I noticed that I often refer to my grandparents’ and their parents’ different experiences with the dangerous robber bands that were an inevitable part of travelling in China back in the days. The stories of how my relatives met and escaped different robbers have been part of a narrative that’s been following me throughout my childhood and I have even told those stories to my own children.
The fact that they put themselves through so many life threatening situations and survived is something that has given me strength in my life as well.
I too, have been subjected to robbers and taken hostage at one point. It is not something you easily forget – on the contrary, it takes many years to “get over” and it colors the way you look upon the world whether you like it to or not. Today, I see my own experience as something from a film or a book I once read. Something that had a great impact on me, but feels like it happened to somebody else, a very long time ago. And to some extent that’s correct, because I am somebody else today.
I’m not the same as when I was 18 and got ambushed, when trying to leave my evening job at a super market. You never can be, after having experienced something like that.
This makes me think about my relatives and how they managed to work through all those horrible experiences in the Chinese country side. As an example I want to retell the story of a robbery in China in 1911, when Olga, my great grandmother, was travelling together with other missionaries to try to find safety during the Sun Yat-Sen revolution.
Blood bath in Sian set off the missionaries
The manchurian capital Sian had become a veritable blood bath as thousands of people lost their lives. Missionaries outside Sian where also attacked, and a school belonging to the Scandinavian Missionary Alliance was stormed and the teacher was stabbed to death alongside several missionary children. As the revolution continued the different missionary societys thought it best to get all the missionaries out of inner China, which is why Olga started journeyed down to the coast together with other missionary colleagues.
As the missionaries travelled through the country side to get to Luoyang where they were to catch a train, the party grew and became quite large. They had a group of soldiers with them, as well as seven servants and rode in carriages, drawn by horses and mules.
Olga was in the first carriage and had fallen asleep when she heard a scream. She looked out the window and saw a group of men, dressed like soldiers, run towards the caravan screaming and shouting. The coachman ran away and the animals were scared and set off running. Olga’s carriage was pulled down a hill and got stuck against a tree, which stopped it from going any further.
As she tried to understand what was happening, a robber came over with a big sword and started chopping the ropes holding the luggage to the carriage. Another one started to loosen the boxes fixed to the back of the carriage. Olga decided to try to get out of the carriage and asked permission to jump down. As nobody answered she got out and stood there looking around.
Life threatening situations
Olga later said she never felt afraid for her own life, but when she saw her friend Ethel Blom, who had been thrown off her mule and lay on the ground, a pool of blood under her head, she was horrified. Ethel was pregnant and Olga didn’t know if she was still alive. Mr Blom was sitting on the ground a bit further away, two robbers looming over him, swinging their swords over his head.
Olga started walking towards Ethel, to try to help her, but was stopped by one of the robbers. He pointed his gun at Olga and threatened to shoot, should she come any closer. Olga didn’t move, just turned her face away from the robber. When she didn’t hear or feel a shot, she turned back and asked again to help her wounded friend.
“Where is the silver?” the robber screamed.
Olga answered: “You must see that I am only a woman, I don’t have any silver on me. Mr Blom will tell you where to find it. Now, let me tend to the wounded!”
Finally, Olga got to go to Ethel and lift her up so that her head could rest against Olga’s shoulder. She was bleeding from three large wounds in her neck and head.
In an article that was posted in the Gothenburg edition of “Aftonbladet” in 1911, the wounds in Ethel’s neck were described as ten centimetres long and 4-5 cm deep.
Tending to her wounded friend
Olga put some fabric around Ethel’s wounds and sat there as the robbers took all they had and threatened to kill them. Most of the other missionaries had fled out into the field and could do nothing to help Olga or the Bloms. The soldiers that had accompanied the missionaries tried to shoot back at first, but Mr Blom stopped them because the risk was that high they would shoot one of the missionaries instead and that the situation would get out of hand.
Mr Blom as hostage
When the robbers had taken money, clothes and other valuables they took Mr Blom with them and left the scene. Further away they decided to let Mr Blom go, after having taken his watch, knife, gun and all the silver dollars, that he kept in a belt around his waist.
In the newspaper article about this event, one of the missionaries recollects that Mr Blom was first given back a handfull of dollars to be able to buy food for his wife and colleagues back at the carriages. But then another robber thought that it was too much, so finally Mr Blom got away with his life and six silver dollars.
A robbery that left traces
Luckily enough, nobody lost their life during this horrible ordeal, but I’m sure they were marked for life in other ways. My great grandmother Olga has written a chapter about the event in her book about her life in China, and Ida – another of the missionaries there – wrote the text that was published in the aforementioned Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet at the time. Olga also told her daughter about this, who in turn told me, who told my children. Because of that, this robbery will stay with the family for generations.
Through the newspaper article, I also found out what happened afterwards.
One of the missionaries rode into the city and reported the event to the mandarin and the prefect. They sent out a troop to try to find the robbers. Apparently the robbers had gathered in a temple to share the loot, where they were discovered by the mandarin soldiers. The robber band was a group of about 100 men, of which 28 had been in the group ambushing the missionaries. They had surveilled them for three days before making their move, which they did in broad daylight. Perhaps this saved Ethel’s life – as she was able to get medical attention afterwards and survived (that would have been difficult during night time). Three robbers where caught and the leader was grimly executed – the mandarin soldiers came back carrying the leader’s head.
Knowing what it is to be subjected to a robbery at gun point, I am sure all these missionaries were marked by this in one way or another. It’s curious how the robbers could be both so cruel as to stab a pregnant woman and at the same time leave her husband with some change to get food, after having robbed them. Also, the robbers could well have killed them all, but they didn’t.
Crisis situations teach us about ourselves
I find it fascinating how people react to crisis situations. When I read about Olga’s reaction, I recognized myself in her.
I too, was very calm throughout the robbery I was subjected to. I quickly decided to do whatever they wanted, keep it together and not provoke them to shoot. My colleague, on the other hand, became hysterical and couldn’t stop crying. I think it might have been my calmness that made me a perfect hostage. My colleague was left on the floor in the shop, while I was brought outside as the get-away-hostage.
Heroes come in different shapes and sizes
But all went well in my case as well. Mainly because of an elderly customer that used to come into the store. He was the passenger in a car the robbers decided to hi-jack and pull me into. Police had been called to the scene by people in the neigbourhood, and surrounded the area. They could of course do nothing, as long as the robbers held me hostage – much like Mr Blom in the story above.
But when I was about to get pulled into the car, the customer (who recognized me from the store) was forced out from the passenger seat of the car. He took his cane and hit the robber hard on the head, so that he lost his grip of me. A policeman nearby then threw himself on top of me, holding me to the ground. The customer and I was thus outside of the car as the robbers left the scene.
They didn’t get far though. Without hostage the police could catch them and they were brought to justice. Not as cruelly as in China, but they were taken of the streets for some years at least.
In my case, the elderly customer was a real hero. He saved me from things I’d rather not think about. This amazing man is not alive today, but he will always hold a dear place in my heart.
And in China, I find Olga was the hero – standing up against the robbers and helping her pregnant friend survive. To me, it is awe inspiring how each and every one of us can make a difference in each other’s lives.
Well done, you! 🙂
If you have read this far – well done! It sure is a long text, and I don’t expect anyone to read through it in “this day and age”… 😂!
If you have, and if you would like to talk about what you’d done in similar situations as those above, I would find that very interesting.
Also, do you have a hero in your life? That would be wonderful to hear about! ❤