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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 31

China suffered a momentous and disastrous entry into the twentieth century. The culmination of the Boxer Rebellion during the summer of 1900 and the resulting International China Relief Expedition had connections and repercussions near and far.


The China Relief Expedition of 1900

Boxers in Tientsin (Whiting Brothers, LoC)

In June, 1900, the gunship U.S.S. Nashville was dispatched to China from the Philippines where it had been responding to an insurrection. She was carrying a detachment of thirty-two marines who were to be part of an Eight-Nation Alliance that was responding to sieges of foreign enclaves in Tientsin and Peking (Tianjin and Beijing) by Chinese rebels.

The rebels were known as the Boxer Bandits (拳匪), the Militia United in Righteousness (义和团), and the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists (义和拳). They were loosely-organized groupings of Chinese peasants, farmers, laborers, and others across North China who had had enough by the late nineteenth century. They were destitute, starving, oppressed, and plagued by floods, locusts, and drought.

Boxer (National Archives)

The Boxers were being displaced by foreign technology as their country was simultaneously picked apart by religious and military barbarians. Rumors, myths, and conspiracies were rampant. These Chinese were desperate and looking for something, anything to give meaning to their up-ended, shattered lives.

A movement that was virulently anti-Christian, anti-missionary, and anti-foreign combined with spirit possession and a messianic belief that the Chinese gods would make them invincible was intoxicating. The movement grew in numbers and geography as the century ended.

USS Nashville (PG-7) Great Lakes with wartime paint scheme

(Chuk Munson Collection via NavSource Online)

The U.S.S. Nashville remained on station off the coast of China for the balance of 1900 before returning to the Philippines in early 1901. On board the ship was Benjamin Franklin Baker (1862-1927).

Master-at-Arms Baker hailed from Dennisport on Cape Cod. He had previously worked as a steam mechanic on a merchant vessel. During the 1880's, he left his ship after a voyage to China and enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

Benjamin Franklin Baker (Dennis Maritime Museum, author photograph)

Baker was no newcomer to war. When hostilities broke out between America and Spain in 1898, his gunship captured four Spanish vessels as it steamed towards Havana, Cuba. Then-Coxswain Baker and a team of men were each awarded Congressional Medals of Honor for their heroic efforts under fire at Cienfuegos Harbor in severing two of the three underwater telegraph cables connecting Cuba and Spain.

In China during the Boxer Rebellion, he was in a supporting role. I wonder if he and his crewmates knew what was taking place just ashore during the second half of 1900. It was not pretty.

Chinese Christian Converts (H.C. White Co.)(LOC Photos)

The Boxers targeted Christians and everything foreign. Estimates of the former who perished exceed 30,000 in some tallies. The Boxers tore up train tracks and burned rail stations. They battled the faltering Qing government.

This was the powder keg that was China as the old century ended. Everything exploded during the late Spring and Summer of 1900 when tens of thousands of Boxers moved to expel the foreigners from Peking and Tientsin.

Battle of Tientsin (James Ricalton, Underwood and Underwood, LoC)

James Ricalton, an American photographer, reached Tientsin in early July.

He “noted housetops bristling with fortifications, storehouses turned into barricades, bales of wool, bags of peanuts, sacks of licorice-root and rice thrown up into breastworks. Smoke was curling from smoldering ruins and three of the four hotels had been destroyed. So many dead bodies were floating in the river that several times a day gangs of coolies were sent to free them with bamboo poles and float them downstream.”1

Fierce fighting took place in the city over the next two weeks. Hundreds were killed and wounded on both sides. Once the city was conquered, wanton looting and further destruction and killing of civilians by the foreign troops erupted.

Ricalton recounted that the city was “’a holocaust of human life, lines of homeless, weeping human beings—their homes in ashes, without food, friendless, and, in many cases, their kindred left charred in the ruins of homes.’”2

Peking Legation Quarter (photo by By Alfons von Mumm)

The Legation (Embassy) Quarter in Peking was also under siege by the Chinese. It was now not only the Boxers on offense. By this time, the Qing Imperial government had sided with the rebels and declared war in order to kick the foreigners out of China and regain control of their own borders.

More than 3,000 foreigners and Chinese Christians were trapped inside the Legations. The Chinese pressed in from every direction. Setting fires, shelling, shooting, cutting off access to information from outside. As the thermometer in the city rocketed up well past 100 degrees for days on end, smoke from fires and the smell of death hung, clung, and stung in the air.

Different legation compounds and temples were burned. The Hanlin Academy, with its treasured library of China’s history, philosophy, and culture that was located next to the British Legation, was burned. The Customs compound, including decades of records, correspondence, and archives, were burned.

Peking Tartar City Wall (Wikimedia Commons)

There were odd lulls and temporary ceasefires during this time. During one such lull in mid-July, the British Minister of Peking and a Chinese officer held a surreal meeting on top of the Tartar City Wall that the foreigners were defending from their quarters immediately inside.

The Chinese officer asked about the “men wearing the big slouch hats.” The Minister explained that these were American marines. The Chinese officer “…shook his head and complained that every time they fired a shot he lost a man and his troops were afraid of them.”3

American Marines in China (National Archives Catalogue)

The international relief force of 18,000± soldiers from the eight countries, including the American marines, set off from Tientsin towards Peking eighty miles away in early August. Jealousies and miscommunications among the foreign powers, poor transportation since the railroads were destroyed, lack of water, tortuous heat, and battles with the Chinese heightened the challenge of getting to Peking.

Finally, the foreign troops arrived in Peking and, after battles to get through the city walls and street fighting, they entered the Legation Quarter on August 14, 1900. The siege was over. The Imperial Court (temporarily) fled the Forbidden City and Peking. As in Tientsin, the city was looted, Chinese people continued to be killed, and terror reigned for months as the remnants of the Boxers were hunted down.

One year later, a treaty, the Boxer Protocol, was negotiated. The Legation Quarter was to be fortified and exclusive, foreign garrisons were to be allowed along the rebuilt Tientsin-Piking railway, and the Chinese government was required to pay an enormous compensatory and punitive indemnity not only to the eight-nation alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States), but also to Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands. This was China’s introduction to the twentieth century.

Benjamin Franklin Baker Military Medals and Badges

(Dennis Maritime Museum, author photograph)

Benjamin Franklin Baker received a China Relief Expedition Campaign Badge for his service in China. This badge is second from the left in the bottom row in the above photograph. Baker’s Congressional Medal of Honor is at the top left. Baker is buried in the Old Swan Lake Cemetery in Dennisport. As the crow flies, his grave is less than one mile from my office.

Benjamin Franklin Baker Grave (author photograph)



  1. Diana Preston, The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China’s War on Foreigners That Shook the World in the Summer of 1900, Walker & Company, 2000, Page 162

  2. Preston, Page 187

  3. Preston, Page 194


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