1900-1919 | Looting and plunder

General Gaselee sanctions an orgy of looting in Beijing

Major General Alfred Gaselee – c. 1900.
Public domain via Wikimedia.

17 August 1900

On 17 August 1900, Major General Alfred Gaselee issued an order licensing the ransacking of Beijing. Gaselee was the commanding officer of a British and Allied expeditionary force. It had arrived in the city just in time to relieve the diplomatic legations, which had been besieged for fifty five days by anti-imperialist Boxer rebels.

Gaselee’s pretext for permitting the wholesale plunder of the city was ‘the difficulty in restraining the unmilitary practice of looting in a force composed of mixed nationalities.’ He explained that he ‘felt obliged to countenance the systematic collection of articles which may be found in unoccupied houses for the benefit of the whole force (through a public auction),’ and that ‘Sir. A Gaselee directs that all punishments hitherto given for looting may be cancelled.’1  Officers were supposed to hand over precious artifacts, but each was allowed ‘one or two things of trifling value… to keep as souvenirs.’2  In practise they seized what they wanted, even though they were promised much higher shares of the auction proceeds than the rank and file.

Peter Flemming, author of The Siege at Peking, observed that ‘the highest as well as the lowest plundered.’  According to a British officer, Lady MacDonald, the wife of Sir Claude, the head of the British legation, ‘devoted herself most earnestly to looting,’ and with help from her husband acquired ‘185 boxes at least.’  George Morrison, the correspondent of The Times, admitted that he had taken some ‘gold things’ and  ‘succeeded in looting a beautiful piece of jade splashed with gold and carved in the form of a citron, the emblem of the fingers of Buddha.’  Even Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, sent Edward Guy Hillier, a banker with the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, £1000 ‘to invest in curios.’3

Several European witnesses were also shocked by the indiscriminate violence of the Allied troops. The Reverend D. J. Hills reported that he witnessed ‘fire doing its work’ and that Beijing’s inhabitants had been subjected to a ‘fearful retribution… The passion of hate and revenge in many of the Allied forces and the greed displayed by some officers and men alike have been to a Christian man most deplorable.’4  Similarly George Lynch, the Daily Express‘ correspondent, noted that ‘a horrible lust of cruelty has developed throughout the private soldiery of all nationalities and pervaded them like some subtle miasma emanating from this evil-smelling land.’5 It was predictable that such brutality was blamed, not on General Gaselee who received a knighthood, but on the victims.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Major General Alfred Gaselee’s looting order cited in Cyril Pearl, Morrison of Peking, Angus and Robertson Ltd., Sydney and London, 1967, p. 130.
  2. George Lynch of the Daily Express cited in ‘The Chastisement of China,’ The Cork Examiner, 29 December 1900, p. 6
  3. Cyril Pearl, op. cit., pp. 130-131.
  4. ‘The Chastisement of China,’ The Cork Examiner, 29 December 1900, p. 6.
  5. Lynch cited in ‘The Chastisement of China,’ The Cork Examiner, 29 December 1900, p. 6.

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