, "Russia may "make a dash" at it; so we ought to hoist our flag quickly."20 Such action would also send a strong message to the Russians. "By occupying Port Hamilton and thereby showing their willingness and readiness to fight against Russia," wrote Yur-Book Lee, "the British wanted to bring Russian actions in Central Asia to a halt." 21

Rumours of British intentions were certainly spreading. On 6 April The Times excitedly reported that Britain had arranged to establish a coaling station at Port Hamilton, but wrongly described it as being part of the island of Quelpart. It went on to describe this act as "the last public service rendered to this country by Sir Harry Parkes," who had died several days earlier.22 The newspaper's geographical confusion did not impress the chief archivist of the Foreign Office, who commented, "It is to be hoped the Admiralty have not hoisted the British Flag on the wrong island." 23 The article was quickly transmitted to the Far East, and caused much diplomatic concern. On 8 April Marquis Tseng enquired in London whether the Union Jack had been hoisted over Port Hamilton and added that there had also been considerable excitement in the Russian embassy. 24 Plunkett wrote a telegram the next day saying that Count Inoue Kaoru, The Japanese Foreign Minister, was "much disturbed" by the reported occupation, which he believed "would encourage Russia to seize something in return, which would be dangerous for Japan".25 In his accompanying letter, Plunkett added that Inoue was particularly shocked because "what he had not expected, and what he still hoped was not the case, was that England should be the first to give a bad example of entry into Korea".26

The Foreign Office received more encouraging news from Tseng, who sent his representative, Dr Halliday Macartney, to state that he believed China would be prepared to make an informal arrangement over Port Hamilton, fearing that if Britain did not take possession then Russia would almost certainly do so. The "catch" however was that Britain would be obliged to recognise the suzerainty of the Chinese Emperor over Korea, despite her previous agreement with Japan to treat Korea as a sovereign state. This meeting, and the sense of urgency that had been unleashed by the Times article, may well have been sufficient to persuade the government to give final approval to the project. On 15 April 1885, Vice-Admiral Dowell informed Plunkett that he had been given instructions to occupy Port Hamilton, despite having had "no previous intimation that the government contemplated such a step".27 Dowell did not believe that Britain intended to take possession of the islands but intended to use it as a safe harbour in the event of war being declared (particularly as Japan was likely to declare its neutrality) and to prevent the Russians from annexing it. On the same day he telegraphed the Admiralty to report that three of his ships, HMS "Agamemnon", HMS "Pegasus", and HMS "Firebrand" would leave Nagasaki immediately to occupy the harbour, but would not raise their flag unless they came into contact with Russian warships or were given further orders from the Admiralty. 28 The ships arrived at Komundo the next day, 16 April 1885, and the islands, temporarily at least, came under British occupation. Anticipating the move several days earlier W.M.Blakeney, a former Paymaster in Chief in the Royal Navy, wrote in a letter to The Times that the occupation was a "bold stroke" which had been "delayed long enough" and hoped that Port Hamilton could be "admirably adapted to be...the Gibraltar of the East".29 Time would soon tell if his prediction would be proved right.


Main Home Page / Komundo Contents

Chapter One: Notes


1. E.V.G. Kiernan, British Diplomacy in China 1880-1885, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1939), p.188.

2. C.T.Lowe, The Reluctant Imperialists: British Foreign Policy 1878-1902 (London, Routledge, 1967), p.85.

3. The Times (London, 6 April 1885).

4. Kiernan, op.cit., p.189.

5. Plunkett to Foreign Office, 19 January 1885, FO 46/327 (Number 23)

6. Plunkett to F.O., 16 February 1885, FO 46/328 (53)

7. Lowe, op.cit., p.5.

8. Plunkett to F.O., 21 March 1885, FO 46/329 (87)

9. Plunkett to F.O., 30 March 1885, FO 46/329 (94)

10. Memo by Sir E Hertslett, 14 May, 1885, AADMs, "The Temporary Occupation of Port Hamilton, Part I" (PH1), (Number 24)

11. George Lensen, Balance of Intrigue: International Rivalry in Korea and Manchuria, 1884-1899 (Tallahassee, Florida State University Press, Volume I, 1982), p.31.

12. Plunkett to F.O., 21 March 1885, FO 46/329 (87)

13. Quoted in The Times, 9 April 1885

14. H.C.St John, The Wild Coasts of Nippon (Edinburgh 1880), pp.247-9, quoted in J.E.Hoare, "Komundo - Port Hamilton" Asian Affairs 17.3 (October 1986)

15. Lensen, op.cit., p.8.

16. Parkes to Lord Derby, 20 July 1875, FO 262/270 (92), quoted in A.W.Hamilton, "The Komundo Affair", Korea Journal 22.6 (June 1982), pp.20-21.

17. Memo by Hertslett, 5 February 1885, AADMs, PH1 (1)

18. Kiernan, op.cit.,p.190.

19. Admiralty to F.O., 4 April 1885, FO 17/1001, quoted in Kiernan, op.cit.

20. Memo by Pauncefote, 12 April 1885, FO 17/1000, quoted in Kiernan, op.cit.

21. Yur-Bok Lee, West Goes East (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1988),p.114.

22. The Times, 6 April 1885

23. Memo by Hertslett, 6 April 1885, FO 17/1001, quoted in Kiernan, op.cit.

24. Granville to O'Conor, 8 April 1885, AADMs, PH1 (3)

25. Plunkett to F.O., 9 April 1885, AADMs, PH1 (4)

26. Plunkett to F.O., 9 April 1885, FO 46/329 (100)

27. Dowell to Plunkett, 15 April 1885, part of Plunkett to F.O., 23 April 1885, FO 46/329 (110)

28. Dowell to Admiralty, 15 April 1885, part of Admiralty to F.O., 16 April 1885, AADMs, PH1 (6)

29. The Times, 10 April 1885


Main Home Page / Komundo Contents

Chapter Two: Reactions to the Occupation


Early Responses

Sir Francis Plunkett and Sir Nicholas-Roderick O'Conor, the British legation secretary in Peking, were officially informed by telegram of the occupation on 17 April 1885, but were told to keep the news secret from their respective governments until official confirmation had been received from Dowell.1 In Japan, the press was already speculating on the occupation and Plunkett was pleased to report that so far the reaction had been quite mild. "Japan retains a lively recollection of the service done to her by Great Britain in ordering the Russians out of Tsushima in 1861," he wrote, "and there does not seem to be the same objection felt here to the possible presence of England on the Korean coast as there does to that of Russia."2 A greater cause for concern was that Japan would be unwillingly dragged in to any conflict between Russia and Great Britain, despite her attempts to remain neutral. An article in the Jiji Shimpo, which Plunkett included in précis in his report, noted that, "If war broke out, and the English fleet were to blockade Vladivostok or the Russian squadron were to elude the vigilance of their enemies and were to bombard Hong Kong, in either case Japanese waters would be the theatre of action for the war fleets and hostilities might take place at any moment in the neighbourhood of Japanese ports."3


After Dowell had confirmed that the British ships had arrived at Port Hamilton, Plunkett wrote a personal note to Inoue Kaoru on 20 April informing him that the occupation had taken place. Inoue replied two days later and repeated his earlier sentiments. He could not view the occupation "with unconcern" because of Komundo's proximity to the Japanese coast, but would reserve his full opinions until all the facts had become known.4 Inoue also asked whether Korea had been informed of the arrangement. Plunkett telegraphed this information to London and it appears that only then did Earl Granville, the Foreign Secretary, feel compelled to send a telegram to O'Conor in Peking, instructing him to inform the Korean government that Her Majesty's Government had found it necessarily to temporarily occupy the islands.5 When Plunkett spoke with Inoue personally he learned that the Japanese had already learned of the occupation from the Chinese authorities, due to the earlier British correspondence with Tseng. He believed that the Inoue was reluctant to make a full response to the news as he feared that this would be misconstrued by the Russians as tacit approval of what had occurred. Plunkett reassured the Foreign Minister that his prompt action informing him of the occupation was proof of Britain's friendliness towards Japan, and its acquisition of a base outside Japanese waters was a demonstration of its commitment to the country's neutrality in the event of war.6


Telegraphs and Torpedoes

While Plunkett strove to assuage Inoue's concerns, Vice-Admiral Dowell oversaw the transformation of Komundo into a military base. On 23 April he hired the steam ship "Thales" in Nagasaki and stocked it with coal, bullocks and provisions. A week later he sent a second boat, this time full of timber with which booms could be constructed to protect the harbour from torpedo attack.7 A month later a Japanese Captain passed on his observations to George Foulk, Chargé d'Affaires at the US legation in Seoul. He reported that on 3 June he had seen nine British warships and two merchant ships in the harbour. "Lines of booms had been prepared, torpedoes [mines] numerously laid, and the approaches to the harbour obstructed by stone piles; the observation island of the group was patrolled by sentries and a torpedo house built upon it; other houses and a jetty were in the course of construction. 300 Korean labourers had been impressed and were busily at work with the men of the fleet."8 The officer went on to say that a Japanese warship had recently narrowly avoided striking some mines laid near the islands, but was not prepared to admit whether it was his own.


An important requirement for Port Hamilton to be effective as a naval base was a working telegraph station, and one of O'Conor's early tasks in Peking was to obtain permission for a cable to be landed at Saddle Island, on the mouth of the Yangtse River where it could be connected to the main telegraphic network at Shanghai. The Tsungli Yamen, responsible for China's foreign affairs, was very reluctant to grant this request, as there was now considerable pressure on them from Russia in particular to oppose the British occupation. Tseng's early offer of an exchange of suzerainty for Port Hamilton appeared to have been forgotten, for example. During May a series of negotiations took place at the end of which the Chinese government agreed to allow the cable to be landed as long as the British pledged that it would be only be temporary in nature.9 The arrangement ran into trouble on 15 May when the Russian minister revealed to the Chinese that it would be connected to Port Hamilton, but O'Conor eventually managed to rescue it.10 Only thirteen days later, the cable had been landed at Saddle Island, and on 2 June Dowell reported from Port Hamilton that it was in working order. 11 The speed with which this had been completed, despite considerable local opposition, was an indication of how seriously the British government viewed the current political crisis and how effectively they were able to marshal their resources when compelled to do so. It was unfortunate that the cable would go on to prove to be very unreliable and would spend much of the occupation out of working order.12


The Admiral Crown Affair

The political situation in the region was changing rapidly. The Sino-French conflict was drew to an end in April with no obvious victor. "The significance of these events has been recognised by everyone," wrote Plunkett, as China could now devote more of its attention to other pressing issues, such as the continuing tension in Korea.13 China and Japan, represented by Ito Hirobumi and Li Hung-Chang, reached an agreement on this at the Tientsin Convention, signed on 18 April 1885. Both promised to remove their troops from Korea and inform each other if they planned to deploy them there again. What could have been portrayed as a humiliating climb-down appeared to be accepted calmly by the Japanese public. Plunkett believed that opinion had been "sobered by the sudden collapse of the Franco-Chinese War and the dread of an Anglo-Russian conflict, and that general satisfaction is now expressed with what has so far transpired of the arrangement."14 On the same day Plunkett reported that the ever-increasing prospect of war between Britain had led to many declarations of loyalty from the British ex-patriate community and the English-language press. An article in the Japan Gazette summed up the mood: "The strife between England and Russia is not a conflagration on the opposite side of the river but a question most closely affecting the existence and future progress of Japan."15

Plunkett believed that the Japanese public had greater sympathy for Britain, as did the press, "as far as it dare express an opinion."16 He had also been informed that there had been serious discussion at Tientsin about the possibility of forming an alliance between Japan, China and Britain against the Russian threat. Both Ito and Li had appeared in favour of this, but Ito had doubted Britain's inclination to take part. Nevertheless, Plunkett was sounded out over whether his government would approve of such a scheme, and promised to inform London of the request.


On 6 May 1885 the Anglo-Russian conflict suddenly threatened to erupt in Yokohama harbour when HMS "Agamemnon", returning from its deployment in Port Hamilton with HMS "Sapphire" and HMS "Swift", suddenly received a "hostile demonstration" from the Russian warship "Vladimir Monomach". Captain Long of the Agamemnon reported that he had entered the harbour with his guns covered and turret ports closed. He was therefore very surprised to see the warship "beat to quarter", run out its torpedo tubes, load its guns and then keep them pointed at his vessel until she came to anchor.17 As Long had been at sea for several days, he would have had no idea if war between Britain and Russian had been declared or not. It was therefore a matter of luck that he had not been provoked into taking action against the Russian ship's aggressive behaviour. "I beg to observe that had any accidental discharge of a weapon occurred from the Russian flagship," he said to Plunkett, "nothing could have averted a battle between the two ships."18


Having anchored safely, Long went immediately to see the commander of the "Vladimir Monomach", Admiral Crown, and demanded that he explain why he had committed such a provocative act in a neutral port. Crown complained that Japan's record of neutrality was questionable, especially when compared to European nations, and that Britain had also failed on many occasions to respect a country's neutrality, as its recent behaviour at Komundo had demonstrated. He had therefore considered the arrival of Captain Long's squadron in Yokohama Bay as a threat to the peace, and had taken suitable evasive action. "Although he would endeavour to avoid anything which might tend to complications or unpleasantness," said Long, "he could not hold himself responsible for accidents beyond his control."19


Long decided that the safest measure to defuse the tension was to move his ships to Yokosuka, twelve miles away from the Russians, but also away from the naval hospital and stores that they had come to visit in Yokohama. As Agamemnon passed the Russian flagship, he ordered the ship's company to play the Russian national anthem. The "Vladimir Monomach" responded to this conciliatory gesture by playing the British national anthem, to which Agamemnon answered in turn with several bars of "Auld Lang Syne".20


Plunkett, however, remained incensed by Crown's flippant disregard for Japanese neutrality, which had impeded the progress of one of Her Majesty's ships. He complained to Minister Davydov, who took Crown's side, maintaining that "in view of what England had just done in Port Hamilton, the Russian admiral had some reason in believing that the English paid little respect for Oriental rights."21 In a further interview Davydov said that Crown had complained of the Royal Navy's "unseemly conduct", carrying out close surveillance upon his ships. He regretted that the misunderstanding had occurred but believed there was no reason to fear a recurrence. 22


Plunkett also informed Inoue of the "regrettable incident" that had taken place, and compared the attitudes of Long and Crown towards Japanese neutrality. Inoue thanked him for the information and wrote, "this government cannot but regard with great satisfaction Captain Long's conduct in this affair, in retiring to the port of Yokosuka in order to avoid the possibility of a hostile conflict in our own waters."23 The Deputy Foreign Minister Yoshida Kiyonari also praised Long's coolness under pressure when he visited Plunkett. He added that the Japanese naval authorities had been "incensed" by Crown's aspersions on Japanese neutrality, and had anchored an ironclad, the "Tsukushi-kan", next to the "Monomach" to make their point.24


Debate over Port Hamilton

When Plunkett visited Captain Long on 12 May, the "Monomach" fired salutes and played the national anthem as he passed.25 It appeared that the crisis was over, but the press were in no doubt that everyone had had a lucky escape, with the Japan Herald noting that the sinking of Tsar's best ironclad would doubtless have led to war.26 The papers used the incident as a starting point to examine Britain's naval policy in the region, and in particular its occupation of Komundo. The Japan Gazette was strongly in favour, arguing that the occupation of Port Hamilton was "a decided benefit to Japan and China, and both countries should support a step which relieves them of a portion, at all events, of natural anxiety; for Russia, respecting no neutral rights, will perforce be much more circumspect with an English naval station at Port Hamilton than if the nearest depot were Hong Kong." 27 The Japan Weekly Mail, on the other hand, took a more cautious line. It saw the usefulness of the harbour as it helped to preserve Japanese neutrality, but regretted that Britain had acted in such haste and had failed to secure permission from Korea first. "Great Britain has become a partner in the company of aggressors," it wrote. "She has made it plain that the dictates of her own convenience outweigh her duty to her neighbours."28 As a result Britain had forfeited local confidence, and might encourage other European nations to take similar action. Such behaviour might force the Japanese government to surrender its neutrality if a conflict did break out. "It concerns them very closely," wrote the Mail, "to determine whether they prefer the alliance and protection of one of the belligerents, or to be the prey of both." 29


The Japan Daily Herald, however, believed that the Mail was mistaken on this matter. "The high moral tone adopted by the Mail on this occasion is absurd," it wrote, "as the strong sympathies towards Russia which are known to distinguish its editor are but thinly veiled under this apparent solicitude for Japanese interests. It is to be remarked, too, that as far as is known, neither China nor Japan have uttered an adverse word on this subject...Nobody but the Mail appears to be the least aggrieved by Admiral Dowell's action."30 Summarising the reactions of the newspapers for the Foreign Office, Plunkett added his own opinion, made with the experience of his visit to the island in 1875. He thought the location, 100 miles from Tsushima and 160 from Nagasaki, was good, and the island layout sufficient for only limited defences to be necessary. "As long as we remain there," he wrote, "these countries may have a sort of moral certainty that we shall not want anything else." 31 He believed that if Britain did pull out, it would be assumed to be a consequence of Chinese and Russian pressure, and could lead to greater instability than there had been previously.


The Flag is Raised

Soon after dark on May 10, lookouts spotted a Russian transport ship, "Vladivostok", at the entrance to the harbour. She was boarded by British officers and the Russian Captain explained that his boiler was leaky, and asked if he could stay at Komundo for 24 hours. As the Captain was a naval officer, Captain Maclear of HMS "Flying Fish" was highly suspicious. "I suspect it is the same vessel that was hovering about a week ago," he wrote. "It might be his design to hoist the Russian flag."32 As a precaution, Maclear agreed to hoist the Union Jack the next day on the highest point of each island, ending the previous policy of displaying no formal symbols of occupation. Maclear was happy to provide assistance to the Russian Captain, and granted him permission to land, as long as he remained clear of Observatory Island. "Vladivostok" was not the only visitor that day. The Japanese sloop "Seiki", en route from Shanghai to Pusan, arrived, also complaining of "leaky boilers". Maclear was in no doubt that she would telegraph news of the raising of the flag as soon as she could, which formally confirmed Britain had taken possession of the island. Surprisingly, Inoue made no mention of it when Plunkett next met him, although he was "perfectly aware" of what had taken place. 33 "The Japanese newspapers are remarkably reticent on the subject, and scarcely ever allude to it," he wrote. "The same reserve is maintained towards me by the Japanese Ministers, and they certainly have not in any way protested to me against our proceedings." 34



The Korean Protest

News of the British action reached Seoul "on or about" 11 May, according to George Foulk. 35 The Korean President of the Foreign Office, Kim Yun-Sik, approached the American to express his indignation and apprehension, and suggested that he was considering making a protest to the other foreign representatives. Foulk thought that such strong feelings were out of place until all the facts were known. "It occurred to me," he wrote, "that there must be some force at work among them tending to force Korea into partisanship in possible difficulties between England and Russia." The likely source of this was Von Möllendorff, the Foreign Office's adviser, who appeared to have gained the support of the Japanese representative in Seoul, who called on Foulk to discuss the "armed occupation" of Komundo.36


Von Möllendorf took part in Korea's first formal response to the occupation - an inspection visit of the island on 16 May. He travelled with Om Si Yong, a member of the Korean inner council on board two Chinese vessels commanded by Admiral Ting. When O'Conor questioned Ting's presence on the trip, the Tsungli Yamen denied that they wanted to protest against the occupation themselves, but merely wished to see how matters stood and assist the Koreans, who had no suitable boats of their own, as an act of good faith. 37 Vice-Admiral Dowell later confirmed this, reporting that Ting had made no formal protest. 38 Ting himself, speaking to Foulk after the visit, said that he had "inferred the English ships would be speedily withdrawn, now that peace was quite assured between England and Russia." 39


The Korean officials met Captain Maclear upon arrival at Port Hamilton, and informed him that they had come by order of the Korean King to ascertain the truth of the rumours and reports in the press of a British occupation of Komundo. They also requested an explanation for why the Union Jack was now flying on the islands.40 When Maclear said that he was acting under the orders of Vice-Admiral Dowell, the officials announced that they would proceed to Nagasaki to formally register their protest. This met the Admiral on 18 May who said that he had occupied the islands on the instructions of Her Majesty's Government and believed the British presence there would only be temporary. 41 A written protest was delivered the next day, demanding "that you will inform us by whose authority and on what grounds this military occupation of a portion of the territory of a friendly power has been undertaken by the naval forces of Her Britannic Majesty under your command." 42


On 19 May, W.Carles, the Acting Consul General, handed to Kim Yun-Sik a letter from O'Conor informing him of the temporary occupation. 43 The next day Kim wrote a formal note of protest in reply, despite the fact that Om Si-Yong and Von Möllendorff had not yet returned from Nagasaki. He described the occupation as "an unprecedented step...which is entirely contrary to anything that we had looked for, and which has surprised us more than we can express." He implored the British government to withdraw from the island at once, to "secure the respect and applause of all nations". If this did not take place, then he would be compelled to appeal to the Treaty Powers for their opinion. 44 O'Conor received a copy of the protest on 25 May, but told Carles to wait until William Aston, the British Consul-General in Seoul who had been on sick leave in Japan, returned early next month. 45 He then wrote to Aston in Japan and told him to delay the threatened international protest as much as he could. He would not reply to Kim Yun-Sik's protest in its current form, but wished it to be known that Britain was ready to make some sort of arrangement, either directly with the Koreans or through the Chinese. He was sure that the Tsungli Yamen would support his plans, seeing them an opportunity to increase Chinese prestige in Korea at the expense of Japan and Russia. "I can rely on China using her influence with the Korean government in the desired direction," he wrote. 46 With such an arrangement in place, the British presence at Port Hamilton would be beyond dispute.


Main Home Page / Komundo Contents

Chapter Two: Notes


1. F.O. to Plunkett and O'Conor, 17 April 1885, AADMs, PH1 (8&9)

2. Plunkett to F.O., 16 April 1885, FO 46/329 (107)

3. ibid.

4. Plunkett to Inoue, 20 April; Inoue to Plunkett, 22 April, part of Plunkett to F.O., 23 April 1885, FO 46/329 (110)

5. Plunkett to F.O., 23 April; Granville to O'Conor, 23 April 1885, AADMs, PH1 (10&11)

6. Plunkett to F.O., 23 April, FO 46/329 (110A)

7. Dowell to Admiralty, 3 May, part of Admiralty to F.O., 19 June 1885, AADMs, PH1 (55)

8. Foulk to Secretary of State, 16 June 1885 (180), G. McCune and J. Harrison (eds), Korean American Relations (KARs)(Berkeley, University of California Press, 1951), pp.77-8

9. O'Conor to F.O., 9 May 1885, AADMs, PH1 (70)

10.O'Conor to F.O., 15&19 May 1885, AADMs, PH1 (74&93)

11. Admiralty to F.O., 2 June 1885, AADMs, PH1 (44)

12. Admiralty to F.O., 20 January 1886, AADMs, PH2 (2)

13. Plunkett to F.O., 2 April 1885, FO 46/329 (99)

14. Plunkett to F.O.. 27 April 1885, FO 46/329 (122)

15. ibid., (123)

16. Plunkett to F.O., 3 May 1885, FO 46/330 (126)

17. Plunkett to F.O., 10 May 1885, FO 46/330 (137)

18. Plunkett to F.O., 7 May 1885, FO 46/330 (128)

19. ibid.

20. ibid.

21. ibid.

22. Plunkett to F.O., 8 May 1885, FO 46/330 (130)

23. Plunkett to F.O., 9 May 1885, FO 46/330 (133)

24. ibid.

25. Plunkett to F.O., 12 May 1885, FO 46/330 (140)

26. Japan Herald, 7 May, part of Plunkett to F.O., 10 May 1885, FO 46/330 (137)

27. Japan Gazette, 11 May, part of Plunkett to F.O., 24 May 1885, FO 46/330 (149)

28. Japan Mail, 11 May, part of Plunkett to F.O. 1885, FO 46/330 (137)

29. ibid.

30. Japan Daily Herald, 20 May, part of Plunkett to F.O., 24 May 1885, FO 46/330 (149)

31. Plunkett to F.O., 25 May 1885, AADMs, PH1 (66)

32. Maclear to Dowell, 11 May 1885, part of Admiralty to F.O., 2 July 1885, AADMs, PH1 (68)

33. Plunkett to F.O., 25 May, 1885, AADMs, PH1, (65)

34. Plunkett to Dowell, 23 May, part of Plunkett to F.O., 25 May 1885.

35. Foulk to Secretary of State, 19 May 1885 (172), KARs, p.74

36. ibid., p.75

37. O'Conor to F.O., 20 May 1885, AADMs, PH1 (95)

38. Dowell to O'Conor, 19 May, part of O'Conor to F.O., 20 May.

39. Foulk to Secretary of State, 25 May 1885 (174), KARs, p.77

40. Maclear to Dowell, 16 May, part of Admiralty to F.O., 8 July 1885, AADMs, PH1 (87)

41. Dowell to Admiralty, 19 May, ibid.

42. Om Si-Yong & Von Möllendorff to Dowell, 19 May, ibid.

43. Carles to Plunkett, 20 May, part of Plunkett to F.O., 28 May 1885, AADMs, PH1 (79)

44. Kim Yun-Sik to Carles, 20 May, part of Plunkett to F.O., 5 June 1885, AADMs, PH1 (80)

45. O'Conor to F.O., 25 May 1885, AADMs, PH1 (112)

46. O'Conor to Aston, 26 May, part of O'Conor to F.O., 26 May 1885, AADMs, PH1 (117)


Main Home Page / Komundo Contents

Chapter Three: The Royal Navy at Komundo


The Scott Report

On 21 August 1885, James Scott, a member of staff at the British legation at Seoul, arrived in Komundo to offer his assistance, and in particular his Korean language skills.1 Work was continuing at a rapid pace on the island, as fortifications and facilities were constructed to make it suitable as a naval base. Vice-Admiral Dowell reported that he was employing 300 local Koreans to construct a breakwater on the eastern entrance to the harbour, adjacent to Sunhodo (see map). "The natives now work for us gladly," he said, paying them "with rice and corn at a fixed rate; they prefer this to being paid in coin." 2 When Scott arrived, 100 marines were encamped on the island, and 5 ships had been assigned to protect Port Hamilton's three entrances. 3 He saw that under construction were "a boat harbour, pier and praya, roadmaking, two wooden godowns, [and] a gun-cotton magazine." 4 These facilities were still insufficient to cater for the number of men and proposed fortifications, so Scott was quickly employed to negotiate a lease of two plots of land on Observatory Island for the construction of a hospital and barracks. "I had been led to anticipate no small difficulty in negotiating a lease of their lands," wrote Scott, "but, contrary to my expectation, the people were exceedingly friendly and ready to close with a good bargain." 5 Two plots were rented for 50 dollars per annum. The other landowners appeared disappointed that they had not been able to lease their property, but were informed that their offers might be taken up at a later date if more land was required.


During Scott's negotiations he discovered that Dowell had been in error over the hierarchy of authority on the island. Instead of one principal Headman for the islands, there were in fact several, belonging to the four villages on Komundo. These in turn were under the jurisdiction of a Korean official known as the "Pyel-chong", or Police Magistrate. In his search for the official at the village of Chang-tsun, he was met by the local elders who received him with "great courtesy and kindness" and showed him a large tent erected on the beach which served as their assembly hall and law court. 6 That afternoon the Pyel-chong and the elders accompanied Scott to see Captain Long on board his ship, HMS "Agamemnon", which had now returned to Port Hamilton after its previous difficulties in Yokohama. Long gave assurances that the British government did not intend to deprive the local people of their land and property, and would pay the land-tax for any property that had been leased. Any islander who was "molested by the authorities on the mainland" had added, could be reassured that the British would provide full "assistance against unjust exactions".7 On 24 August the Pyel-chong was accompanied by one of these authorities, who Scott understood to be "a Yamen runner of the better class, sent over from the mainland to watch and report proceedings," and who had apparently proved obstructive to the British over the last few months. 8 On this occasion he had no objections and arranged the deeds for the two recently leased properties. By the end of Scott's stay the Royal Navy had leased 10 acres of land, entirely on Observatory Island, for an annual rental of 174 dollars. 9


The Pyel-chong made several other enquiries. Contrary to Dowell's opinion, the villagers wished to be paid in cash rather than rice. Although they had been destitute when the navy arrived, as their own food stocks were nearly exhausted, the British supplies had now led to a surplus, the result of which was that the value of rice was rapidly declining as it was impossible to export. Further complaints were made that the navy's operations had driven away all the fish, which the villagers depended upon to make their living. Dowell reluctantly agreed to fix the rate at roughly 6d a day, which Scott believed was "not only ample, but liberal".10 The official also asked if Korean pedlars and traders could continue to visit the island, to which Scott agreed, as "so far as Korean subjects were concerned, things were to go on exactly as they had been doing previous to the arrival of the ships." Scott added that he was impressed by the Pyel-chong's and the Elders' knowledge of events and politics in Korea and that they had declared that they "fully understood that the presence of our fleet in these waters was no way directed against their country." 11


The Demise of Private Ward

Scott's report appears to paint quite an attractive portrait of life on the islands, perhaps in part due to his sympathy with and interest in the Korean people and language. However, it is clear from other records that conditions could be very difficult. The islands suffered from fierce typhoons, which could drag ships anchored in the harbour into danger if action was not promptly taken. Indeed, it appeared that even mild north-east winds appeared to produce whirlwinds that could threaten boats under sail. 12 The winters were harsh, worsened by the draughty, unheated wooden barrack huts in which "the officers and men lived completely in their great coats to keep themselves warm and dry." 13 Vice-Admiral R.Vesey Hamilton, who replaced Dowell as Commander-in-Chief of the China Station, was pleased that the winter had hardened the marines into a "fine body of men" but did not wish to see them exposed to another one unless substantial improvements were made to the accommodation. 14


Naval life on Komundo was also extremely dull. After the Afghan crisis was resolved in September 1885 the threat from Russia faded away, leaving the garrison to carry out a monotonous routine interspersed with occasional ship visits and shore leave to Nagasaki or Shanghai. Apart from a tennis court for the officers, there were few recreational facilities.15 One enterprising Japanese attempted to resolve this problem in June 1886 by bringing five prostitutes to Sodo, across the harbour from the garrison, and establishing a somewhat ramshackle brothel. He originally claimed to be "drying fish" but word quickly spread amongst the marines of his true purpose. Late at night on 18 June two boats stealthily set out to cross the harbour. However, one overturned and the marines' cries quickly drew the garrison's attention. Captain Gordon, commander of the marines, found eleven of the miscreants, but a twelfth, Private Peter Ward, remained missing. It turned out that the unfortunate Private could not swim and was carrying "a considerable weight of silver dollars in his pocket". He was assumed to have drowned, and a five-dollar reward was offered for the Korean who found his body. 16


Concerns over Jurisdiction

The Japanese were ordered to clear out, and by the next day the brothel had been abandoned. However the incident highlighted the concern that Vice-Admiral Hamilton had over the extent of his legal jurisdiction over the island. "I cannot conceal from myself that nothing in the Admiralty instructions for taking possession of Port Hamilton legally justifies my ordering settlers off the island," he wrote. "I can only wonder if it has been hitherto submitted to do so quietly." 17 He was faced with this dilemma again on July 19 when an American schooner, "Pearl" arrived at Komundo with a grant from the Korean government giving it the right to fish for pearls off the Korean coast. Hamilton was there at the time on board HMS "Audacious" and turned down the schooner's request to fish in the harbour, saying that Port Hamilton belonged to England, not Korea. 18 The American Captain, C.H.Anderson, entered a written protest against this action, and it was clear that Hamilton was uncomfortable about the decision. Having satisfied himself that Pearl was a bona fide fishing vessel, he allowed Anderson to stay several days to verify if there were pearls in the local area. The Captain was prepared to withdraw his protest at the end of the visit, but Hamilton said this was impossible, although he would inform Her Majesty's Government of his wishes.


When the Admiralty received Hamilton's report, it expressed concern about Hamilton's statement that the islands belonged to Great Britain. It informed him that if British authority had to be asserted while Komundo was temporarily occupied, he should avoid describing Britain's presence there as permanent. 19


Military Objections

Hamilton would have been undoubtedly happy to consider the British presence as only a temporary occupation for he held, alongside his predecessor Dowell, strong doubts about Komundo's viability as a naval base. At the time of the Korean protest, Dowell had telegraphed London to say that Port Hamilton was, in his opinion, "by no means a desirable place to hold. To defend it would be difficult, fortifications would be necessary, the expense would be heavy and it would be a constant source of weakness...It would be more convenient in the case of naval operations, for the necessary colliers and store ships to accompany the squadron."20 He made more detailed objections in a further letter: 1) There was no position within the harbour that could not be shelled by ships outside the three entrances. 2) The islands were 600 miles from Russian waters, too far for ships operating there to return for coal. 3) If Port Hamilton was to be held, substantial fortifications would have to be constructed on Observatory Island, including a fort armed with armour piercing guns to guard the northern entrance, a garrison of 500 men, three torpedo boats, two gun boats, and a corvette. "Even with this force," he added, "I consider that the place would be a source of anxiety and weakness in the face of an active and enterprising enemy." 21


Captain Long of the "Agamemnon" agreed with his Admiral. "It must be observed," he wrote, "that if the place is to serve as a base for, and not to be a tax upon, the navy, it will require a garrison and fortifications....At present it requires the constant presence of a large proportion of the total naval force of the station to preserve the flag from insult in the event of war." 22


Hamilton concurred with these views. He considered it somewhat farcical that the Port Hamilton defence force consisted of six ships, three of which had to be permanently present, whilst Hong Kong and Singapore, despite their immense trade and value to the Empire, remained defenceless.23 He also agreed with Captain Maclear of HMS "Flying Fish" who wrote that "Port Hamilton, having no resources of its own, could very easily be starved out." 24 Barely enough could be grown to support the Korean inhabitants, and the islands could not even support sheep, which rejected the native bamboo grass.25 The water was considered unfit to drink, and so had to be condensed by a gunboat and then dragged uphill in a cart to serve the needs of the barracks.26 Nearly all supplies had to be brought in from Nagasaki and Shanghai, and here the garrison was hampered by the Japanese government's refusal to allow a steamship from the Mitsubishi company to supply cattle and provisions whilst on its regular route from Nagasaki to Chemulpo. The Japanese were doubtless wary of being seen to be officially condoning the occupation, especially as they remained sensitive about preserving their neutrality in the event of an Anglo-Russian war, and were also concerned about the "difficulties which might arise if a Japanese merchant vessel were allowed to visit an unopened port of Korea for the purpose of trade." 27


Hamilton also had a very different opinion of the local inhabitants to Scott. "They are a lazy, filthy race," he wrote, "do no fishing, which is carried on by the Japanese, and not more agriculture than they are obliged to do to raise money to pay the taxes. The women do all the hard work in the field, except for the primitive ploughing, which is done by men." 28 One matter did surprise him, however. "It is a curious fact, he wrote, "that although these islands have been in our possession a year, there has been no sexual communication between our men and the native women." 29


Hamilton's judgement was severe. If the garrison at Port Hamilton were to made permanent, the entire population would have to be deported. His reasoning for this was that the villages were a source of cholera and small pox and the current "strict, almost non-intercourse" system could not be enforced forever.30 Captain Powlett's opinion was blunter still. "Their filthy habits and thieving propensities would make this [deportation] a necessity. It is a place where, emphatically, there is not room for civilisation and barbarism to exist side by side." 31 It would seem both the naval establishment and the local residents of Komundo would find the permanent British occupation very hard to accept.


Main Home Page / Komundo Contents


Chapter Three: Notes


1. Aston to O'Conor, 3 September, part of O'Conor to Salisbury, 17 September 1885, AADMs, PH1 (201)

2. Dowell to Admiralty, 28 May 1885, part of Admiralty to F.O., 20 January 1886, AADMs, PH2 (2)

3. Capt Powlett to Dowell, 22 May 1885, ibid.

4. Scott to Aston, 31 August, part of O'Conor to Salisbury, 17 September 1885.

5. ibid.

6. ibid.

7. ibid.

8. ibid.

9. ibid.

10. ibid.

11. ibid.

12. Powlett to Hamilton, 7 April 1886, part of Admiralty to F.O., 4 June 1886, AADMs, PH2 (36)

13. Hamilton to Admiralty, 2 June 1886, part of Admiralty to F.O., 21 July 1886, AADMs, PH2 (46)

14. ibid.

15. J.E.Hoare, "Komundo - Port Hamilton", Asian Affairs 17.3 (October 1986), p.304.

16. Capt Gordon to Lt Commander Adams, 19 May, Adams to Hamilton, 21 May, part of Admiralty to F.O., 21 July 1886, AADMs, PH2 (46)

17. Hamilton to Admiralty, 31 May, ibid.

18. Hamilton to Admiralty, 19 July, part of Admiralty to F.O., 13 September 1886, AADMs, PH2 (78)

19. Admiralty to F.O., 29 September 1886, AADMs, PH2 (86)

20. Dowell to Admiralty, 18 May 1885, part of Admiralty to F.O., 8 July 1885, AADMs, PH1 (87)

21. Dowell to Admiralty, 28 May 1885, part of Admiralty to F.O., 20 January 1886, AADMs, PH2 (2)

22. Long to Dowell, 27 May 1885, ibid.

23. Hamilton to Admiralty, 7 December 1885, ibid.

24. Memo by Maclear, May 19 1885 (date probably incorrect), ibid.

25. Powlett to Hamilton, 7 April 1886, part of Admiralty to F.O., 4 June 1886, AADMs, PH2 (36)

26. Hamilton to Admiralty, 2 June 1886, part of Admiralty to F.O., 21 June 1886, AADMs, PH2 (46)

27. O'Conor to F.O., 29 September 1885, AADMs, PH1 (200)

28. Hamilton to Admiralty, 1 June 1886, part of Admiralty to F.O., 21 June 1886.

29. ibid.

30. Hamilton to Admiralty, 6 August 1886, part of Admiralty to F.O., 10 November 1886, AADMs, PH2 (106)

31. Powlett to Hamilton, 7 April 1886.


Main Home Page / Komundo Contents

Chapter Four: Diplomatic Moves


Admiral Enomoto

In June 1885 Gladstone fell from office and was replaced by the Marquis of Salisbury, who also acted as Foreign Secretary, replacing Granville. In Tokyo, Plunkett hoped that this would allow for a reassessment of Britain's policy in the Far East, and would give him greater latitude to act on matters such as the forthcoming revision of the treaties between Japan and the Western Powers. He believed that circumstances were rapidly changing in the region, to which Britain's occupation of Komundo had contributed. "The interests of England here now differ materially from those of the other European powers," he wrote in a private letter.1


So far, the Japanese government had remained largely silent on Port Hamilton, for fear of provoking Russia, but had pointedly failed to condemn the occupation. Plunkett believed that Inoue and Ito privately agreed with the opinions of the Japanese newspaper the Jiji Shimpo, which believed that the Korean government were ill-advised to protest against the occupation, saying "they ought rather to welcome the propinquity of a power which will protect them against Russian aggression." 2 However, O'Conor in Peking was less convinced, and complained that Admiral Enomoto Takeaki, the Japanese Minister in Peking, was "very active in his opposition to the occupation of Port Hamilton by Her Majesty's fleet." 3 On 15 July he wrote that he had learned from Li Hung-chang, the influential Governor-General of Chihli Province who took responsibility for Korean matters, that Enomoto had come to Tientsin under instruction of his government to consult with Li over "the possibility of joint action on the part of China and Japan in the event of Russian encroachments in Korea, or the refusal of the British Government to evacuate Port Hamilton." 4


When Plunkett learned of the Admiral's behaviour from O'Conor, he called upon Inoue and asked for an explanation. The Foreign Minister assured him that he had "never authorised action against England either in China or Korea" and his only concern about the occupation was that it would serve as a pretext to other European powers elsewhere. 5 As proof of Japan's good intentions towards Britain he mentioned that on 11 July Davydov had called on him to "cease favouring England" by allowing the Royal Navy to draw stores, labourers and materials from Nagasaki for Port Hamilton. Inoue had argued that Japan had no right to prevent such trade, but Davydov continued to assert that Japan's neutrality had been compromised.6 Plunkett urged upon Inoue "prudence and avoidance of interference which might easily be misconstrued," and the Foreign Minister agreed to pass on these sentiments to Enomoto. 7


The matter was not quite at an end, however. Li Hung-chang saw fit to reveal further details of a conversation between himself and the Admiral. Enomoto saw the occupation as a "source of danger to China and Japan" and failed to be reassured by any promise from Britain that Port Hamilton would never be used against the two countries. He told Li that "such a promise would be easily as broken as the wine-glass he then held in his hand." 8 Two conclusions could be drawn from this episode. Enomoto, as an "old school" politician and naval officer, would be naturally angered by a Western power occupying territory so close to Japan, whatever the official line of the government was. Secondly, it was in Li Hung-chang's interest to pass on and exaggerate the Admiral's strong opinions as they portrayed the Chinese position of private approval but public non-committal on Port Hamilton in a better light.


De Speyer, Von Möllendorff, and Port Lazareff

Fear of a Russian reaction influenced China and Japan's public position on Komundo. Tseng's original arrangement was scotched after the Russian minister in Peking informed the Tsungli Yamen that his country would be compelled to occupy part of Korea if they gave their consent to the British presence in Port Hamilton. 9 Similar sentiments were passed on to the Korean government by Alexis de Speyer, First Secretary of the Russian legation in Tokyo, who let it be known that if consent were given, "the Russian government would have to settle accounts with them." 10 De Speyer's trip to Seoul was a cause of much suspicion. The Hocki Shinbun in Japan reported that "rumours of a descent on Quelpart if a secret treaty negotiated through the agency of Von Möllendorff are engaging the attention of the politicians."

11 A more likely target was Port Lazareff (Wonsan), close to the Treaty Port of Gensan on Korea's eastern coast. In June Li Hung-chang told O'Conor that Russia had applied for permission to occupy it whilst Von Möllendorff had been in Japan and it appeared that De Speyer planned to ratify this on his trip, in exchange for a Russian guarantee of protection for Korean territory. 12 However, the trip did not go as De Speyer had planned. The Korean government denied all knowledge of the Port Lazareff arrangement and repudiated Von Möllendorff's promise to recruit Russian officers to instruct the Korean army. The controversy was sufficient to force the German from his position at the Korean Foreign Office, much to the delight of the other diplomats. 13


The Russian conspiracy was seized upon by the British as clear justification for their occupation of Port Hamilton. However, the Japanese not see it that way, particularly with regard to De Speyer's alleged threats to seize ten times as much territory as the British if they refused to withdraw. 14 "Count Inoue observed that this telegram confirmed the fear he had always entertained," wrote Plunkett, "that the seizure of Port Hamilton would be made use of by Russia as a plausible excuse for making a similar demand in regard to another portion of Korean territory." 15 De Speyer returned to Japan in late July, his mission regarded as a failure after his brash and arrogant tone had failed to gain the trust of the Koreans. 16 Russia's next envoy to Korea would be Karl Waeber, who took up his post as Consul-General in October 1885. He took up a more conciliatory tone with the Koreans, but continued to prompt them to make protests to the British government over the occupation at frequent intervals, with one even coming from King Kojong himself. 17 The decline of Russian interest in Port Lazareff appeared to be confirmed by a Russian officer who told Captain Long, of HMS "Agamemnon" that the difficulties of land communication between the port and Russian territory, owing to the rugged terrain and its proximity to Gensan rendered it inappropriate as a naval base. 18 Hamilton was not convinced by this change of heart, however, and had learned from another source that the Russians were examining harbours at the mouth of the Tumen river, close to the Siberian border, which might be suitable for a naval base that could operate throughout the year. 19


Admiral Chestakoff Pays a Visit

The British justified the occupation of Komundo, despite Dowell and Hamilton's concerns, because of the Russian threat to annex Korean territory. The Russians maintained their threats because of the continuing British presence in Port Hamilton. It was a vicious circle, which continued to foster anxiety in the region despite a resolution to the Afghan crisis in October 1885. An example of the effect the occupation was having could be seen in an article in the Hochi Shinbun contrasting the perception of Britain in Japan with the rising fortunes of Germany. "The seizure of Port Hamilton has inspired the Japanese with a feeling of fear," it wrote, "and their confidence in England has been shaken." 20 This was despite the best efforts of Plunkett, who it praised for his "light-mindedness, his justice and his earnest and sincere desire for the progress of Japan." 21


Plunkett's relationship with Inoue and Ito Hirobumi, the Prime Minister, remained good, and they were happy to co-operate on projects such as the visit of Saigo Tsugumichi, the Japanese Naval Minister, to Britain to ensure that the best interests of both nations were met. 22 They were also prepared, when necessary, to share sensitive information with each other. When Inoue heard that the Russian Admiral Chestakoff, the Russian Naval Minister, was planning a trip to the Far East to recover from illness, he was highly suspicious. He asked Plunkett that if he were able to find out when the Admiral intended to arrive in Tokyo he would let Inoue know, so that he could arrange to be absent from the capital without looking suspicious. 23 Plunkett was happy to agree to this request and when the Admiral arrived in Yokohama, Inoue was conveniently absent on a tour of Yesso. "My impression is that the Admiral started from Europe with the intention of sounding the Japanese Government...but that finding Japan just now so extremely well disposed towards Great Britain...he took the excuse of the cholera to cut his visit as short as possible. 24 Before he reached Japan, Chestakoff paid a brief visit to Komundo, asking to come ashore "on the pretence he could not sleep owing to the throbbing of the screw".25 He took the opportunity of making a thorough inspection of Observatory Island and the Marines' garrison before returning to his ship.


The Elusive Agreement

In June 1885 the British Foreign Office was sure a deal with Korea over Port Hamilton would soon be made. It had initially been prepared to pay up to 5000 per annum as rent, but was also ready to offer a 50,000 lump sum to buy the islands outright. 26 O'Conor had learned that the Korean government was desperately short of money and that it would be possible to reduce this sum considerably if part of it were offered as "presents for the King".27 Li Hung-chang offered fresh assurances that China was "not at all opposed" to the occupation and would assist with the negotiations as best he could. "China and Korea will shut their eyes to anything we do there," reported O'Conor, "provided we do not require them to publicly proclaim their consent." 28 However, Kim Yun-sik was not prepared to accept the terms, and believed, fearing public opinion and foreign (i.e. Russian) pressure, that an agreement on Komundo would be impossible. 29


In August Aston attempted to reopen negotiations with Kim, and found his attitude to be much friendlier towards Britain, perhaps a result of greater Chinese influence and the departures of Von Möllendorff and De Speyer. "I believe the Korean government do not really care very much about Port Hamilton," he wrote, "and would prefer to getting it back, to maintain the ground of complaint against England, which is very useful to them in replying to Russia." 30 A month later Aston reported that another opportunity had arisen. Kim Yun-sik asked him if Britain would lend his country $500,000 which had been demanded by Jardine Matheson and Company, and Aston suspected that he was inferring that Port Hamilton could then be held as security on the loan. 31


Again, this arrangement came to naught, probably due to the influence of Waeber, who arrived early in October. Li Hung-chang seemed to be less eager to assist too, believing that any agreement made with the Koreans would lead to demand being "presented from another quarter within ten days".32 "The feelings and position of the Chinese government have shifted and changed a good deal since the first mention of the subject," noted O'Conor, "in part owing to a feeling of disappointment at the settlement of the Afghan question."33 Without the assistance of Li, an agreement over Korea would be impossible, and as 1885 came to an end, it was clear that a new approach would be necessary in the New Year.


Main Home Page / Komundo Contents

Chapter Four: Notes


1. Plunkett to Currie, 19 June 1885, FO 46/331 (169)

2. Translation in the Japan Weekly Mail, part of Plunkett to F.O., 20 July 1885, FO 46/331 (190)

3. O'Conor to F.O., 5 July 1885, AADMs, PH1 (172)

4. O'Conor to F.O., 15 July 1885, AADMs, PH1 (177)

5. Plunkett to F.O., 14 July 1885, AADMs, PH1 (162)

6. ibid.

7. Part of a memo shown to Inoue and approved by him, 13 July 1885, ibid.

8. O'Conor to F.O., 20 July 1885, AADMs, PH1 (186)

9. F.O. to O'Conor, 6 May 1885, AADMs, PH1 (16)

10. O'Conor to F.O., 22 July 1885, AADMs, PH1 (187)

11. Précis of Hocki Shinbun, from Plunkett to F.O., 18 July 1885, FO 46/332 (186)

12. O'Conor to F.O., 7 June 1885, AADMs, PH1 (133)

13. O'Conor to F.O., 27 June 1885, AADMs, PH1 (56)

14. Plunkett to F.O., 23 June 1885, AADMs, PH1 (138)

15. ibid.

16. Plunkett to F.O., 22 July 1885, FO 46/332 (192)

17. O'Conor to Salisbury, 8 November 1885, AADMs, PH1 (212)

18. Hamilton to Admiralty, 14 December 1885, part of Admiralty to F.O., 21 January 1886, AADMs, PH2 (3)

19. Plunkett to F.O., 4 April 1886, FO 46/344 (51)

20. Précis of Hochi Shinbun, Plunkett to F.O., 11 October 1885, FO 46/334

21. ibid.

22. Plunkett to F.O, 10 July 1886, FO 46/346 (119)

23. Plunkett to F.O., 9 July 1886, AADMs, PH2 (60)

24. Plunkett to F.O., 30 August 1886, AADMs, PH2 (89)

25. Admiralty to F.O., 11 September 1886, AADMs, PH2 (77) (Visit took place on 3 July)

26. O'Conor to F.O., 1 June 1885, AADMs, PH1 (119) (5000 offer)

27. O'Conor to F.O., 12 June 1885, AADMs, PH1 (142) (50,000 offer)

28. O'Conor to F.O., 6 June 1885, AADMs, PH1 (132)

29. O'Conor to F.O., 27 June 1885, AADMs, PH1 (154)

30. Aston to O'Conor, 12 August 1885, part of O'Conor to F.O., 25 August 1885, AADMs, PH1 (196)

31. Aston to O'Conor, 25 September 1885, part of O'Conor to F.O., 14 October 1885, AADMs, PH1 (204)

32. O'Conor to F.O., 14 October 1885, AADMs, PH1 (203)

33. ibid.

Main Home Page / Komundo Contents

Chapter Five: Withdrawal


Alternative Approaches

The threat of conflict with the Russia had now faded, and the Admiralty concurred with its officers that Port Hamilton was of little strategic use and was too expensive to maintain, particularly as the telegraph cable had broken down again.1 It was time to abandon ambitions to transform Komundo into the "Gibraltar of the East" and to consider the best means to secure a dignified withdrawal from the islands. However, a strategy had do be drawn up which would not harm the Empire's prestige or lead to further instability in the region as other western powers competed to fill the vacuum left behind by the British.


On 6 January, O'Conor began to float these ideas with the Tsungli Yamen, asking whether, if Britain evacuated Port Hamilton, the Chinese would be prepared to occupy it themselves, or give a guarantee that it would not be occupied by another European power. The Yamen replied that it was not Chinese practice to occupy the territory of their vassals and failed to see how they could prevent a power such as Russia from taking the islands. 2 Li Hung-chang later told O'Conor that he had discussed the possibility of a British withdrawal with the Russian minister, but had been unable to gain a commitment from the Russians that they would not take Komundo if Britain abandoned the islands. Russia had to be sure that Britain was giving the islands up, he stated, and if China received such a promise, they would have no excuse for not formally asking the Royal Navy to leave. 3


As China was unable to persuade Russia on its own, the new Foreign Secretary, the Earl of Roseberry, suggested that Britain, Russia and the other powers should enter into an international agreement to guarantee the territorial integrity of Korea. If this could be secured, then Britain would be happy to retire at once from Komundo. 4 There seemed to be little enthusiasm for this approach in China, however, and in July the new Minister in Peking, Sir John Walsham, reported that the Tsungli Yamen was not prepared to reply to the British suggestion as they could not consider it a suitable basis for settling the Port Hamilton question. 5 In Tokyo, Inoue revealed to Plunkett secret accounts from Peking that appeared to suggest that China was planning to annex the Korean peninsular, clearly in violation of the Convention of Tientsin. If this was the Chinese attention at the time, then it was understandable that the Yamen would not wish to restrict themselves to any international agreements. 6


In the same telegram reporting the Yamen's refusal of the international agreement, Walsham made a new suggestion - the conversion of both Port Hamilton and Port Lazareff (in which the Russians had taken a renewed interest, according to The Times, probably referring to Admiral Chestakoff's cruise in the region) 7 into international treaty ports. 8 The Earl of Iddesleigh, who replaced Roseberry in early August, approved this suggestion, if it were the easiest way for Britain to divest itself something the Admiralty considered to be worthless.9 Walsham was aware of the unlikely nature of his proposal. "The plan had not particular merit to recommend it," he wrote candidly to Vice-Admiral Hamilton, whose views on Port Hamilton's usefulness were well known to all, "but there was this in its favour, that it would have given to the two ports a certain character of security against the designs of the foreign powers, which as closed ports they would not necessarily had possessed." 10 As Russia continued to refuse to guarantee Korea's integrity, the minister believed that the treaty port plan was the only option he had available to pursue. 11


The Li-Ladyzhenskii Talks

In late August 1886 Li Hung-chang invited the Russian chargé d'affaires in Peking, Nikolai Fedorovich Ladyzhenskii, to Tientsin to discuss Korean matters after the Russian had assured him by telegram that there was no secret treaty between Russia and Korea, and his country had no plans to seize Port Lazareff or occupy Port Hamilton. In Tientsin, Ladyzhenskii told Li that he would be prepared to make a pledge of non-occupation to China, but would not be willing to give this guarantee to Britain. Li passed on news of this conversation to Walsham through the British consul in Tientsin, Byron Brenan. It was emphasised that Ladyzhenskii had given a formal verbal promise of non-occupation to Li, although it was unlikely that the Russian would consent to giving this in writing.12 Li also let it be known that he had been gathering opinions on Walsham's treaty port plan, and the results had not been favourable. Brandt, the German Minister, considered Port Hamilton to be a "barren rock" not worth opening, whilst Ladyzhenskii said that no Russian ships had visited the current treaty ports, so were unlikely to visit new ones. 13 This was Li's not very subtle way of telling Walsham to drop the plan and accept Ladyzhenskii's commitment.


Walsham was gratified by these developments but wanted more than a verbal promise. He wanted an official note from the Tsungli Yamen confirming the Russian's denial of a protectorate scheme for Korea and promise not to occupy Korean territory, and Li Hung-chang was ready to arrange this. After the Yamen had delivered the note, Walsham telegraphed to London, "I doubt whether a more favourable occasion for our withdrawal from Port Hamilton is likely to present itself." 14 Iddesleigh agreed. He telegraphed Walsham on 19 November stating that Her Majesty's Government had learned of the Chinese guarantee to prevent Port Hamilton being occupied by a foreign power and, on faith of this, was now prepared to comply with the wishes of the Chinese government. 15 A formal arrangement on Komundo appeared to be close at hand.


Japanese Concerns

Walsham explained why he believed Li had become so eager to secure a deal with the Russians. "For the moment, at least," he wrote, "there is a certain amount of unpleasantness in relations between China and Japan, due to the recent rather serious occurrences at Nagasaki."16 There had been an entente cordiale between the two countries since the Convention of Tientsin, due in part to Inoue and Ito's decision to allow China to strengthen its position of influence in Korea for the time being as a bulwark against the threat from Russia. However, violent riots in Nagasaki between 300 Chinese sailors and the Japanese police on 15 August, leaving several dead on both sides, and rumours of a political crisis in Korea caused by the Chinese-backed return of the Tae Wong Gun, father of King Kojong, threatened to undo these good relations. The North China Herald wrote that the riots had reawakened ill feeling between the two countries, and the enquiry that followed had been a "long-running sore" that further embittered the relationship. 17 Ito shared his concerns with Plunkett in October. He continued to fear that China intended to depose Kojong and annex Korea, without consulting Japan, and an action such as this, particularly in light of the recent riots, would put the government in a very awkward position with the "military party" that demanded greater Japanese intervention in Korean affairs. 18 Plunkett also discussed the crisis with Inoue, and reported that the Foreign Minister appeared to be unusually bitter about China's arrogant behaviour, and admitted hostilities were not impossible. 19


The tension between China and Japan was worsened by an erroneous article that appeared in The Times on 10 December 1886, reporting that an agreement had been achieved in Peking for the "cession" of Port Hamilton to China. 20 It made further comment three days later. "On the whole," it wrote, "Her Majesty's Government has made a good bargain; in return for a place the occupation of which was temporary, the integrity of Korea has been secured...and China becomes responsible in maintaining that integrity against all comers." 21


The Japanese press reacted strongly to the news, arguing that the creation of a Chinese "fortress" there would be a serious menace to Japan and a breach of the Tientsin Convention. 22 Ito told Plunkett that the news had "caused him some anxiety" due to the present delicate state of relations between Japan and China. 23 Inoue agreed, saying that, "If it were true that China had undertaken to occupy the islands and defend them against foreign aggressors, such a proceeding would cause great outcry amongst certain classes in Japan and complicate still further the delicate questions now pending with China." 24 "On the whole," wrote Plunkett, "in view of the many difficulties of the present situation, he thought the best outcome for all parties would be that England should continue to occupy Port Hamilton." 25 Inoue then said in strictest confidence that the Russian minister had recently made private advances to the Japanese government, suggesting that the Japanese should ask for Russian co-operation if the difficulties with China became more serious. Inoue was concerned that the reported cession might give Russia an excuse to suggest that Japan pursue a more aggressive policy now that the Tientsin Convention had been breached. 26


Iddesleigh responded quickly to the Japanese concerns, and sent a telegram stating that there was no question of the cession of Port Hamilton to China. "Her Majesty's Government sincerely desire the maintenance of a good understanding between Japan and China," he wrote, "which they are convinced is essential to the interests of both." 27 Inoue was "much relieved" by this news and asked that the information be passed immediately to the local press. 28



Departure from Komundo

On 5 November the Tsungli Yamen had written a note giving their assurances to the British that the occupation of Port Hamilton could be relinquished without risk, and on Christmas Day, 1886, they gave permission for this to be published. 29 Walsham felt he now had sufficient grounds to inform the Korean government that Her Majesty's Government was now prepared to leave Komundo, and advised Hamilton to start making preparations for departure in about three weeks, once the Tsungli Yamen's note had arrived in London. 30 He suggested to the Vice-Admiral that the islands should be formally handed over to a Korean official, but Hamilton disagreed. "He held that as Port Hamilton was simply occupied, it should be simply evacuated and left to the village chiefs who ruled it before our occupation," wrote Walsham. 31

Hamilton believed the Royal Navy should simple leave the islands, rather than "give them up" and, furthermore, did not wish to see a Korean official on board his ship, "as from their not very cleanly habits these officials were far from acceptable guests on board a man-of-war."32 Walsham did not press this point but the Marquis of Salisbury, who had become Foreign Secretary again following the death of Iddesleigh, regretted that Hamilton had not taken up the suggestion. 33


Hamilton ordered a transport vessel, HMS "Himalaya" to remove the stores and marines. 34 He estimated it would take a week to dismantle the base. Advertisements were placed in the Japanese press for the sale of the huts, and if no offers were made, "Himalaya" would take as much as it could to Hong Kong, and HMS "Constance" would transport the rest to Nagasaki. 35 On 20 February, the day of departure for the majority of the garrison, Captain Trotter of HMS "Himalaya" wrote that principal chiefs and village representatives assembled at Observatory Island to say farewell. "They wished to express their extreme regret at our leaving Port Hamilton," he wrote, "and tendered their thanks for the kind treatment they had received during the time the British were in occupation." 36 HMS "Constance" remained for final clearing up operations before the Union Jack was finally hauled down on 27 February. 37


As he left the islands, Hamilton noted the satisfactory relationship between the servicemen and the islanders due in part to the respect the British had paid to the Korean customs. He believed that their conduct had proved "to the Korean nation and the world in general how England respects and treats those with whom she has any dealings." 38 Walsham meanwhile received a friendly reply from the Korean government to his notification of the British withdrawal. "It records belief that Her Majesty's Government did not originally intend to occupy the place and testifies to their good faith and friendship in evacuating it altogether. It holds that relations between the two countries will therefore be stronger than ever, and that the action of Her Majesty's Government is highly appreciated." 39


On 22 February Plunkett reported that the Deputy Foreign Minister Aoki Shuzo, had made enquiries about the British evacuation and said that "some people imagined she [Britain] had already selected a more eligible harbour to seize when the next occasion arose." 40 Plunkett protested against such insinuations and suspected the hand of the Russian Minister, who was trying to capitalise on the evacuation rumours. Plunkett protested against the innuendo and nothing more was heard of it. It was the last Japanese comment on the Port Hamilton affair, which quickly faded from the public memory to be replaced by more pressing issues, such as the revision of the international treaties and the drafting of the constitution.



Although the Union Jack had been hauled down, the British had still left their mark. T.Watters, the acting Consul-General in Seoul, was informed in May that "it appeared that certain items had been left behind and the natives do not know how to regard these things." 41 This included the telegraph cable and 700 bricks. Hamilton said the bricks had been abandoned but the cable, although currently not working, was due to be sold, and asked it to be left intact. 42 After the Chinese had rejected an offer for it, it was sold to the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company, who transferred it to Shanghai in July. 43


Watters was also told that the graves of nine foreigners had been left behind and was asked if the bodies were going to be removed. Watters said that this was unlikely and asked the official to ensure that the graves were "kept safe from violence". The official agreed to this and Watters believed "it is not likely that the Koreans will do or permit any harm to these graves." 44


Over the next few years British ships continued to call upon the islands, and it was on one of these occasions that the body of Alex Wood, a young boy sailor, was buried there in 1903. After the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, these visits became less frequent, but local memories of the occupation persisted, and no ill feelings were borne towards the British by the islanders. Although all the Japanese graves were removed from the island after 1945, the British cemetery, including the two remaining gravestones, was well looked after until the rededication ceremony in 1998, when the names of the other seven sailors were restored to the site. The islands continue to play a role in military affairs, as the South Korean navy now operates from the harbour, maintaining patrols against potential intruders from the North.


 Main Home Page / Komundo Contents

Chapter Five: Notes


1. Admiralty to F.O., 20 January 1886, AADMs, PH2 (2)

2. O'Conor to F.O., 7 January 1886, AADMs, PH2 (16)

3. O'Conor to F.O., 27 March 1886, AADMs, PH2 (31)

4. Currie to Macartney, 14 April 1886, AADMs, PH2 (23)

5. Walsham to F.O., 27 July 1886, AADMs, PH2 (51)

6. Plunkett to F.O., 2 June 1886, FO 46/344 (85)

7. The Times, 21 July 1886

8. Walsham to F.O., 27 July 1886.

9. F.O., to Walsham, 12 August 1886, AADMs, PH2 (55)

10. Walsham to Hamilton, 22 October, part of Walsham to F.O., 22 October 1886, AADMs, PH2 (122)

11. Walsham to F.O., 25 August 1886, AADMs, PH2 (98)

12. Walsham to F.O., 6 October 1886, AADMs, PH2 (111)

13. Brenan to Walsham, 29 September 1886, part of Walsham to F.O, 6 October 1886.

14. Walsham to F.O., 5 November 1886, AADMs, PH2 (102)

15. F.O., to Walsham, 19 November 1886, AADMs, PH2 (108)

16. Walsham to F.O., 9 October 1886, AADMs, PH2 (113)

17. North China Herald, 15 December 1886, Gaikoku Shinbun Ni Miru Nihon (1886), p.345

18. Plunkett to F.O., 11 October 1886, FO 46/346 (161)

19. Plunkett to F.O., 9 December 1886, FO 46/349 (205)

20. The Times, 10 December 1886

21. The Times, 13 December 1886

22. Plunkett to F.O., 17 December 1886, FO 46/349 (214)

23. Plunkett to F.O., 18 December 1886, FO 46/349 (219)

24. ibid.

25. ibid.

26. Plunkett to F.O., 18 December 1886, FO 46/349 (220)

27. F.O., to Plunkett, 20 December 1886, AADMs, PH2 (127)

28. Plunkett to F.O., 22 December 1886, FO 46/349 (230)

29. Walsham to F.O., 5 November, 12 December 1886, AADMs, PH2 (134), PH3 (15)

30. Walsham to F.O., 27 December 1886, AADMs, PH2 (138)

31. Walsham to F.O., 28 December 1886, AADMs, PH3 (17)

32. ibid.

33. F.O. to Admiralty, 1 March 1887, AADMs, PH3 (19)

34. Admiralty to F.O., 3 January 1887, AADMs, PH3 (1)

35. Hamilton to Admiralty, 18 January 1887, AADMs, PH3 (16)

36. Trotter to Admiralty, 20 February 1887, ADM 125/86

37. Walsham to F.O., 2 March 1887, AADMs, PH3 (20)

38. Hamilton to Admiralty, 2 March 1887, ADM 125/86

39. Walsham to F.O., 2 March 1887, AADMs, PH3 (20)

40. Plunkett to F.O., 22 February 1887, FO 46/365 (55)

41. Watters to Hamilton, 10 May 1887, ADM 125/86

42. Hamilton to Watters, 1 June 1887, ADM 125/86

43. Hamilton to Watters, 29 August 1887, ADM 125/86

44. Watters to Hamilton, 10 May 1887, ADM 125/86


Main Home Page / Komundo Contents


In a history concerned with the great rivalries of the western powers and the attempts of the nations of the Far East to meet these new threats, the occupation of Komundo occupies a small footnote, quickly forgotten by all but the islanders and a few curious tourists. However, between 1885 and 1887, the islands commanded the attention of the governments of China, Japan, Britain, Russia and Korea, and were a focus of considerable tension and anxiety in the region. The "Vladimir Monomach" affair was one example of how tempers were running high, where a nervous reaction from one of the ships could have plunged Russia and Britain into war.


The occupation was a decision forced upon the government by rapidly changing events, with little time to consider the consequences it might entail. It was essential to prevent Russia taking it first, and that was all that mattered. It is noteworthy, for example, that Plunkett and O'Conor were not consulted over the appropriacy of the act before it took place but were informed of it as a fait accompli. No attempt was made to tell the Koreans until the Japanese Foreign Minister made enquiries over whether this had taken place.


The occupation was welcomed by the residents of Komundo, as it brought valuable income and supplies to their impoverished islands. There were the inevitable clashes of opinion between officers of the Royal Navy and local islanders, but the regret expressed by the chiefs upon the British departure appreared genuine. The military inadequacy of the islands was quickly realised, but by that time the Port Hamilton affair had already evolved from a matter of naval strategy to a political issue. Britain could not merely "abandon" the islands it had so recently claimed without a guarantee that another nation, i.e. Russia, would quickly take advantage of the opportunity to damage British prestige and increase local influence.


In its summary of the Komundo affair, The Times wrote that "China, as well as Japan, perfectly understood these circumstances, and both recognised the occupation by the manner in which they accepted our explanations, and acquiesced."1 The governments of both countries may well have been shocked by the British action, but they were quick to realise that they were powerless to stop it. "Acquiescence" was the only realistic option available to them, in the hope that Britain would be satisfied with its acquisition and not be tempted to look elsewhere. Of greater concern, as both Inoue and Li stated, was that the occupation would induce other territories to attempt something similar. De Speyer's threats to seize ten times as much Korean territory may just have been threats, but Russia's ambition to acquire a viable harbour for its navy remained clear. The governments of China, Japan and, of course, Korea therefore had to walk a difficult tightrope to meet the demands of the two powers.


The British search for a withdrawal went through several twists and turns, but eventually benefited from the increasing tensions between China and Japan. Li Hung-chang used the occupation as an opportunity to increase China's influence in Korea by securing a declaration from Ladyzhenskii that his country had no interest in occupying Korean territory. By passing this on to Walsham he was able to get the British to agree that the conditions were now in place to justify their departure and therefore a tacit admission that the Chinese would take responsibility for the security of Port Hamilton and the rest of the Korean peninsular. 2 Whether the Chinese considered this "responsibility" to be sufficient to allow them to annex Korea, as Inoue and Ito feared, is unclear, but it is certain that Li Hung-chang saw the negotiations over Komundo as a useful step in the right direction.


The Port Hamilton affair has a timely moral for politicians, diplomats and servicemen who consider that a crisis must be met in a particular way, and that decisions must be made quickly before an opportunity is lost. It is that decisions taken in the heat of the moment are not usually the best ones, and that actions will always have consequences, and not necessarily in the way that one expects.



1. The Times, 13 December 1886

2. Walsham to F.O., 3 December 1886, AADMs, PH3 (7)


Main Home Page / Komundo Contents



Document Collections

Admiralty (GB)

Port Hamilton Papers: 1884-1887 (Public Record Office, ADM 116 & 125)

Foreign Office (GB)

Peking Correspondence: 1885 (Public Record Office, FO 17)

Foreign Office (GB)

Tokyo Correspondence: 1885 (Public Record Office, FO 46)

McCune, G. & Harrison, J. (eds)

Korean American Relations (Berkeley, University of California Press, Volume I (1883-1886), 1951)

Palmer, S.J.(ed)

Korean American Relations (Berkeley, University of California Press, Volume II (1887-1895), 1963)

Park I-K (ed)

Anglo-American Diplomatic Materials Relating to Korea, 1866-1886 (Seoul, Sin Mun Dang Publishing Co., 1982)



Gaikoku Shinbun Ni Miru Nihon (1989)

- Selection of foreign language press articles on Japanese affairs, 1884-1887.

The Times

London. (Articles from 1885 & 1886)



Cook, H.F.

Korea's 1884 Incident (Seoul, Royal Asiatic Society, 1972)

Conroy, H.

The Japanese Seizure of Korea, 1868-1910, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974)

Cumings, B.

Korea's Place in the Sun (New York, WW Norton, 1997)

Eckert, C.J.

Korea Old and New: A History (Seoul, Ilchokak Publishers, 1990)

Hoare, J.E.

Japan's Treaty Ports and Foreign Settlements (Richmond, Curzon Press, 1994)

Kiernan, E.V.G.

British Diplomacy in China: 1880-1885 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1939)

Lee, Yur-Bok

West Goes East (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1988)

Lensen, G.

Balance of Intrigue: International Rivalry in Korea and Manchuria, 1884-1899 (Tallahassee, Florida State University Press, Volume I, 1982)

Lone, S & McCormack, G.

Korea since 1850 (Melbourne, Longman Cheshire, 1993)

Lowe, C. J.

The Reluctant Imperialists: British Foreign Policy 1878-1902 (London, Routledge, 1967)

Nish, I.

Japanese Foreign Policy, 1869-1942 (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977)

Nish, I & Yoichi K.

The History of Anglo-Japanese Relations (London, Macmillan, Volume I, 2000)

Sims, R.

French Policy Towards the Bakufu and Meiji Japan, 1854-95 (Richmond, Curzon Press, 1998)

Sunoo, H-W

Korea: A Political History in Modern Times (Seoul, Kunkuk University Press)

Synn, S-K

The Russo-Japanese Rivalry over Korea: 1876-1904 (Seoul, Yuk Phub Sa, 1981)



Hamilton, A.W.

"British Interest in Korea, 1866-1884", Korea Journal 22.1 (January 1982)

Hamilton, A.W.

"The Komundo Affair", Korea Journal 22.6 (June 1982)

Hoare, J.E.

"Komundo - Port Hamilton", Asian Affairs 17.3 (October 1986)

Hoare, J.E.

"The British in Korea: Graves and Monuments", Korea Journal 23:3 (March 1983)

Hoare, J.E.

"The Centenary of Korean-British Diplomatic Relations: Aspects of British Interest and Involvement in Korea 1600-1983", Korea Observer 14.2 (Summer 1983)

Nish, I.

"Politics, Trade and Communications in East Asia: Thoughts on Anglo-Russia Relations, 1881-1907", Modern Asian Studies 21.4 (1987)


Unpublished Work

Ryang, S.

Korea in Anglo Japanese Relations in the Late 19th / Early 20th Centuries (York University, MPhil Dissertation, 1988)



Main Home Page / Komundo Contents

Hosted by