My grandfather, Henry Cockburn, resigned prematurely from the Foreign Office at the age of 49, shortly before the First World War. He was the senior British diplomat in Seoul and resigned, my father told me, because he objected to British support for Japan’s occupation of Korea. It was a reckless and somewhat mysterious decision: he was about to achieve ambassadorial rank, had no private means and no other job to go to. He had spent 29 years of his life in China, was apparently intelligent, cultivated and self-sufficient, and aside from his impatience with one aspect of official policy seemed very much a product of the high tide of late Victorian and Edwardian imperialism.
I thought very little about him until around ten years ago, when my friend James Fenton, the poet, said that on a trip to South Korea he had been approached by a Korean professor who asked him if it was true that ‘ck’ in the name ‘Cockburn’ was not pronounced. When James asked him why he was interested the professor explained that he was writing a book on Anglo-Korean relations in which a British diplomat called Henry Cockburn figured prominently. Cockburn, he said, had behaved heroically in a dispute between the Koreans and the Japanese occupying authorities. But that was all I knew until the summer of 2007, when I went to the National Archives in Kew and requested the Foreign Office files on Korea from the relevant period. I knew that Henry had arrived in Seoul and been received by the Korean emperor in 1906. In boxes marked ‘Corea’, containing the files for 1906 and 1907, I found elegantly written dispatches from Henry to the Foreign Office in London describing the wholesale Japanese takeover of Korea following the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. He writes about Japan’s destruction of Korean independence, the popular resistance it faced, the emperor’s enforced abdication, the mutiny and dissolution of the Korean army and the beginning of a brutal guerrilla war. To me, it looked much like an account of the American occupation of Iraq, about which I had just been reporting, as it might have been written by a well-informed British official, sympathetic to the Americans but sceptical about their actions. He acknowledged that Japanese imperial rule might be an agent of reform in Korea, but wrote that ‘the continued military occupation of disturbed districts … has had the unfortunate result of further embittering the people against Japan.’ Many who were formerly neutral had been driven into revolt by ill-treatment. Koreans who worked for or co-operated with the Japanese were despised as traitors, worse than the Japanese themselves. ‘As for the interpreters employed by the troops,’ Henry wrote, ‘they rely on the fact that no complaint can reach a Japanese officer’s ears except through themselves, and harass, bully and rob the people with impunity.’
I opened the files for 1908 and detected a change of tone in the dispatches I was reading. They were angrier, and less detached. Among the papers was a handwritten copy of a telegram dated 21 August 1908 and headed ‘Rendition of Corean’. It was addressed to Sir Claude MacDonald, the British ambassador in Tokyo, and warned of the potentially disastrous public reaction in Britain if ‘it became known that we had handed over a prisoner to the Japanese.’ The word ‘rendition’ was meant in exactly the same sense that it has today, to signify the transfer of a prisoner from one power to another in the knowledge that he will be tortured. I wrote about the stand Henry took, as far as I understood it from the Foreign Office documents, in an article in the Independent in 2007, but the full significance of Henry’s actions didn’t become clear to me until I went to Korea and met Chin-Sok Chong, the professor James Fenton had come across. He had read the same Foreign Office papers I had, but had also meticulously researched Japanese and Korean archives for information on the affair. He had written a book called The Korean Problem in Anglo-Japanese Relations 1904-10, which is a racier read than it sounds: it turns out to be primarily about Japan’s campaign to stamp out resistance to its occupation, culminating in a confrontation with Britain over rendition. Henry Cockburn was the unlikely instigator of the fight.
By education and background, Henry at first sight appears typical of the so-called mandarin class in the Foreign Office at the height of the British Empire, but in fact his career was unusual. His father, Francis Jeffrey Cockburn, was a judge in India, chiefly notable for blowing off his right hand at the age of nine when a gunpowder flask exploded as he was playing with it near an open fire. His family kept the mangled remains of the hand in a jar of spirits on the mantelpiece to show to interested visitors. It was intended that Henry, born in 1859, should follow him into the Indian Civil Service, but Henry made the mistake of confiding to his father that, under the influence of German philosophers, he had become an atheist. Francis promptly and successfully pulled strings to sabotage any chance of his son ever becoming an official in India: Christianity, he believed, was an essential bulwark of the empire. Henry did not resent his father for acting on his convictions and in turn he acted on his own. Prudently telling nobody of his intentions, he sold his books to raise enough money to take him to London, where he passed the entrance exam for the China Consular Service. In 1880, at the age of 21, he arrived in China as a consular official and spent the next thirty years there or in Korea. Fluent in Chinese, he served as British vice consul in several cities including Chungking before becoming Chinese secretary at the British Legation in Peking in 1896, a job he held for a decade. A Dutch diplomat who knew him well recalled that Henry ‘had a very clear judgment, as well about men as about books and political events, and in everything he discovered a comical and often pathetic aspect which other people did not discern.’
He was friendly with the Empress Dowager, but had a lower opinion of her than most, saying she showed ‘amiability verging on weakness’. He and his new and pregnant wife, Elizabeth, were in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion. Their house was damaged in the fighting, though more by the efforts of amateur firefighters than by the rebels. At one point a messenger he tried to send out of the city was crucified by the Boxers: Henry told my father that this was his worst moment in the siege. He never expressed any doubt, then or later, that it was right to expand the British Empire, though he was cynical about the means employed. ‘About the personalities and forces – political, financial, commercial – which motivated and directed the imperial machine, he had … no illusions,’ my father later wrote. ‘He found them comical, subjects for savage ribaldry.’ At dinner parties, he would greet talk of the benevolence of the imperial mission with dismissive laughter or an unpleasant silence.
When Henry arrived in Korea in March 1906 he was a minister in a country fast losing its independence as Japan moved towards annexation. One sign of this, and of Britain’s recognition of Japanese domination, was that his own title was downgraded to consul-general. Increasing Japanese control soon led to friction with Britain, which retained extra-territorial rights in Korea that prevented Japanese police arresting British citizens or entering British-owned property. This was politically significant because two newspapers at the centre of Korean opposition to the occupation, the English-language Korea Daily News and the Korean Taehan Maeil Sinbo, were owned by a British businessman called Ernest Bethell, which made them untouchable without British co-operation. The Korean paper, in particular, was widely read because it was not censored, unlike the rest of the press. The Japanese argued that Bethell and other British journalists were providing illegitimate cover for anti-Japanese Korean activists, including Yang Ki-Tak, a militant and influential opponent of the occupation whom Bethell employed as his editor.
Henry reluctantly started court proceedings against Bethell under pressure from Prince Ito, the former Japanese prime minister who was overseeing the Korean occupation, and the British embassy in Tokyo. But he didn’t act in earnest until an American adviser to Japanese authorities in Korea, Durham White Stevens, was shot dead in San Francisco in March 1908 by a Korean nationalist. Bethell published exultant reports of the assassination, his Korean paper carrying the story under the headline ‘Particulars of the attack upon the scoundrel Stevens’. This was too much for Henry, who periodically felt imperial solidarity with Japan. He wrote that a parallel case would be if ‘the assassination of a prominent Anglo-Indian official on his arrival in England by a native of Bengal’ had been praised as a patriotic act by the Bengali press. Under extra-territorial regulations Bethell was subject to the jurisdiction of a British court, which sentenced him to three weeks in prison to be served in Shanghai.
This was the high point of Henry’s co-operation with the Japanese. He felt he had gone a long way to meet their demands for Bethell’s deportation, though he suspected they exaggerated the influence of Bethell’s newspapers, which Henry saw as reflecting rather than provoking Korean anti-Japanese feeling. But on 13 July, Japanese police lured Yang Ki-Tak, who had been the chief witness for the defence at Bethell’s trial, from the relative safety of a British-owned property and arrested him. Henry wrote that the ‘police had made up their minds to punish Yang, and the higher authorities thought the information that might be obtained from him, if he were left sufficiently long at the mercy of the police, worth getting for political reasons’. He expected physical coercion and possibly torture to be used against Yang, ‘but, if so, the police will certainly ensure by threats his silence on the subject if he is ever released from prison.’ In any case, he added, a Korean like Yang knew that at any moment he could be executed on charges of having contact with insurgents.
Some three weeks later, on 1 August, a visitor to Yang in prison was shocked to find him emaciated, sick and terrified of his guards. He was confined to a filthy flea-ridden cell so crowded that he could not lie down yet whose ceiling was so low that he couldn’t stand up. Henry wrote a furious report to his superiors saying the visitor had been struck by Yang’s skeleton-like appearance after only a few weeks and ‘by the cowering timid air with which he looked nervously at prison officials before he answered the simplest inquiries’. At first Yang said that he had nothing to complain of, but then whispered ‘in a low, agitated voice … I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can get no air.’ Henry went to see a senior Japanese official, who was wholly unmoved by his protests about Yang’s mistreatment. Henry wrote that the only effect of his insistence that the torture and mistreatment of the prisoner were a concern for the British government was to convince the official that ‘if I persisted in dwelling on so trivial a side issue, it must be because I was inspired by an unfriendly wish to interpose obstacles in the Japanese path.’
The case now took a bizarre turn. It appears that Henry’s protests did have some effect because Prince Ito sent orders from Japan that Yang should be taken to hospital. The prison warden misunderstood the order and instead released the prisoner, who immediately fled back to extra-territorial safety at Bethell’s newspaper office. The Japanese demanded that he be surrendered, which Henry refused to do. The Japanese press attacked him as viscerally anti-Japanese and demanded his recall. Claude MacDonald in Tokyo was sympathetic to the Japanese case and said without irony that Korean prison conditions did not sound worse than what he had seen in Egypt under British rule. Henry’s later dispatches give a sense that he knew he was losing official backing. He stalled for time by standing on his dignity as a British diplomat and tried, with some success, to make the rendition of Yang conditional on the Japanese agreeing to treat him in hospital and give him a fair and public trial. Finally, on 20 August, Henry was directly instructed by Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, to give the prisoner up and he grudgingly did so.
Henry’s obduracy embarrassed the Japanese into giving Yang a fair trial, and he was found innocent. This wasn’t much consolation for Henry, who had thrown up his job within days of handing Yang over. He left immediately for England by the Trans-Siberian railway. He wrote to MacDonald to say that he felt let down by his superiors: ‘Twice in the course of the case I was forced to do something I had formally refused to do.’ Japanese newspapers said he had been sacked for refusing to give up Yang. MacDonald denied this, but clearly blamed Henry for provoking a row with the Japanese on an unimportant issue. Rather treacherously,he told the Japanese that Henry was determined to resign when he got back to England. Henry did so the following summer; probably to maximise his pension he claimed ill health brought on by the nervous strain of his thirty years in China and Korea.
None of those involved in the confrontation did well afterwards. Bethell died suddenly in 1909, his early death attributed to heavy brandy-drinking and smoking. Prince Ito was assassinated by a Korean nationalist later the same year. Henry, who held a string of minor official jobs before he died in 1927, never publicly protested about Britain’s humiliating agreement to the rendition of Yang. It would hardly have had any impact if he had done, because Britain continued to ignore the brutality of Japanese imperial rule until it began to affect British interests in China. He did not even fully explain his reasons for ending his career to his family. Deep though his revulsion at having to hand over a man for possible torture may have been, it remained a private matter.