British soldiers guard Boer prisoners in 1900. © Getty Images.
The Boer War continued to dominate the international scene in 1901. The South African conflict was nearing its end but continued to be divisive, with imperialists challenged by opponents of the war in principle, and by critics of the methods of the British commanders.
The war had gone badly for Britain in the first months, with the resourceful Boers scoring notable victories. By 1901, British forces, under the command of General Kitchener, had divided up the country and rounded up Boer guerrillas in a terrifying scorched-earth policy. Everything was destroyed and Boer women and children were taken into British-run concentration camps where more than 20,000 died. At the beginning of the year, English reformer Emily Hobhouse was in South Africa as a delegate of the Distress Fund for South African Women to investigate conditions in the camps.
Liberal leader Henry Campbell-Bannerman, in opposition to the Conservative government, was deeply affected by reports of conditions in the camps. In a speech at the National Reform Union on 14 June 1901, he said: “What was this policy of unconditional surrender? It was that, now we had got the men we were fighting against down, we should punish them as severely as possible, devastate their country, burn their homes, and destroy the machinery by which food was produced. When was a war not a war? When it was carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa.” The month after, camp management was taken out of the hands of the military commanders, and by the following year the Boer death rate had declined considerably.
Meanwhile, the Boxer rebellion of fanatical anti-western Chinese ended in September 1901 after an unusual display of national solidarity in an international rescue effort for besieged foreigners. China was invaded by forces from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan and the US.
The Boxers were a secret society, the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, who believed their martial art rendered them impervious to bullets. They had attacked both foreigners and Chinese Christian converts and had destroyed churches, railways and mines as evidence of alien influence in China. They were covertly backed by the Chinese imperial government that, as a settlement, agreed to pay reparations and promised reforms.
The world of international politics was still swayed by the hand of the assassin. The Russian minister of propaganda was assassinated in February in reprisal for his repression of students. An assassin tried to kill Wilhelm II of Germany in Bremen in March, but he survived. United States President William McKinley was not so fortunate. He was killed by two shots from an anarchist’s gun as he greeted well-wishers at a fair in New York State in September.
The Australian parliament opened in Melbourne in May, representing a federation of the six colonies to make a new nation. The Commonwealth of Australia aimed to create a model democracy: in 1902, Australia became the second nation in the world, after New Zealand, to give women the vote.