The seeds for the present impasse on Tibet were laid by the British. In order to gain access to the Chinese market, the British made several attempts on that land locked nation. At the heart of it lay the tea and opium. And of course the mystery of the land, as yet not seen by many, fascinated the Europeans. They sent Indian spies often disguised as Buddhist pilgrims into Tibet. Journeys to Empire: Enlightenment, Imperialism, and the British Encounter with Tibet, 1774 – 1904 by Gordon T Stewart analyses two of the most important ‘missions’ to Tibet, separated by over a hundred years.
The attitude and approach of the two missions were so different though their purpose was the same – to capture Tibet. The first mission in 1774 was led by George Bogle, a young servant of the East India Company. Warren Hastings as Governor General of Bengal selected Bogle for the mission.
The second mission was led by Col. Francis Younghusband in 1903 with troops to make Tibet part of the British Empire. Curzon then was the Viceroy.
“The first mission took place just as Britain was beginning to establish its empire in India; the second when British imperial power in India was at its height. When Bogle crossed the Himalayas, the enlightenment played a significant role in shaping the British views of geography and of other peoples and cultures; when Younghusband’s invasion took place, a popular imperial ideology modulated British views of the world,” says Stewart.
Hastings had three objectives. One was to simply consolidate the Company’s authority on the borders along Bengal, next to explore possible trade route as Nepal was closing its route to Kathmandu and the third and grandest of all was to look for prospects beyond Tibet – in China. At that time the Company had been barred from making direct contact with the court in Peking. Curzon wanted to bring Tibet under the umbrella of the British Empire as otherwise it would be taken by the Russian Empire. He was doing it for the ‘protection’ of the Tibetans, who according to him did not know what was good for them.
Stewart has fine combed the documents relating to Bogle and Younghusband in archives and libraries for this interesting, academic work, especially viewed in the context of the political meddle that Tibet is in. The situation is now reversed. China wants Tibet desperately in order to have geo-political access to the Indian subcontinent in a military context. Though it possesses the land by demography and the presence of the Red Army, the spirit of Tibet is refusing to yield. This unyielding in fact irritated Younghusband too. He wrote in exasperation after the Tuna massacre to his father, “They will not believe in our power.” He wrote to the Viceroy, “There is something very pitiful in seeing these poor peasants who really have no other wish than to be allowed to plough their fields in peace being mown down by our merciless magazine rifles. It makes me all the more determined to smash these selfish, filthy, lecherous Lamas who are bringing all this trouble upon the country for their own ends.”
Says Stewart, “He (Younghusband) was deeply frustrated that the Tibetans refused to recognise the superior fire power he had brought with him into their country. Even after the massacre at Tuna, when 628 Tibetans were killed and 222 wounded by 50 shrapnel shells, 1,400 machine gun rounds, and 14,351 rounds of rifle ammunition, the Tibetans would not yield.”
Bogle though having only the interest of the Company in mind, approached Tibet with intellectual modesty, willing and eager to accept and learn. He even took to dressing like the natives in order to have more acceptability. He cultivated a good rapport with the Panchen Lama. He wrote back to his father telling how much knowledgeable the people in these parts of the world are, much contrary to what was thought of them.
Younghusband went with the superiority of the Empire, wanting to harvest souls and save them from ‘the fall.’
By the time Younghusband’s mission went to Tibet, the Chinese empire had deteriorated. In 1914, Britain, China and the Dalai Lama (13th) signed the Simla convention by which China agreed to “respect the territorial integrity of the country, and to abstain from interference in the administration of Outer Tibet (including the selection and installation of the Dalai Lama).”
The author Stewart is Jack and Margaret Sweet Professor of History at Michigan State University. His painstaking research and insight into the British mindset add immense value to the book. The foreign affairs personnel and the history students must read the book for its perspective and information.
(Cambridge University Press, C/o CUP India Ltd, Cambridge House, 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj New Delhi 110 002.)