Friday, 29 December 2017

A jacket of the Boxer Rebellion

Earlier this month I wrote about our 1885 colonial participation in the British suppression of the Mahdi Rebellion in the Sudan. That turned out to be the first time Australians were deployed overseas in a war. The following blogpost stems from material gathered on the same visit to the Australian War Memorial (AWM). This time, I’m looking at the first Asian deployment of Australian military forces.

Colonial forces from New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia participated with forces from other Western powers in subduing the so-called “Boxer Rebellion” in China in 1900. Resentment against foreigners among Chinese people had grown since the 1860s, when through a truly scurrilous act of gunboat diplomacy called the “Opium Wars” Britain had forced the emperor to grant its traders access to China’s market. Concessions for numerous foreign powers were established in a number of coastal cities from where trade was carried out. The law in force in each of these concessions was that of the guest nation. From the AWM’s web page:
The Chinese government's failure to resist inroads on its sovereignty and withstand further demands from the Europeans, such as the right to build railways and other concessions, caused much resentment among large sections of the population. This eventually led to the Chinese revolution of 1911 which toppled the imperial dynasty. By the end of the nineteenth century the balance of the lucrative trade between China and merchants from America and Europe, particularly Britain, lay almost entirely in the West's favour. As Western influence increased anti-European secret societies began to form. Among the most violent and popular was the I-ho-ch'uan (the Righteous and Harmonious Fists). Dubbed the "Boxers" by western correspondents, the society gave the Boxer Rebellion its name.
The piece goes on to say that by March 1900 the Western powers decided to intervene, and the Australian colonies sent contingents to fight on behalf of the mother country even though they were already participating in the Boer War in South Africa at the time. Most of these colonial forces for China were naval forces.
When the first Australian contingents, mostly from New South Wales and Victoria, sailed on 8 August 1900, troops from eight other nations were already engaged in China. On arrival they were quartered in Tientsin and immediately ordered to provide 300 men to help capture the Chinese forts at Pei Tang overlooking the inland rail route. They became part of a force made up of 8,000 troops from Russia, Germany, Austria, British India, and China serving under British officers. The Australians travelled apart from the main body of troops and by the time they arrived at Pei Tang the battle was already over. The next action in which the Australians (Victorians troops this time) were involved was against the Boxer fortress at Pao-ting Fu, where the Chinese government was believed to have sought refuge when Peking was taken by western forces. The Victorians joined a force of 7,500 on the ten-day march to the fort, only to find the town had already surrendered; the closest enemy contact was guarding prisoners. The international column then marched back to Tientsin, leaving a trail of looted villages behind them.
The photo below shows a jacket held in the AWM’s collection. It is thought to have been taken from a Boxer. “Although they wore no standard uniforms, the Boxers dressed distinctively and usually wore red turbans or caps with a sash or scarf.”

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