The Boxer Rebellion - Australia's Least Remembered Conflict
In many ways the Boxer rebellion is probably one of the least remembered conflicts that Australia has been involved with. At the time, as the 20th century dawned, the Australian colonies were not only already involved in the Boer War in South Africa but were getting ready to federate under the new Commonwealth of Australia. Meanwhile, in China, events that would soon draw in the attention of the rest of the world were taking place.
China in the late 19th century was a very unstable place. The centuries old Qing dynasty was in terminal decline struggling to both keep western influence out while also implementing the necessary reforms to keep China strong and remain in power. In 1895, the Chinese government had lost a war against Japan and as a result had been forced to make concessions in regard to various spheres of influence. These spheres of influence had popped up all along the Chinese coast in the years after the Opium Wars. By the time of the Boxer Rebellion, as well as the Japanese areas, there were French spheres in the south of China, British spheres in the middle, centered on Hong Kong and Russian and German zones to the north.[i]
Foreign Spheres of Influence in Imperial China
In China, the inability to stop foreign powers from establishing these zones was seen as a great humiliation. Although the central government based in Beijing was desperate to assert its independence, the economic and military situation meant that they were dependent on western and Japanese support.
Another humiliation to China was that after the second Opium War of 1860, in which the Qing government was defeated by the British, a treaty was signed that, among other things, granted western missionaries unlimited access to the Chinese population. As time went on this caused deep anger in sections of the the Chinese population, many of whom held strong to their traditional beliefs.[ii]
In the north of the country, where the missionary activity was the strongest, this anger led to a growing movement of mostly young men that began to push back against what they classified as “foreign devils” from Europe, North America and Japan. They formed themselves into a secret society that was formally known as the ”Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists” (義和拳; 义和拳) that practiced traditional Chinese martial arts.[iii]
To the Western missionaries, who were unfamiliar with Chinese martial arts, these young men became known as “Boxers”. The Boxers drew their strength from Chinese spiritualism and held the belief that with the correct practice of their martial arts skills and spiritual practices, they could resist bullets. At first the Boxers primarily attacked foreign missionaries, burning property and murdering westerners and Chinese Christians.
The early growth of the Boxer movement coincided with the Hundred Days' Reform (11 June – 21 September 1898), in which progressive Chinese officials, with support from Protestant missionaries, persuaded the Emperor to institute sweeping reforms. This alienated many conservative officials, whose opposition led Empress Dowager Cixi to intervene and reverse the reforms. The failure of the reform movement disillusioned many educated Chinese and thus further weakened the Qing government. The empress seized power and placed the reformist Emperor under house arrest.[iv]
At first the Qing authorities were divided on how they should respond, with some conservative factions favouring the Boxers while other factions felt the need to help and protect the Westerners. The West responded to the threat from the Boxers by launching a multinational maritime force of 435 sailors to try and counter the threat. This was later added to with an additional force of 2000 soldiers and sailors.[v]
A Boxer Flag
In January 1900, with a majority of conservatives in the imperial court, Empress Dowager Cixi changed her position on the Boxers, and issued edicts in their defence, causing protests from foreign powers.[iv]
Navy troops of Eight-Nation Alliance during the Boxer Rebellion, painted in Japan in 1900.
In Beijing, the Boxers began attacking the diplomatic missions of the western powers and laying siege to the “Legation Quarter”, where various western countries held their embassies and diplomatic missions. The Western forces within the quarter defended themselves but were slowly pushed back. The diplomatic compound was under siege for 55 days, from 20 June to 14 August 1900. A total of 473 foreign civilians, 409 soldiers from eight countries, and about 3,000 Chinese Christians took refuge in the Legation Quarter.[vi]
An 8 party alliance of Japan, Russia, Great Britain, France, the United States, Germany, Italy and the Ottoman Empire was formed in order to relieve the siege on the “Legation Quarter” and to defend Christian missionaries and western interests in China. They launched an invasion and in June fought the Battle of the Taku Forts in north east China. This brief and bloody battle led to the Qing government to issue a proclamation ordering all Chinese forces to resist foreign intervention. [vii]
By August 14, allied forces reached and occupied Beijing, putting the siege to an end and relieving the Legation Quarter.[viii] In the early hours of August 15, the Dowager Empress Cixi, the Emperor and a small retinue fled the Forbidden City and retreated to the countryside. On 7 September 1901, the Qing imperial court agreed to sign the "Boxer Protocol" peace treaty between the Eight-Nation Alliance and China. The protocol ordered the execution of 10 high-ranking officials linked to the outbreak and other officials who were found guilty for the slaughter of foreigners in China. The payment of reparations was also ordered.[ix]
Troops of the Eight-Nation Alliance (except Russia) that fought against the Boxer Rebellion in China, 1900. From the left: Britain, United States, Australia, India, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Japan.
Celebration ceremony in the Forbidden Palace, Peking, after the signing of the Treaty.
As part of the British contribution to putting down the Boxer Rebellion, The Australian colonies sent a number of expeditionary forces to China. At the time, the majority of Australian forces were engaged in the Boer War in South Africa so Naval contingents from three Australian states (South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria), including reservists and ex-naval men, were sent to offer support through coastal defence. The first Australian contingents, mostly from New South Wales and Victoria, sailed in August 1900. Australian personnel sent to northern China arrived too late to be engaged in combat. Six Australian's died of sickness and injury and none were killed as a result of enemy action.[x]
South Australian colonial gunboat HMCS Protector. 1901
The colony of South Australia sent its entire navy, the HMCS Protector, large flat-iron gunboat. Protector sailed from Adelaide, flying the White Ensign, on 6 August 1900. She was temporarily commissioned as HMS Protector for legal reasons, and arrived at Hong Kong on 11 September 1900. A week later, she departed for Shanghai. In Chinese waters, the expected use of shallow draught vessels such as Protector was not called for, but she performed useful work as a survey vessel and in carrying despatches in the Gulf of Pechili. By the beginning of November, the Admiralty had decided it could dispense with her services, and she was released to return to Adelaide on 2 November 1900. During her return voyage, Protector participated in the ceremonies inaugurating the Australian Commonwealth in Sydney on 1 January 1901.[xi]
This photograph shows the crew of HMCS Protector, a gunboat sent by South Australia to China in 1900. Her Captain was W R Cresswell.
Although the Boxer Rebellion, and especially Australia's involvement in it, are largely forgotten in the western world, these events had a massive impact in China. Although the Qing dynasty was allowed to limp on for another 11 years, the humiliation of being unable to once again resist a foreign invasion has lived in Chinese memory to the modern day and has played a significant role in the rise of the Communist Party and its policies designed to make China strong and able to stand up to Western powers.
[i] Chang, Jung (2013). The Concubine Who Launched Modern China: Empress Dowager Cixi. New York: Anchor Books.
[ii] Esherick, Joseph W. (1987). The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. U of California Press. p.77
[iii] Muramatsu, Yuzi (April 1953). "The "boxers" in 1898–1899, the origin of the "I-Ho-Chuan" (義和拳) uprising, 1900". The Annals of the Hitotsubashi Academy. 3 (2): 236–261.
[iv] Karl, Rebecca E. and Peter Gue Zarrow, eds., Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period: Political and Cultural Change in Late Qing China. (Harvard UP, 2002)
[v] Thompson, Larry Clinton (2009). William Scott Ament and the Boxer Rebellion: Heroism, Hubris, and the "Ideal Missionary". Jefferson, NC: McFarland p.42
[vi] Allen, Rev. Roland The Siege of the Peking Legations. London: Smith, Elder, 1901
[vii] Bodin, Lynn E. and Christopher Warner. The Boxer Rebellion. London: Osprey, Men-at-Arms Series 95, 1979.
[viii] Fleming, Peter (1959). The Siege at Peking. New York: Harper. p. 220–221
[ix] Preston, Diana (2000). The Boxer Rebellion : The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners That Shook the World in the Summer of 1900. New York: Walker. pp. 253–261.
[x] Boxer Rebellion 1900-1901, State Library of Victoria, https://guides.slv.vic.gov.au/colonialforces/boxer , Accessed 3rd of August 2022
[xi] Sea Power Centre Australia (2008). HMAS Protector (I) (HMCS). https://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-protector-i Retrieved 17 February 2021.