The English missionary Sidney M. W. Brooks is widely recognized as the first martyr killed by the Boxers. He died in Shandong Province in the last week of 1899, even though the Boxer Rebellion is generally reckoned to have begun in the summer of 1900. He had entered St Augustine’s College in Canterbury, England in 1894 and was accepted to be an Anglican missionary with the Society for the propagation of the Gospel. He arrived in China in 1897 accompanied by his sister. He made his way to Pingyin in the south-west of Shandong, while his sister made her home in Tai’an, some 150 miles (242 kilometres) away.
Brooks saw little of his sister, as he threw himself into language study and reaching. She married another missionary, H. J. Brown, and the two newlyweds had only just returned from their wedding in England. At Christmas 1899, Brooks eagerly made the journey to Tai’an, where he greatly looked forward to sharing a break with members of his family. During the visit, he thought with longing of the day he would be able to return to England on furlough, to see his many loved ones and enjoy the familiar surroundings of home.
On 28 December, after lovingly saying goodbye to his sister and her husband, he mounted his donkey for the arduous ride back to Pingyin. At 10 o’clock the next morning, as he rode through Zhangjiadian, ‘there was a terrible commotion in the village and about thirty Chinese brandishing big knives and yelling like demons came rushing toward him. Brooks was startled. He had no idea what he had done to deserve such a hostile reception. Little did he know but the men were Boxers, members of a secret society that was to butcher tens of thousands of Christians across China over the coming summer. Brooks had found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and when the foreigner-hating Boxers saw a white man calmly riding his donkey through their village it was more than they could take and they decided to make him the first fruits of their bloody harvest.
Brooks realized that his only hope of survival was to flee and he spurred his donkey on, but he was soon overtaken by his pursuers. Leaping from his mount, he ran into a temple, hoping he would be safe inside a house of religion—but the temple headman had seen the chase and wanted nothing to do with protecting the missionary. He seized the Englishman and tried to push him out of the temple precincts. Brooks put aside all thoughts of gentle Jesus and dwelt instead on the image of Christ overturning the money changers’ tables in the Temple. He struck the man with his fist and knocked him to the ground. This had the same effect as hitting a beehive with a stick, for
Instantly the priests of the temple became howling dervishes. They rushed upon him from all sides, and, with his back to the wall, he used both his right and left arms with telling effect. One priest, rushing in under his guard, was caught up in both his strong arms, whipped off the ground and thrown back among his countrymen, knocking them right and left.
The bloodthirsty Boxers waited impatiently outside the temple for the condemned man to be brought out. Finally Brooks was overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers. The priests ‘pinioned his arms, and dragged and pushed him to the door. Then they hurled him into the arms of the Boxers. The latter set upon him, striking him on the head with their knife handles and pricking him with their blades. They kicked him, punched him, and tore his face with their nails.’
Brooks tried hard to reason with the men, offering them money for his release, but they laughed and spat in his face. The only thing they wanted was his blood. Throwing him to the ground and binding his hands behind his back, the Boxers ‘cut a hole through his nose, ran a rope through and led him along, yelling and dancing about him, the villagers joining in their revels.’
In this horrible fashion, he was dragged to another village a short distance away. Caring nothing about the man whose life they had in their grasp, the Boxers stopped for lunch so they could discuss how to kill him as gruesomely as possible. The missionary was stripped to blood-soaked underwear and made to wait, though the temperature was below freezing. The poor man ‘shrieked aloud in his agony, but his sufferings only delighted the yellow fiends. They pricked him with their knives in the face and body, some of them driving their knives with force. The blood freezing on his body increased his agony.’
Somehow, in his utter desperation and terror, Brooks managed to free himself and ran away. The callous Boxers laughed at this development and turned back to their meal. Three horsemen were sent in pursuit and soon caught up with the Englishman. He jumped into a deep gully, and there he made his last stand. When the Boxers came upon him, ‘he again offered money and begged piteously for his life. Knives in hand, they stood over him and taunted him. They waved their weapons and laughed at him, and circling about him like vultures, sprang upon him until he fell dead. They then cut off his head and bore it back to their companions in triumph.’
The missionary community throughout China was horrified and angered when they learned of the martyrdom of Sidney Brooks, though most of the details recorded here were left out of the newspaper reports of the day. In the summer of 1901, the Chinese government erected a monument on the spot where the 24-year-old had been killed, and a memorial church, St Stephen’s, was built in Pingyin.
It later emerged that Brooks had told his sister and her husband of a premonition he had had of his own death. When he visited them for Christmas,
he seemed greatly depressed. When the cause was asked, Mr Brooks said that he had just had a disturbing dream. It was that he was back in England and in passing through the college where he received his education he read again the tablet bearing the names of all who had gone out from that school as missionaries together with the name and field and the date of departure; and that while looking through the building he saw another tablet, bearing the inscription: ‘To those who were martyred for the Faith,’ and that on the tablet he saw plainly his own name.
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.