Abstract

Henry Collbran and Harry Bostwick were the most successful American businessmen in Korea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While they are well known for constructing the Seoul-Inch’ŏn railroad, the Seoul waterworks, and the streetcar system, their backgrounds and how they carried out their activities have not been deeply examined. Foreign businesspeople like Collbran and Bostwick possessed the technology and capital that Korea needed for modernization, but they had to navigate the volatile dynamics of domestic politics and international relations in the era of multilateral imperialism (1882–1905). This article argues that as Korea transitioned away from traditional East Asian diplomatic relations to Western-style diplomacy, Collbran and Bostwick functioned as unconventional nonstate actors who positioned themselves as unofficial American representatives to advance their business interests. While Collbran and Bostwick leveraged their position to extract the greatest possible benefits from the Koreans through mechanisms like high-interest debt traps, Emperor Kojong and Korean officials simultaneously sought to tie the American businessmen to Korea through diplomacy traps tied to concessions. These dynamics were particularly clear in the early electrification of Korea and the establishment and dissolution of the Seoul Electric Company.

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