Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A Swedish-British rescue expedition during the 1911 revolution in China

The members of the Swedish-British expedition for the relief missionaries in  Shensi (from  left to right):
Keyte, Fairburn, A. de C. Sowerby (leader), E.T. Nyström (vice leader), E.R. Long, Denver-Jones, Ewans, Warrington,  W.M. Palmer. 

The Revolution of 1911 to overthrow the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, led to unrest and uprisings in many parts of China. Reports about the killing of a number of  missionaries (some of them Swedish) in the country's interior were worrisome reading for western diplomats based in Peking.

Swedish Minister G.O. Wallenberg posing at the barricade in front of the U.S. embassy  in Peking.

The Swedish Minister, Gustaf Oscar Wallenberg, was a leading force in the efforts to send a Swedish-British "expedition for the relief of the missionaries in Shensi". The nine man expedition, led by A. de C. Sowerby, began its journey on horseback on December 4 at Tai-Yuan-Fe, the end station for the railway in the Shansi region.

The second in command, professor E.T. Nyström (a Swedish geologist at the Shansi Government University), later wrote about the difficult rescue mission in the Swedish weekly "Hvar 8 Dag":

"At the clubs in Peking and Tientsin, the bets were one against one that we would never return. The distances are such, that for the sake of comparison you could imagine that Norway would be in a state of anarchy and we would rescue people in Bergen and Trondheim riding on horseback from Stockholm."

After a difficult journey - which included encounters with groups of "armed desperados", the caravan finally arrived in Si-An-Fu, the capital of the Shensi province, where "the expedition was very pleased to see a great number of missionaries waiting to be escorted to the coast".

"In Si-An-Fu we saw appalling traces of the revolution: the entire Manchu city had been destroyed by fire, many bones and skulls of the 15.000 who had been killed. The ruins of the Swedish school was visited. The marks in the walls, where the poor people were had tried to escape before they died, were a horrendous sight."   

The members of the rescue expedition together with the rescued missionaries.

In early January the caravan, consisting of 135 persons, 90 animals, arrived in Tai-Yuan-Fe, where the British minister had organised a special train to take it to Peking. Each member of the expedition later received a thank you letter from the Swedish and British ministers for rescuing 13 Swedish and 19 British missionaries:


Even in the middle of a dangerous and difficult rescue mission, the members found time to celebrate Christmas properly. Professor Nyström writes that the caravan stopped for a day, and a delicious meal, consisting of 11 courses, was prepared. "Palmer and I had to ride 40 km in order to find a Christmas tree, and because we did not have an ax, the fir tree was cut by the shots of a revolver!".

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