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  • In the Service of His Korean Majesty: William Nelson Lovatt, the Pusan Customs, and Sino-Korean Relations, 1876 1888 by Wayne Patterson
  • Daniel C. Kane (bio)
In the Service of His Korean Majesty: William Nelson Lovatt, the Pusan Customs, and Sino-Korean Relations, 1876 1888, by Wayne Patterson. Berkeley, CA Institute of East Asian Studies, 2011. 209 pages. $20.00 paper.

With In the Service of His Korean Majesty, Wayne Patterson has given us a detailed and meticulously researched portrait of the Sino-Korean landscape of the early 1880s. At its heart a biography of the English-American William Nelson Lovatt (1838–1904)—at least during his service in Korea (1883–1886), it is in fact more than the story of one man. Using the bountiful Lovatt letters as his primary source, Patterson has succeeded admirably in the difficult task of weaving the thread of Lovatt's life into the larger fabric of the historical period, testament to the author's pain-taking research and command of a patchwork of sources beyond just the letters themselves. It is divided into four parts that segregate in somewhat dramatic fashion the stages of what one might term Lovatt's ''Korean inter-lude,'' with an epilogue detailing his dismissal from the Korean Customs and departure from Korea. In a helpful and concise concluding chapter, the author brings the larger strands of the story together, drawing more substantial geopolitical conclusions from the microcosm of Lovatt's own trials and experiences.

William Nelson Lovatt began his career in the East as a young artillery soldier in India and then China. Discharged from the British Army, Lovatt [End Page 280] next took service with the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service under the direction of the Irishman Robert Hart.

Lovatt's relationship with Korea—both its beginning and premature end—owed itself more than anything to his close, and at times troubled, friendship with Paul Georg von Möllendorff, also employed by the Chinese Customs. Thanks to Möllendorff, Lovatt arrived in Korea in late 1883 with a five-year contract to serve as Commissioner of Customs at Pusan, then a sleepy backwater with a large Japanese population but very few Westerners. But beyond Pusan, this is also a story about the early years of Korea's modernization and the workings of its infant Customs Service during Korea's ''Chinese decade'' (ca. 1884–1894).

In writing this work, Patterson relies more than anything else on the Lovatt letters, which the author informs us fell serendipitously into his hands during a trip to China in the 1980s (the story of the trajectory of the letters themselves would have made interesting reading, but the author is rather silent on this point). They are indeed a trove of valuable information, for they have allowed Patterson to essentially, and successfully, recreate a decade-long story from their details. The author does not limit himself to Lovatt's experiences, but takes as his overarching theme, ''the transformation of China's policy toward Korea from the ritualistic hands-off and largely benevolent policy … before 1880, to an increasingly interventionist policy in the first half of the 1880s … and finally [by the late 1880s] … to a policy that has been variously termed as 'indirect,' 'informal,' or 'secondary' imperialism'' (p. vi). It is this theme that dominates the background to Lovatt's story. I could do no better than paraphrase the author as well regarding the insights the Lovatt letters can provide us. The first is their depictions of the general conditions of Korea, and specifically Pusan, in this period. Second, are the insights they provide into the workings (and failures) of the Korean Customs during its infancy. Third, are the windows they open to the lives of Western expats in Korea. And finally, there are the new details they provide on key figures, particularly regarding the motivations and personalities of Möllendorff and his eventual replacement, Henry Merrill.

Patterson's book succeeds admirably in all the ways enumerated above. The Lovatts' experiences in Pusan, and interactions with local Korean officials and eyewitness accounts of the lives of average Koreans, provide us details on the poverty, corruption, and social divisions of the place...