The siege was divided into two distinct stages.
Continuing The Boxer Uprising,
our selection from The Siege in Peking by William A.P. Martin published in 1900. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments.
William A.P. Martin (1827-1916) was President of the Chinese Imperial University.
Previously in The Boxer Uprising.
This siege in Peking will undoubtedly take rank as one of the most notable in the annals of history. Others have been longer. The besieged have been in most cases more numerous, their sufferings have oftentimes been greater, yet this siege stands out uniquely as the uprising of a great nation against the whole of the civilized world.
Cooped up within the narrow bounds of one legation — the British, which covered the largest area and contained the largest number of buildings — were people of fourteen nationalities and the Ministers of eleven nations, the whole number of foreigners not much short of one thousand, and having under their protection about two thousand native Christians. Outside of the city gates, somewhere between the city and the sea, was an army under the banners of the eight foremost Powers of the world advancing to the rescue, and the eyes of the world were fixed on that movement with an intensity of interest which no tragedy has ever awakened in the spectators of the most moving scenes of a theatre.
All the appliances of modern civilization contributed to this effect. The telegraph flashed the news of our distress beneath the waves of the ocean, and the navy-yards and camps in the four quarters of the earth were set in commotion. The politics of nations gave way to the interest of the universal public in the one great question of the possibility of rescue. From day to day the daily papers chronicled now the advance, then the retreat, of the rescuing party. Hopes and fears rose and fell in alternate fluctuation. At one time the besieged were reported as comfortably enjoying themselves, protected and well fed; at another they were represented as having been massacred to a man with all imaginable attendant horrors.
The siege was divided into two distinct stages. During the first of these, of only ten days’ duration, the Boxers were our conspicuous enemies, the Government and soldiers of the Chinese Empire keeping themselves studiously in the background. In the second stage, which lasted eight weeks, the Government and its soldiers came prominently forward, and the Boxers almost disappeared.
The guards summoned for the eight legations were not over four hundred fifty, including officers, yet they saved the situation. Had they been delayed no more than forty-eight hours the whole foreign community in Peking must have perished, for re liable rumor affirmed that the Boxers had resolved to attack the legations and destroy all foreign residents during the midsummer festival, which occurs early in June. Without that handful of marines defense would have been hopeless.
Rumor (in this case also reliable) further affirmed that the Empress-Dowager had resolved to give the Boxers a free hand in their conflict. Should they succeed, so much the better. Should they fail, there would still be room to represent (as Chinese diplomacy has industriously done) that the Government had been overpowered and its good intentions thwarted by the uprising of an irresistible mob.
Rumor further asserted that, by way of clearing the ground for their operations, the Empress- Dowager had given consent to the complete destruction of the quarter of the city occupied by the foreign colony, viz., a street called, from the number of legations on or near it, “Legation Street,” together with blocks of Chinese buildings to a considerable distance on either side.
On June 9th, buildings and property belonging to foreigners in the southern, or Chinese, division of the capital were destroyed by fire. Foreigners, whether missionaries or civilians, living at outlying points in the Tartar city took refuge under their respective national flags. Missionaries brought with them their flocks, small or great, of native converts, who were equally ex posed to the rage of their enemies.
All possible measures were preconcerted for defense. No tice of our peril was flashed to the seaboard by a roundabout route, and it was hoped that we might maintain ourselves for a few days until the promised relief should arrive. A strong body of marines, led by Admiral Seymour and Captain McCalla, set out from Tientsin by rail, intending to repair the road, not knowing how much it was damaged, and hoping to reach us in two or three days. That hope proved illusory, for week succeeded week, during which we were encouraged by fictitious reports of their advance, while in reality they had been driven back upon their base and the destruction of the railway completed. Had they in the first instance abandoned the railway, and pressed forward across the remaining interval of forty miles, they might perhaps have succeeded in reinforcing our legation guards, placing our community in security, and perhaps . averted the subsequent declaration of war; but this is anticipating.
A larger expedition was being organized by the admirals of the combined squadron at the mouth of the river. On June 19th a circular from the Yamen notified the foreign Ministers that their admirals had demanded the surrender of the forts (they did not say had carried the forts by storm, which was the fact), adding: “This is an act of war. Our country is therefore at war with yours. You must accordingly quit our capital within twenty-four hours, accompanied by all your nationals.” Exit Boxers — enter the regular Chinese army.
Thenceforward we were exposed to all the force the Government could bring against us.
Warned by a kind letter from Mr. Squiers, secretary of the American Legation, offering me the hospitality of his house, I had previously there taken refuge from the university, where I had been living alone at a distance of two miles. While we remained in the United States Legation no direct attack was made upon us with firearms, but we were in hourly danger of being destroyed by fire or trampled down by a rush of the Big Swords.
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