Conscience and Empire


As a child the only interesting fact that I knew about my grandfather Henry Cockburn was that he had read his own obituary in The Times. This happened because he was a diplomat in the British legation during the siege of Peking in 1900 during which the Chinese Boxer rebels were wrongly reported to have stormed the legation quarter and slaughtered its defenders.

When I was a little older my father Claud Cockburn told me that after the siege Henry had gone on to become British Consul General in Seoul in Korea. He was the senior British diplomat in the country as Japan took control. ‘Quite suddenly,’ my father related, ‘he announced he was weary of the whole business and retired, saying that at forty-nine it was high time to start leading an entirely new sort of life.’

It seemed a whimsical reason for an Edwardian diplomat to resign, especially as he had little money and no other career to look forward to. In fact, I discovered a century later. that that there was a very precise reason for Henry Cockburn’s retirement which followed a prolonged and furious row within the Foreign Office over an issue which reverberates more than ever in British foreign policy today.

My father had written in his autobiography ‘In Time of Trouble’ that Henry ‘thought the whole British agreement with the Japanese on the Korean issue disastrous.’ I was curious about this sentence. One day I was in the National Archives at Kew looking some old MI-5 files about Claud, when it crossed my mind that it might be interesting to look at the Foreign Office papers marked ‘Corea’ for the relevant period to see if they contained any clue as to what happened.

As soon as I started reading the ancient files I saw a word which has become familiar since President Bush launched his war on terror after the destruction of the World Trade Centre in 2001. I had previously thought that ‘rendition’, meaning the handing over of prisoners by one country to another in the knowledge that they are going to be tortured, was a modern use of the term. Over the last five years ‘rendition’ has acquired an infamous meaning since it was revealed that the CIA had been covertly flying political prisoners to countries like Egypt, Afghanistan and Syria to which the ghastly business of torture had been farmed out by the US.

But in the aging Foreign Office files I was surprised to find the very same word used in exactly the same sense as we use it today. It turned out that my grandfather’s differences with the Foreign Office were not about British policy in general, but over the specific issue of the rendition of a Korean journalist called Yang Ki-tak, a vocal and effective critic of the Japanese occupation. After being tortured in a Japanese-run prison he had taken refuge on British-owned property. The Japanese wanted to re-arrest him but, under the terms of a treaty with Britain, Japanese police could not enter premises owned by a British subject without the authority of the British consul. This my grandfather refused to give.

One of the first papers I found in Kew is the transcript of a telegram entitled ‘Rendition of Corean’ dated 20 August, 1908 from Henry Cockburn to Sir Claude MacDonald, the British ambassador in Tokyo, warning that ‘if it became known that we had handed over a prisoner to the Japanese & that he had subsequently been subjected to conditions similar to those which obtained in the case of Yang, the worst impression would be created.’

My grandfather by this time had a very clear idea what happened to political prisoners held in jail in Seoul. In a long telegram to Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, in London he describes how a British visitor to Yang while he was still in jail ‘had been startled by the prisoner’s appearance and by the cowering timid air with which he looked nervously at prison officials before he answered.’ At first Yang said listlessly that he had nothing to complain off, but then suddenly added in a low, agitated voice, ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can get no air.’ He explained he was held with twenty men in a room measuring 14 feet by 12 feet. Henry had no doubt that his mistreatment also included physical torture.

The reaction of the Foreign Office mandarins was a little more robust than its attitude a century later when the CIA was landing planes in Britain with hooded and drugged prisoners on board on their way to secret prisons in eastern Europe and the Middle East. The Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, who copiously annotated Cockburn’s dispatches in red ink, asked for assurances that Yang would not be further mistreated if he was handed over, though he also made clear that fostering good relations with Japan was his priority. In Tokyo Sir Claude MacDonald, a soldier turned diplomat who had been the military commander during the siege of Peking, sounds bemused by the fuss being made by my grandfather in Seoul over the rendition of a single Korean journalist. He downplayed Henry’s account of the grim conditions in Japanese prisons in Korea saying he had seen worse in prisons in Egypt after Britain had taken control. ‘I am seriously of the opinion,’ he wrote ‘that Yang should be given up immediately and unconditionally.’

By then other Foreign Office mandarins were becoming increasingly irritated by what they saw as Henry Cockburn’s unnecessary quarrel with the Japanese over a single dissenting Korean journalist that was beginning to endanger relations with a potent new ally. Japan had shown its strength by defeating China in 1894 and Russia in 1904. Henry was later to complain that he felt let down by his superiors on several occasions when they ordered him to comply with Japanese demands that he had previously rejected.

In trying to save Yang Henry did not have a very strong hand, but he played his cards with skill. He was the senior British diplomat in Korea, but he was outranked by MacDonald in Tokyo and had to obey what Grey and senior officials in London told him to do. At the same time the British had their own imperial prestige to consider and could not allow the Japanese to have everything their own way, once the issue had been raised, over Yang.

The Japanese for their part were anxious to avoid an open rupture with Britain over the fate of a single torture victim and were prepared, under British pressure, to promise to treat him more humanely. They were also mystified because they wholly disbelieved that a British diplomat could have had any disinterested objection to Yang’s mistreatment. Henry caustically noted that the Japanese officials with whom he was dealing were convinced 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.’

My grandfather seems to have expected that he would ultimately be forced to surrender Yang to the Japanese. But by then he had kicked up such a row that the Japanese agreed to various conditions such as keeping Yang in hospital and allowing him a fair trial so that they were ultimately forced to release him. It was four years before they caught up with him again when he was once more imprisoned after a trial in which his co-defendants described how they had been hung by their thumbs from the ceiling, savagely beaten and burned with cigarettes until they confessed.

My grand father’s career as a diplomat was ended by his defense of Yang. A week after handing over the journalist to the Japanese on August 19, 1908 he announced he was going on leave and returned to Britain via the trans-Siberian railway. He never went back to Korea and resigned from the Foreign Office six months later. He died several years before the Second World War when tens of thousands of captured British soldiers and civilians discovered that the Japanese treatment of prisoners could be just as horrific as he had described.

Reading through the voluminous Foreign Office files on the Yang case I felt proud of my grandfather’s behavior. He was one of those self-confident high Tories who, like Lord Gilmour who died a few months ago, prove to be the staunchest opponents of oppression because they do what they themselves, and not their government or their employer, think to be right.

He never had any doubts about the virtues of imperialism as a system quite separate from the motives, which he often derided as pathetic or sordid, of those who ran it. In my father’s view Henry saw the British Empire as if it was like a strange symphony. The failings of the individuals involved in running it were ‘as irrelevant as would be the fact that the composer took dope and conductor lived off the immoral earnings of women.’

My grandfather spent almost thirty years in the Far East, almost all of them in China, though he had originally intended to live in India. Born in 1859, he was the son of Francis Jeffrey Cockburn, a British judge in India mainly notable for having blown off his right hand as a boy when experimenting with a gunpowder flask. His family kept the mangled hand preserved in a jar of spirits on the mantelpiece and would show it to interested guests. The lad’s uncles, being practical Scotchmen, sent the maimed lad a profusion of small desks so he could learn to write with his left hand.

Henry expressed an early desire to enter the Indian Civil Service and, since he was highly intelligent, seemed likely to pass the entrance examination with ease. Unfortunately for him, however, shortly before taking it, he confided to his father that under the influence of German philosophy he had become an atheist. This was unwise because his father viewed religion as part of the essential cement of the British Empire and hurried to London to pull all available strings at the Indian Office to make sure that they never gave his son a job.

Henry did not hold it against his father for acting thus on an issue of principle, but nonetheless sold his books and all but one suit and disappeared from home. When next heard of he had entered the Eastern Consular Service from which he knew he could later pass into the diplomatic service without taking a further examination. He learned Chinese and became British vice consul in Chunking, an isolated city on the upper Yangtse, in 1880 at the start of the quarter of a century he lived in China. His final post was as ‘Chinese Secretary’ in the Peking legation where he was trapped during the famous siege.

On moving to Seoul in 1906 he expressed no particular objection to the Japanese take over of Korea which he saw as ‘a pawn in a game of chess that has been the centre of interest solely by reason of its position relative to the pieces of the great powers.’ Not that the Foreign Office had any doubts that the Koreans regarded the Japanese with anything other than visceral hatred. The forced abdication of the Korean Emperor led to an uprising in 1907 which Japanese troops bloodily repressed.

Henry’s early dispatches are coolly written accounts of the Korean rebellion and Japan’s efforts to suppress it. In their military operations against the guerrillas, he wrote, there had ‘certainly been no indiscriminate laying waste the country and many of the houses and villages of which the destruction is laid to the account of Japanese troops were in fact burned by the insurgents as a punishment for harbouring the troops.’

One Britons in Korea who took a much more critical view of Japanese repression was a journalist called Ernest Bethell who owned a newspaper, The Korea Daily News, which had a Korean edition called Dai Han Mai Il Shinpo. It printed graphic stories about atrocities which were all the more deeply resented by the Japanese authorities, because they could not legally close down Bethell’s newspapers because of Britain’s extra-territorial rights in Korea.

Unable to act themselves, the Japanese persuaded the British to act for them and on 12 October 2007 Bethell was summoned to appear before a specially appointed Consular Court charged with action likely to cause a breach of the peace. ‘The trial,’ wrote Fred McKenzie, a pro-Korean observer, ‘took place in the Consular building, Mr Cockburn, the very able British Consul-General acting as judge.’ He convicted the editor and ordered him to enter into recognizances of sterling 300 for his good behavior for six months. This effectively gagged the newspaper
The trial turned out to be only the first round of a triangular battle between Bethell, the Japanese authorities and Henry. In March 2008 a Korean nationalist shot and killed in San Francisco an American adviser to the Japanese administration called D.W.Stevens. The assassination was covered by Bethell’s Korean paper which printed a eulogy to the assassins under the headline: ‘Particulars of the attack upon the the scoundrel Stevens.’

The Japanese supreme authority in Korea, Prince Ito, in charge of turning the country into a Japanese protectorate, asked Sir Claude MacDonald in Tokyo for the British to deal with Bethell and his newspaper, claiming he held them partly responsible for the assassination of Stevens. MacDonald agreed with him. On May 7 Henry wrote a memo sympathetic to the Japanese case and castigated Bethell, saying that ‘an analogous case [to that of Stevens] would be the assassination of a prominent Anglo-Indian official on his arrival in England by a native of Bengal.’

As regards my grandfather’s actions what happened next falls into two distinct halves. In the first he did everything he could to close down Bethell and his newspaper on the grounds that they threatened public order and disturbed Britain’s alliance with Japan. In the second half he tried to prevent the Japanese imprisoning and torturing Yang Ki-tak, the heroic nationalist editor of the Korean edition of Bethell’s paper. The previously calm tone of his diplomatic dispatches is replaced by outrage at the brutal methods and contempt for legality of the Japanese occupation.

Bethell was summoned before a British consular court in Seoul for a second time accused of causing tumult in a country which was ‘under the de facto protectorate of Japan.’ He was sentenced to three weeks imprisonment, bound over for six months and deported on a British naval vessel to Shanghai where there was a British prison.

Henry soon found out that this was not the end of the affair. The chief defence witness at Bethell’s trial was his editor Yang. So long as he remained in his British owned newspaper office he was safe, but on July 13 he was tricked by the Japanese police into leaving the office and arrested. Henry protested at the arrest of the chief witness at the trial he had organized, but was blandly assured that Yang had been detained for embezzlement. He was bitterly scornful at the Japanese excuse for the arrest since the funds Yang was accused of embezzling were in a fund ‘instituted for the purpose of freeing Corea from the Protectorate of Japan.’ He thought it unlikely that Japanese were truly interested in safeguarding subscribers.

In jail in Seoul Yang’s health rapidly collapsed. He was kept in a crowded cell which was too small to lie down and too low to stand up. He was evidently tortured. When a British visitor called Mr Marnham saw him three weeks after his arrest he described him as ‘looking like a skeleton’ and in a state of nervous collapse because of his visible terror of his Japanese guards. When Henry protested to a senior Japanese official about these inhumane conditions he was told that Yang was being treated just the same as other untried prisoners.

The Japanese also disbelieved his claim of humanitarian concern for the prisoner. ‘It is,’ he wrote, ‘this callousness and this failure to recognize that to the English mind such slow torture of unconvicted prisoners is abhorrent, that has constituted one of the great obstacles in dealing with this case.’ He protested vigorously to London and Tokyo and with some effect since Prince Ito, a powerful and sophisticated statesman, ordered that Yang be moved to hospital.

The case now took a peculiar twist. The Japanese prison governor misunderstood his instructions. Instead of being sent to hospital Yang was released onto the street and he promptly fled back to his newspaper. He was still in a very bad state. A British consular official confirmed that he still looked like a skeleton and the consul had been ‘struck by the frightened look on his face, as of a hunted creature, and by his nervousness in answering even a simple question.’

My grandfather struggled not to return Yang to Japanese custody despite increasingly peremptory instructions from London and Tokyo. He was refusing to speak to the Japanese official in charge of the case whom he said had lied to him. He did extract promises from the Japanese that Yang would be hospitalized, tried in open court and be represented by a Korean lawyer. On August 20 he received a telegram from Sir Edward Grey in London ordering him to hand over Yang to the Japanese. In reply he sent ‘an account of the rendition of the prisoner with a description of his appearance [bearing marks of his mistreatment].

In the short term Henry’s protests were surprisingly effective. The case had become so well publicized that Yang was released on September 25, though he was imprisoned and tortured again in later years. Bethell returned to Korea in 1909 but almost immediately died of natural causes. In 1960 he was retrospectively declared ‘a Hero of the Korean Revolution.’

My grandfather left Korea even before Yang was released, privately claiming that the Foreign Office had not given him sufficient support. In resigning the following July he does not mention this but says ‘it is with some sense of humiliation that one admits oneself to have broken down at an earlier age than usual.’ Probably he was being circumspect about his motives because he was applying for a full pension and he lived for another 27 years. His protests against rendition read as fresh today as when they were written, as does his half-spoken suspicion that the torture chamber might be an essential foundation of foreign occupation and not one of its excesses.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His forthcoming book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq’ is published by Scribner in April. Next spring CounterPunch Books / AK Press will republish the memoirs of Claud Cockburn, I Claud, long regarded as among the classic memoirs of the twentieth century.




Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).