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The Boxer Rebellion and the U.S. Navy, 1900-1901

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The origins of anti-Western attitudes in China are difficult to trace, but widespread dislike by the population at large goes back to at least the Opium War between Britain and China (1839-1842). These feelings worsened over the course of the 19th century as Western colonial powers, as well as Russia and Japan, negotiated for, leased, and even seized portions of the Chinese Empire. Following the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, several European powers secured territorial and commercial concessions from China, including the 1897 seizure of Kiaochow and Tsingtao by Imperial Germany. This intervention precipitated a new wave of even bolder efforts to force concessions from China, further exacerbating tensions.

Anti-foreign sentiment resulted in the rapid growth of a Chinese secret society (which had existed for centuries) known as the I Ho Ch'uan (Righteous Harmonious Fists), but referred to by the Westerners as `Boxers.' The Boxers called for the expulsion of the `foreign devils' and their Chinese Christian converts. The society stressed the ritualistic use of the martial arts and traditional Chinese weapons. Anti-foreign incidents, including the burning of homes and businesses, increased dramatically in 1898 and 1899, and was primarily directed at Chinese Christians. The number of killings by the Boxers continued to grow, and on 30 December 1899 included a British missionary. Western governments lodged strong protests with the Chinese Dowager Empress, Tzu Hsi. She responded on 11 January 1900, with a declaration that the Boxers represented a segment of Chinese society, and should not be labeled a criminal organization. Her unenthusiastic support for the Chinese Army's attempts at quelling the violence and the influence of Boxer sympathizers at the Imperial court, led Western governments to deploy military forces on the Chinese coast to protect their citizens and interests.

By spring 1900, Boxer violence was virtually unchecked by Chinese authorities. On 30 May, the foreign ministers at Peking (today known as Beijing, but at the time referred to as Pekin) called for troops to protect the legations at Peking. Four hundred and thirty Sailors and Marines (including fifty-six Americans from USS Oregon and USS Newark) from eight countries arrived at the legations on 31 May and 4 June. On 9 June, the Boxers began attacking foreign property in Peking, and the senior foreign minister, Great Britain's Sir Claude MacDonald, requested a sizable relief force just before the telegraph lines were cut.

The first attempt to relieve the foreign legations at Peking consisted of over 2,100 men (mostly Sailors and Marines) from Great Britain, Germany, Russia, France, the United States, Japan, Italy, and Austria. The allied force departed the city of Tientsin on 10 June, under the command of British Admiral Sir Edward Seymour. However, strong Boxer and Imperial Chinese opposition forced Seymour to return his battered column to Tientsin on 22 June. The allied powers worked to assemble a stronger force, and on 5 August 1900, it departed Tientsin with 20,000 men, including 2,000 Americans (over 500 of these were U.S. Navy Sailors and Marines). After fighting two major battles against huge Chinese forces, the relief force reached the foreign legations at Peking on 14 August.

Over the next several months, the forces of the Western powers and Japan in China continued to grow. They completed their occupation of Peking and spread out into the countryside of northern China, breaking up concentrations of Boxers. On 1 February 1901, the Chinese authorities agreed to abolish the Boxer Society, and on 7 September signed the Peace Protocol of Peking with the allied nations, officially ending the Boxer Rebellion.

China suffered a devastating blow to her prestige and power, which allowed foreign nations to consolidate their interests and previous territorial gains. The weakened Chinese state could not interfere in the war (1904-1905) between Russia and Japan that secured Japanese dominance in the Far East.

The United States was able to play a significant role in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion because of the large number of American ships and troops deployed in the Philippines as a result of the US conquest of the islands during the Spanish American War (1898) and subsequent Philippine insurgent activity. In the minds of many American leaders, the Boxer Rebellion reinforced the need to retain control of the Philippines and to maintain a strong presence in the Far East.





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