The First Rough Draft of History [Boxers, June 30, 1900]

June 30, 2009, 12:17 pm

seymour2.jpgJournalism is famously the “first rough draft of history” and today I want to look for a moment at what kind of draft it is. To do so, I’ve taken a relatively short article from the New York Times of June 30, 1900, and read it closely. How well does an article written in the heat of the moment stand up for the long term?

The short answer: not well. The long answer, however, is that it is interesting to analyze how the article was constructed, what agendas were served, and where inaccurate or shaded information served some purpose other than simply reporting. As a factual account of events prior to June 30, 1900, the article failed. As a source for a history of that period, the article seems to me eminently useful.

Before we explore those answers further, let me lay out a bit of the background to the article. Since early June, 1900, the crisis in China had grown enormously. Early in the month, the western powers sent several hundred guards–soldiers, marines, and sailors–up to the foreign embassies in Beijing to protect them from the Boxers. Within a few days of that arrival, the train and telegraph lines from Beijing were cut, and almost all communication with the capital was lost. The naval forces assembled off the coast at Dagu in the Yellow Sea put together a scratch force of whatever fighting men they had available, led by Admiral Edward Seymour took the train north from Tianjin, close to Dagu, in hopes of being able to repair breaks in the line and make it quickly to Beijing. They failed, and had to fight their way back to Tianjin, reaching it in late June.

Admiral Edward Seymour

The article is a story about Seymour’s report of his expedition to the British Admiralty. “SEYMOUR’S STORY OF HIS STRUGGLE,” it is headlined. “Fought Against Terrific Odds Till Near Peking. Opposed by Chinese Troops. Captured Immense Stores of Arms and Ammunition” are some of the sub-headlines. The article goes wrong in the second sentence. “It [the expedition] reached Anting, twelve miles from Peking, and was continually engaged with Boxers and sometimes with Imperial Troops.” The expedition did not actually reach Anting, but stopped short at Anping, which is about 30 miles from Beijing. The expedition had engagements with both Boxers and imperial troops, but they were not continual (in the sense that the fighting never stopped). The errors here are relatively minor and are almost surely because Seymour himself made the same errors in his report to the Admiralty. We should note, of course, that the errors all made Seymour’s effort appear more nearly successful and more dangerously difficult than it actually it was.

“The mariner captured great quantities of arms, ammunition, and rice.” Surely true; on the way back to Tianjin, Seymour’s force captured an imperial armory, which contained all that listed, and blew it up. The paper picked this up from Seymour’s report as well, in which the Admiral bragged of capturing “immense” stores of arms and ammunition of the “latest pattern.” That last phrase is key. Seymour seems to me to have been implying that he had denied the use of the weapons to the Chinese, and not just any kind of weapons, but the very latest, most advanced kind. Again, the report, and the news article from which it was taken, put things in a way most favorable to the Admiral.

“As it is now certain that the envoys and attachés were not with Seymour, their fate is as much a mystery as ever. According to a Chinese report, they were safe in Peking on June 25.” Now the paper had to walk back an earlier error, a report that Seymour had reached the legations and rescued the embassy personnel. The reporter framed that correction (fairly enough, I think) as a clarification “As it is now certain…” and his framing (“as much of a mystery as ever”) served to cast doubt on the Chinese assertion that they were “safe.”

Washington official?

“Washington officials have a theory that the members of legations have been hidden by the Chinese Government, and that the latter is sending out misleading reports as to their whereabouts in order to insure their safety front attack.” This was not completely wrong, as the article put the idea down to unnamed Washington officials (nice to see that anonymous sourcing has a long history), but it turned out to be inaccurate: the embassy residents and their guardians never left the foreign enclave in Beijing, and the Chinese government’s reports were actually reasonably accurate. But–assuming for a moment that this anonymous source was planting the idea for a specific reason–what could that agenda be? The United States didn’t favor intervening originally, but by late June that was no longer the case, so it would be odd to be planting the idea that marching on Beijing would be useless. What, then? Was it idle speculation picked up by a reporter? Was it simply bad intelligence? Was it a way to exonerate Seymour even further by making it seem as if the people of the legations weren’t even in Beijing?

“The Viceroys of Nanking and Hankow have cabled to the Chinese Ministers at various capitals the text of a proposed agreement, to be signed by the Consuls at Shang-hai, By it the Viceroys undertake to protect foreigners so long as the powers refrain from armed intervention in the Yang-tse-Kiang region.” Here the reporter went from being a stenographer for Seymour and unnamed Washington officials to being one for Chinese Viceroys. The cable sent by those Viceroys was never likely to be useful in the way presented. An agreement by all the Viceroys would not and could not commit the western powers to anything. In essence, it would be a meaningless document. But what it could be was be a bit of political theater: look, the Viceroys were saying, we have agreed to protect foreigners in our areas (unlike the Imperial Throne). Now, please focus on Beijing and don’t attack us.

The last two sentences of the article have the feeling of being tacked on, for little reason than to fill out space. First: “From Paris a report comes that the powers have reached an agreement as to spheres of influence and the number of troops to be sent by each nation to China.” Accurate, but oddly phrased, in the passively constructed voice and with a conspicuous lack of detail. Who is reporting this? What are the spheres of influence? How many troops? Second and last: “A coup d’etat is expected in Peking, if one has not taken place already.” This was a deeply strange last sentence. Who expected a coup? From where is this information coming? Who is going to mount the coup? There’s no transition to what would seem to be a major piece of news, nor were there any specific details mentioned. It seems like a random nugget of information that, wandering by, decided to hop onto this story for a ride.

The article was, factually speaking, almost entirely wrong. In some cases, like the report of the incipient coup d’etat, it would need much more detail simply to rise to the level of incorrectness. But in a historical sense, I find it useful. The mixing of agendas and the various maneuverings seem to illustrate nicely a number of different tensions, invisible forces pulling bits of scenery around the stage. Admiral Seymour had headed to Beijing on vulnerable rail-line, failing to secure his lines of communication. That gamble had failed badly. Now, he was working his hardest to redeem that effort and that gamble, at least to his superiors and to the public. Imperial viceroys, conscious of the inability of the throne to manage either the Boxers or the western imperial powers, were trying to separate themselves and work out their own deals. And, mysteriously, unnamed Washington officials were planting ideas in the head of a reporter, for what purpose remains unclear. The article–like that scenery of a play–may not be an accurate picture of the land it portrays, but as an impression, it evokes quite a bit.

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