Marie Antoinette Sontag: “The uncrowned empress of Korea”

Marie Antoinette Sontag: “The uncrowned empress of Korea”

The Russian Legation in Seoul circa 1900 / Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

According to the Korean Yearbook published in 1895, in December of the month (January 16 to February 14, 1896):
“Wild geese stand facing north, and Casasagi nests. I’m making. The hawks squeal on the hillside, the chickens eat milk, and the lake’s stomach becomes stiff. ”

What does that mean? As with horoscopes, the interpretation of Almanac’s Wisdom Beads depended on the reader’s point of view, susceptibility to deception, and needs-their accuracy varied from reader to reader. But it is unlikely that the Almanac predicted a sudden change in Korean political winds on the cold morning of February 11, 1896, when the monarch and crown prince found sanctuary at the Russian legation in Seoul.

was also not predicted to be the day Marie Antoinette Sontag began her journey to become the “Uncrowned Empress of Korea”. During King Gojong’s one-year stay at the Russian Embassy, ​​according to Dr. Silvia Brazel, “Mrs. It has replaced local specialty products.”

Coffee introduced to Korean society – it’s not entirely true, King Gojong may have developed a taste for coffee while he was in the Russian Legation, but foreign guests were visiting the country in the 1880s. He was undoubtedly familiar with coffee so many years ago that Palace coffee was served.

At the Russian legation every month, Sontag’s influence on the Korean monarch increased not because of pastries or coffee, but because of his ability to get things done. Of course, her growing influence wasn’t overlooked, and she didn’t give her an exemption from gossip or exaggeration.

In October 1896, a year after the assassination of Queen Min, rumors began to spread in Seoul that “a very close relative of Mrs. Weber, the wife of the Russian Minister,” would marry a Korean monarch. Sontag was not a “very close relative”, but she was probably the subject of those rumors.

When the editors of Rising Sun & Nagasaki Express learned of these rumors, judging from the tone of his letter, he was quite skeptical, saying it was “certainly a strange story.”

Gojong did not marry the maiden, but “he rewarded her attention abundantly with her land and grace.”
In January 1897, South Korean official Yoon Ji-Akira said in his diary: I gave 5000 yen to Sontag, who is a good friend of the king’s favorite mistress, Lady [Eom]. ”

When Gojong and his court left the Russian embassy and settled in Deoksugung the following month, Sontag was appointed “Queen of the Emperor of the Court Ceremony.” This appointment did not initially work for Korean courts, especially those who benefited from the luxury of the courts.

In August 1900, Horace N. Allen, the American representative of South Korea, attended a breakfast at the palace to commemorate the birthday of Emperor Takamune. According to Sontag, breakfast cost nearly $ 2,000, after which the girl danced. Neither Sontag nor Allen lived in the latter expensive entertainment.

But soon, Sontag’s influence on these events (or her interference, depending on her own perspective) became apparent.

Erwin Baerz, a German doctor living in Japan, visited Seoul in April 1903 and was greeted by Sontag at home. Baerz described her as “a cheerful woman from Alsace, about 60 years old, who runs the emperor’s European family with her strong hands.” She saved him a lot of money from 100 yen per guest, and now it only costs 16 yen for a meal of the same size. (Including champagne and all extras.) ‘

He also said she’actually planned and overseen a new building in the Imperial Gardens of the Palace’, but when he wrote, Baerz was somewhat impressed. It didn’t seem to be received. A month later, Gertrude Bell visited Sontag, who described her as an “old Russian” who was a “king’s housekeeper.” Despite being familiar with her title and etiquette, Bell was unaware or reluctant to see Gojon, who was recognized as an emperor.

According to Bell, an elderly Russian woman was “enchanted” to see her and told her all about the money she had saved for the Tsar. And it was “thrown out the window tenfold at a time” by the emperor’s extravagant spending.

In 1905, Emma Kroebel (a temporary replacement for Sontag) also explained the excesses in palaces, with truffle cakes, oysters and caviar already quite common, and French champagne more popular than similar celebrations at home. argued that it often flows freely. “

Sontag was very knowledgeable about the Korean language and palace politics. She observed and controlled everything. hidden from guests’ eyes behind a folding screen. Or the glamorous curtains she controls everything are usually provided for such occasions.

It was Chloebel who proclaimed Sontag the “Uncrowned Empress of Korea”. And like the emperor of Korea, Sontag appreciated the finer things in her life—she could afford them. In March 1898, she was reported to have owned several buildings in Seoul. Subsequent visitors said her house was full of gifts from the emperor, precious ancient pottery and crafts, and her dining table was full of delicacies.


She was also quite generous. Elizabeth Greathouse ― who was of similar age to Sontag ― was a frequent benefactor of this generosity.

In her diary, Greathouse wrote: “Ms. Sontag sent me a nice box of Russian candy a day or so ago, and now comes such a nice small foreign cake and a very fine old bottle of brandy celebrated for its value for invalids, to strengthen and aid a weak person, am recommended to use a small portion three times a day, till I feel some good effects from it, then [my son] will supply me with more of the same kind.”

Judging from her diaries, Greathouse was frequently invalid and sought strength in “very fine old bottle[s] of brandy” as well as Korean “makgeolli,” which was given to her by the priests in the temples outside of Seoul.
Not only was Sontag affluent but she also possessed great political power.

According to Braesel: “Sontag was kept informed about the predilections of the imperial family as well as the moods of powerful ministers, the continued court intrigues and cabals ― and thus was herself an important source if one attained her favor.”

It was her role in politics (Korean and international) that would eventually cause the “uncrowned empress of Korea” to leave the peninsula ― which we will examine in the next article.

Dr. Sylvia Brezel Wants Valuable Assistance and Articles:

“Marie Antoinette Sontag (1838-1922)” Uncrowned Korean Empress “” Transaction, Royal Asiatic Society of Great Korea, Korea Chapter, Vol. no. 89, 2014. Dr. Brazel’s book “Photographs of Diplomatic Life in Europe and East Asia:

Carl von Weber (1841-1910)” is currently being translated and will be published in Seoul within a few months.

Robert Neff is the author and co-author of several books, including a letter from Joseon, South Korea through a Western eye, and a brief encounter.


Credit/Source : KoreaTimes


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