The more things change – The more they stay the same!
EAST TIMOR, BOUGAINVILLE and SOLOMON ISLANDS 2000
The turn of the century in 1900 saw Australian sailors overseas keeping the peace in China following the Boxer Rebellion. The year 2000 also saw Australian sailors overseas keeping the peace in East Timor, Bougainville and the Solomon Islands. While these later operations are well known, the service by Australians in the Boxer Rebellion has been consigned to the footnotes of our nation’s history. This is their story.
The Boxer Rebellion broke out in China in 1898 and by March 1900 had spread throughout Northern China. The Boxers were Chinese peasants who rose up with one aim – killing all foreigners, especially Christian missionaries, and giving China back to the Chinese. By June of that year the foreign embassies and legations in Peking were in a state of virtual siege and a relief force sent to strengthen their garrisons had been turned back by a combined force of Boxers and troops from the Chinese Army.
In late June 1900, when news of the trouble in China reached Australia, the Premiers of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland all offered Naval Forces to assist the British put down the rebellion. The British Government quickly accepted the offer of the South Australian cruiser HMCS Protector and Naval Contingents from New South Wales and Victoria each of about 220 men. While each unit had a small cadre of regular personnel, the bulk were Naval Reservists who volunteered for full time service. Some of the men had prior service with the NSW Infantry unit that had served in the Sudan in 1885.
Protector departed Australia on 14 August under the command of Captain (later Vice Admiral) W.R. Creswell. The New South Wales and Victoria Naval Contingents departed Sydney in the troopship Salamis on 8 August. Unfortunately the Queensland offer of the Gunboats HMQS Gayundah and HMQS Paluma was rejected, as the vessels were considered `too old and slow’.
Protector arrived in Chinese waters in mid-September and was temporarily commissioned into the Royal Navy. She remained on station in northern China carrying out patrol duties, and ferrying stores and dispatches. Some of her crew worked ashore removing Chinese floating mines, assisting with pier construction and overseeing work parties of Chinese coolies. Protector departed China on 7 November and arrived back in Australia in mid December 1900.
The two Naval Contingents arrived in China on 9 September. However by this time the foreign legations in Peking had been relieved and the Boxer army was in retreat. The Victorians were stationed in the city of Tientsin while the New South Welshmen were to take part in `policing duties’ in Peking and the surrounding districts.
Despite their best efforts, and regular forays into the Chinese countryside, neither contingent was involved in any fighting with the Boxers. There were some tense moments with some of the other `Allied’ troops that resulted in a Victorian sailor being wounded by German troops. They did, however, suffer six deaths from disease or misadventure during their seven months in China. The Australians were complimented on the ‘efficient police work carried out’ and some even worked as ticket collectors at the local railway stations!
By early 1901 the situation in China had stabilised sufficiently and the British Government decided the services of the Australian sailors could be dispensed with. On 29 March 1901 the last Australian sailors boarded the troopship Chingtu for return to Australia. A few men were left behind in hospital and another 17 remained behind to work for a Chinese railway company.
Chingtu arrived back in Sydney on 25 April 1901. However, there had been an outbreak of smallpox onboard and the ship was sent to the quarantine anchorage at North Head, where she languished for two weeks until the all clear was given. Unfortunately one man, Private C.W. Smart of the NSW Marine Light Infantry (a small Army detachment of the NSW Contingent) died from smallpox and was buried at the North Head Cemetery. Of note is that while the Australians had been away, the country had been federated and was now the Commonwealth of Australia, instead of a loose conglomeration of colonies.